Review: 'Solo: A Star Wars Story' plays it safe while offering a convincing origin story
Ron Howard adds his special touch to the film by going for a grittier, on-the-ground look and feel of the Star Wars socio-political landscape
Walking into the theater to watch 'Solo: A Star Wars Story', I couldn't help but think about the enormous pressure director Ron Howard (the first Oscar-winning director to helm a Star Wars flick) and the team had on their shoulders. I could almost feel it on my own shoulders.
The film is the second standalone story in the Star Wars franchise since Disney took over Lucasfilms in 2012. While the first spin-off 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story' took off at a tangent to the Skywalker era, 'Solo' was attempting something significantly braver - an origin story for the world's favorite intergalactic outlaw, Han Solo, immortalized on screen by the legendary Harrison Ford.
As an origin story, the film not only had to weave together a tight plot, but also answer a flurry of questions that fans and nerds have been speculating on message boards for decades now. How did Han Solo get his name? What's the story behind his friendship with Chewbacca? Did he actually win the Millenium Falcon in a game of Sabbac? How did he make the Kessel run in under 12 parsecs? Did Han really shoot first? (Yes, he did! But more on that later.) And most importantly, how did he grow up to be the wary, cynical anti-hero that stole the heart of Princess Leia (and also the hearts of a whole generation of geeks)?
Thankfully, 'Solo: A Star Wars Story' manages to answer almost all of these questions (except perhaps the last one) to our satisfaction, or at least my satisfaction, through it's deliberately long, 135-minute runtime, which is not unusual for a Star Wars film by any standard. Although I must add that not for a single moment through the film's two-hour-plus runtime did I find myself disinterested.
While the core of the plot was average and nothing to write home about, several small sub-plots kept unfolding which answered a lot of the questions posted above. And, in the moments where the film did thin out on the plot, it made up for with its cool sense of humor and, of course, some edge-of-the-seat action sequences.
We first see the all-new Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) running scams on the streets of planet Corellia, hot-wiring cars and making out with his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Tired of their scummy life, the lovebirds try to make it off-planet, but only Han makes it through, leaving Qi'ra to her own fate. Han promises to come back for her though and sets off to find a ship. Somehow he decides that the best way to do that is to sign up for the Imperial Naval Fleet, but when that blows up in his face, he deserts and gets in cohorts with a crew of thieves led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson).
Along the way, the story of how Han met Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) in a caged mud-pit unfurls, finally telling us how their friendship began. Along with Val (Thandie Newton) and Rio (Jon Favreau), Tobias leads Han and Chewie on the heist of a freight train carrying a precious hyperfuel called 'coaxium'. When the mission goes awry, we learn that the band of thieves actually work for a crime syndicated called Crimson Tide, headed by the main antagonist of the film, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), who Beckett and Han have to somehow appease now that the coaxium is lost.
When the crew makes it to the lair of Crimson Tide, Han finds out that Qi'ra is Vos' top lieutenant, and that's when the plot thickens. In order to make up for the lost coaxium, Beckett, Chewie and Han team up with Qi'ra and set off to find a spaceship that's fast enough to make the infamous Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs. Enter Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his ultra-left wing, sentient droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and the fabulous Millenium Falcon.
Now, the crew has the daunting task of stealing coaxium from the mines of Kessel, while somehow not falling prey to the vicious crime syndicates and pirates that also have their eye on the hyperfuel. I'll leave the plot at that and let you discover the rest for yourself.
The script, helmed in by Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan ('The Force Awakens', 'Return of the Jedi', 'The Empire Strikes Back') and his son Jonathan Kasdan, painstakingly addresses a lot of questions about Han's life, especially through the first half of the film, as we'd expect any good origin story to. But, at times, it almost feels like running through a checklist of things to address about Solo's life although the flow is more or less palatable.
There are plenty of Easter eggs thrown around the film too and I'm sure more well-versed geeks and nerds will spend the next few weeks unearthing them, so I won't touch upon too many of those either.
