After the maelstrom of terrible press about the production of Solo: A Star Wars Story, it was more or less expected that this wasn’t going to be one of the better entries of the Star Wars universe. Going in, most fans are probably most curious to see what Disney and LucasFilm have managed to salvage from a notoriously chaotic production.
And here’s your answer: it’s basically fine. Solo is a film absolutely popping at the seams, and unlike in the slick ultra-Hollywood productions Disney is most known for these days you can almost see the scaffolding holding all the pieces together. But despite feeling like a few completely different visions slammed together – at times incoherently – it manages to be fine. And that in itself is probably a minor miracle, though you still can’t help but wince with disappointment.
I’m going to give you a sense of the story in the most general terms, as spoiler-free as I can manage. Yes, this is Han Solo‘s story. It’s not entirely clear exactly when this film is set aside from the fact it’s somewhere between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. We get to see Han’s formative moments – his first meeting with Chewbacca, an explanation of his relationship with Lando Calrissian and so on – and it’s all tied up in a fairly stock-standard Western/heist/crime caper plot.
There are absolutely no surprises here. It throws into stark relief last year’s comparatively more radical The Last Jedi, which tried to do something to inject some differential energy into a forty-year-old universe. Solo under the staid and very vanilla hand of Ron Howard aspires to little more than being a big action movie. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – but it does mean that for a film focusing on the genesis of Han Solo, we see very little actual character development of the man himself.
Here’s some good news: Alden Ehrenreich is solid as Han. He’s been saddled with the seemingly impossible task of making everyone forget one of the most iconic movie performances of all time, and he does the job admirably. He’s not aping Harrison Ford entirely, but carving his own swagger around the figure the original films etched out. It works. He’s funny, charming, and tends to be the best thing onscreen any time he happens to be on it.
On the other hand, the much-anticipated performance by Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian falls weirdly flat. It’s incredibly weird: Glover has so much charisma in all of his other performances, but here he jettisons it for a weird mumbly Billy Dee Williams impression to weak effect. What seemed like it would be an absolutely inspired bit of casting is squandered here.
The other performances are uniformly pretty solid. Woody Harrelson is good playing the Star Wars incarnation of Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke comes into her own as Han’s very glam (but also dark) love interest Qi’ra, and Paul Bettany gives a wonderful scenery-chewing performance as a galactic crime lord, in what is easily one of the franchise’s most interesting villains to date. Criminally underused is Thandie Newton, whose character deserved more than she got.
It’s a good-looking film, eschewing the traditional sparkly Star Wars aesthetic for something grimmer and more muted, which stands as a fun contrast to the light-hearted script. One particular war scene is probably the most interesting use of colour and light I’ve seen in Star Wars to date, and it gives hope that Disney is keen to let directors play outside the usual boundaries of the series. That being said, the set-pieces feel huge but ultimately hollow. They look big and great, but you walk out of them feeling like you just ate a big sandwich with too little filling. You get the sense you won’t remember them in six months.
By that same token, the film could have done with a harsher edit, especially in the third act. There are about five seperate points in the end where the film could comfortably have ended, but it strings you along for nearly half an hour more. It feels like the filmmakers didn’t have the confidence to just wrap it up.
Solo feels like the first time Disney have really showed their cards on their plans for Star Wars – and it looks a whole lot like what they’ve done with Marvel. I won’t spoil anything, but there are enough references and intertextual winks which suggest they’re building a proper spoke of their shared universe around the characters in this film. I don’t know how to feel about that. It’s obviously worked wonders for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that style of world-building feels a little stranger when applied to Star Wars.
Overall, the movie feels like a missed opportunity. There’s definitely something great nestled deep inside it – and I can’t help but feel those flashes of excellence may have been the vision proposed by original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. It feels like their rumoured balls-to-the-wall comedy space Western may have been a more interesting movie. At the very least it might have justified its own existence more vigorously.
But what we got ain’t terrible. Against all odds it manages to work, and there’s some genuinely interesting stylistic and visual work going on, ensconced in a stock-standard blockbuster action plot. Don’t expect something that’s going to really propel the franchise forward – but you’ll probably have fun.Image: Solo: A Star Wars Story