Against All Odds, ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ Soars

Solo: A Star Wars Story
Ron Howard
Walt Disney Studios
25 May 2018

A perfect popcorn movie for those looking to shake off the mass-tragedy blues of Avengers: Infinity War and the existential crises of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Solo: A Star Wars Story, an origin story for the eminently popular Han Solo character, is every bit the thrill ride you’d want to kick off the summer blockbuster season. Its action sequences are crackling with energy, the charming but shifty-eyed cast of characters brings the hilarity while constantly keeping you on your toes, and visually, it’s a dazzling affair that captures the whimsy and tactility of the original trilogy arguably better than any of the other Disney-era Star Wars flicks.

Solo: A Star Wars Story has got its flaws, some glaring and some easily forgivable, but overall, it’s a sterling success, albeit an unlikely one. Many fans, including yours truly, felt it would be a catastrophic mistake to recast Han Solo at all. Harrison Ford’s portrayal of the smarmy smuggler over the course of 40 some-odd years is one of the most iconic characterizations in the history of movies, and the prospect of any actor donning Han’s leather jacket, laying a single finger on his blaster, or heaven forbid, sitting in the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon, felt as wrong as wrong could be. It felt all but impossible to divorce Ford from Solo and vice versa.

Enter Alden Ehrenreich, the poor young man put in the unenviable position of succeeding Ford in the ever-expanding, ever-evolving Star Wars saga. No matter the effort or earnestness behind his performance, he will be subjected to a level of scrutiny few actors will ever contend with. Does he look like, sound like, feel like Ford’s Solo? No, not really. But this is actually the key to Ehrenreich’s (and the movie’s) success.

If the largely unknown, 28-year-old actor attempted to emulate Ford in any way, he would have been playing an unwinnable game. But that wasn’t his approach at all: Ehrenreich offers up his own take on Han, adding new personality wrinkles and idiosyncrasies and while his performance has almost zero chance of having the impact on pop culture that Ford’s did, the truth is that, throughout Solo, I never once cared to make that comparison. Ehrenreich’s Solo is fully realized, completely likable, and most importantly, captures the essence of the character without coming off like a slavish caricature.

Fittingly, Solo: A Star Wars Story opens with Solo boosting a landspeeder on the ship-building planet of Corellia, which is ruled over by Lady Proxima (voiced by the woefully undervalued Linda Hunt), a shadow-dwelling, reptilian tyrant. When he and his lover, Qi’ra (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke) get caught by Proxima’s thugs just before sneaking off the planet, we’re presented with a familiar scenario: Han stands defiantly in the face of certain death as Proxima threatens to have him shot for his transgressions. Han’s cat-and-mouse relationship with Jabba the Hutt from the original movies comes to mind for a moment, but there’s something different about young Solo. He’s got a knack for squirming his way out of tight situations, yes, but there’s an optimism and eagerness to him that we’ve not seen yet. Ford’s Solo was an untrusting grump, but Ehrenreich’s is a bright-eyed sweetheart, at least at the outset — the character gap is bridged, at least partially, as Solo unfolds.

Qi’ra has truly cast a spell on Han—he’s openly, brazenly head-over-heels for the girl, a far cry from the curmudgeon we’ve become accustomed to over the years. But when the lovebirds are separated and Han falls in with a group of mercenary types led by grizzled gunslinger Beckett (Woody Harrelson), the glimmer in our plucky hero’s eyes is dimmed as he learns the art and artifice of the outlaw lifestyle as he fights to reunite with his beloved.

He meets a slew of wild and wicked characters on his intragalactic adventure, exuberant and entertaining all. There are new faces, like freedom-fighting droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), four-armed smart-talker Rio (Jon Favreau), and scar-faced Bond villain Dryden (Paul Bettany), all of whom threaten to steal the show (in a good way).

It’s delightful to watch Han and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) meet for the first time (the young actors capture the duo’s snippy rapport perfectly), and those who were disappointed in the Wookiee’s limited involvement in Star Wars: The Last Jedi will find Chewie has much more to do this time around. America’s current king of woke-ness, Donald Glover, plays the smooth-talking, cape-collecting Lando Calrissian with swagger and style, but unlike Ehrenreich, the Atlanta actor seems to be doing more of an impersonation of his predecessor, Billy Dee Williams (specifically the voice, which at times feels distractingly put on), though it is quite a good one.

Donald Glover (Photo by null – © (c) 2018 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.) (IMDB)

If what you want from a Star Wars movie is an action-adventure romp, and the last two movies in the franchise (The Last Jedi and Rogue One) felt a little too dreary and heavy on pathos, Solo is sure to lift your spirits and give you more thrills than you can handle. Some of the action sequences are seriously breathtaking and will keep you teetering on the edge of your seat. Early on, we get a Star Wars’ take on a train robbery, except here, the train is suspended on a rail thousands of feet off the ground and snakes around snowy mountains like some kind of infernal roller coaster. What’s striking about the art and set design here is that every gigantic vehicle and piece of heavy machinery feels, well, gigantic. There’s a weight to the train cars as they creak and twist, and it’s heart-stopping to watch our wobbly-legged heroes barely hang onto the speeding mass of metal.

Yes, we know that some of these characters—most pertinently, Han—survive the story. But director Ron Howard and his team (some credit should go to nixed co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller as well) do a terrific job of creating such a strong sense of urgency and danger during the nail-biting action sequences that, in the moment, you feel like the characters’ lives are truly in jeopardy.

While I’ve certainly shed my fair share of tears while watching most of the mainline Star Wars movies (Lucas prequels excluded), Solo only made me misty once, when Han first lays his eyes on that beautiful hunk of junk, the Millennium Falcon. That ship is perhaps the most legendary prop/set in all of movies, and at this point, feels like an old friend, and it’s always magical to see her.

But otherwise, Solo offers nothing quite as profound. The story, while clean and thematically solid, isn’t anything special. But its greatest virtue is that it doesn’t feel narratively shackled by the original movies—this is a brand new adventure, and a brand new take on some of our favorite characters. There’s not a dull moment throughout, and fans will be delighted to find that there are a few surprises (one absolutely shocking) sprinkled throughout.

RATING 8 / 10