One that did strike me right off the top was a line by Rio, an alien in Beckett's crew voiced by Jon Favreau. He says that when he cashes in on the bounty for the hyperfuel, he intends to start a cantina in a quiet seedy bar somewhere, an obvious reference to the legendary Mos Eisley Cantina from 'A New Hope.'
But the most noticeable and oddly satisfying Easter egg is one which makes a snide reference to the whole 'Han Shot First' argument - a delightful scene towards the end of the film when Woody Harrelson's character Beckett starts a rambling monologue only to be interrupted by Han's blaster straight to the chest. I was curious to see how (and if at all) the film would address the infamous issue, and was thoroughly impressed with the tact that went into it all.
The cast has remained more or less faithful to their characters throughout the film, although I felt that Emilia Clarke's character Qi'ra could have used some more character depth. She still puts on an agreeable performance within the constraints of the way her character is written. Alden Ehrenreich, who had the immense pressure of carrying Harrison Ford's legacy on his shoulders, does not try and mimic Ford's portrayal of the character. Instead of the cynical space-cowboy anti-hero that Ford gave us, we see Ehrenreich take his own path as he sketches out a younger, slightly lost and conflicted, but still equally arrogant Han Solo.
Woody Harrelson does a fantastic job with Beckett's character, adding a lot of interplay between the mentor-mentee relationship between his character and Ehrenreich's, and the chemistry between the two is definitely worth a thumbs-up.
Meanwhile, renaissance man Donald Glover adds his trademark touch to the character of Lando Calrissian, whipping up an instantly entertaining frenemy-like rivalry with Han Solo, but it would take a slight leap of imagination to join the dots and figure out how Glover's Lando ultimately ages into Billy Dee Williams' Lando in 1977's 'A New Hope'. Lando's droid, L3, as voiced by Waller-Bridge, takes on the role of comic relief, standing in for R2D2 and C3PO, who do not feature anywhere in the film.
One thing that struck was the lack of an overarching political landscape that fans are so used to seeing in the franchise. Ron Howard adds his special touch to the film by going for a grittier, on-the-ground look and feel of the Star Wars socio-political landscape, one that gives us a head-on look at the greasy crime syndicates, the corruption of the Empire and the trickle-down effects of the larger political scene.
Another thing that struck me was the music and the score. Although the mixing was just fine, I could immediately feel the void left behind by legendary composer John Williams, who only provides the main theme and 'The Adventures of Han', but hands over the reins to new music composer John Powell for the rest.
Overall, 'Solo: A Star Wars Story' does justice to the franchise and provides for a fun ride with the all-new gang, while patiently detailing an origin story that explains how Solo ended up as a smuggler in 'A New Hope'. It might not blow your mind and the supposed big twists in the plot might fall slightly flat, but it's definitely not a bad attempt.
Of course, there is one key moment in the film that will leave you with more questions than answers and involves a cameo by a certain villain from the original franchise, but I won't get into that because it's pretty much the single biggest spoiler of the film and also the strongest anchor-point for a possible sequel (which I hope does more justice to Qi'ra's character).
The film decides to mostly play it safe and doesn't take too many risks that might polarize the faithful fan army. Of course, casting a relatively green Alden Ehrenreich to fill in the shoes of Harrison Ford in a prequel that pleases fans both old and new is arguably big enough risk, but apart from that obvious one, the film doesn't pull too many punches.
Of course, things might have turned out differently if auteurs Christopher Miller and Phil Lord of the 'Lego Movie' fame were actually allowed to see things through to the end. I suspect that it would have turned into a case similar to what 'Thor: Ragnarok' did to the Marvel franchise, breaking all the canonical rules to forge something entirely new and hilarious.
However, I'm not complaining about the way Ron Howard handled the affair, especially considering the fact that he only stepped in sometime around June 2017 less than a year from the film's global release.