See! How Han Solo first met Chewbacca! See! How Han Solo won the Millennium Falcon in a card game! See! How Han Solo made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs (and what a Kessel Run actually is)! See! How Han Solo finally learned how to shoot first.
See all this and more in Solo: A Star Wars Story, a prequel in the vein of the excellent and underrated Rogue One. But forget about seeing the Han Solo you know and love; this is a fun and diverting Star Wars ride, even if it is a bit of a mess, but it never captures its lead character in an way that will feel authentic to fans of the franchise.
I don’t think Alden Ehrenreich (who unforgettably portrayed the singing cowboy in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!) was anyone’s idea of a young Han: a little too short, a little too nasally and nebbish, not the roguish hero-heel so memorably created by Harrison Ford. Anthony Ingruber, who impeccably portrayed a young Ford in The Age of Adaline, is often cited as a better choice for the role. As would be Baby Driver’s Ansel Elgort.
But Ehrenreich is not the problem here, and puts in a fine performance of the character as written. The issue is with the character as written: Han is no longer the dashing hustler out for himself, but instead a sensitive young man with a heart of gold who looks out for the little guy and trusts his friends. What?
Okay, okay: the point is that Han Solo wasn’t always Han Solo, and that life events turned him into that familiar smooth-talking smuggler. If you want to see how a young Luke Skywalker-type turned into a Han Solo-type, well, Solo: A Star Wars Story gives us that Han Solo origin story we never knew we needed instead of letting us have fun with a character we already know and love. It’s an odd choice to have the main character arc in your movie go from warm-hearted dreamer to cold-hearted cad, but hey.
If you can accept this character not as the real-deal Solo but as Han’s meek younger brother, well, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a fun ride, and not the total mess its troubled production history would suggest. Ron Howard replaced original directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord more than halfway through filming, and reportedly reshot 85% of the movie.
Not that it’s perfect. Solo opens up on Han’s home planet of Corellia, a murky brown industrial wasteland borrowed from Alien 3, with Ehrenreich’s Han and Qi’ra (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke) as orphaned lovers looking to escape the sewers.
There are some neat creatures (Linda Hunt voices Lady Proxima, Oliver Twist’s Fagin reimagined as a giant amphibian centipede) and an exciting car chase, but if you really want to follow what goes on in these early scenes you’ll need night vision goggles to see through all the darkness on the screen.
Murky browns and deep inky blacks are a recurring theme throughout Solo’s visual palette; Han’s introduction to Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), in a creative Rancor Pit-like fight sequence, take place in at night, in the rain, with both characters so caked in mud you can barely tell these screen icons apart. And they’re not even the same species.
After Han escapes Corellia, he signs up with the Empire as a foot soldier in a breathless sequence that feels like it encompasses a few weeks but must take place over the course of years. But once he’s had enough of the dark side, he and Chewie hook up with fleeing smugglers Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton, in a thankless role), and a four-armed CGI creature voiced by Jon Favreau.
They’re working for intergalactic gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, who replaced Michael K. Williams in the role after all his scenes were shot), and their mission is to obtain a highly valuable and highly explosive starship fuel called coaxium. To get what they need, the smugglers seek help from debonair gambler Lando Calrissian (a scene-stealing Donald Glover) and his robot-rights sidekick L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge).
And then, Solo: A Star Wars story finally becomes a breathlessly fun ride. After all these movies about good and evil and saving the galaxy, it’s refreshing to see Star Wars movie that’s just about smugglers running goods for a space gangster. And with these disparate characters transporting an explosive substance, Solo almost – almost – turns into Clouzot’s Wages of Fear (or at least Friedkin’s Sorcerer) for large portions of the running time.
Star Wars fans will watch this movie and compile a list of grievances (as did I), and I don’t even think there will be Last Jedi-like debates this time around: Solo is easily the weakest of the four new Star Wars films produced by Disney. But it’s also genuinely fun, filled with imaginative creature designs and lively performances, and sets up a sequel that promises, finally, the Han Solo character we want to see.
Part of the issue for Solo is that this character was never really a lead; even in his own movie, Han slips into the background while Clarke’s Qi’ra and Harrelson’s Beckett drive the plot forward, only occasionally popping up with the witty one-liner or sarcastic quip. But the side characters help take the burden off Ehrenreich’s lead – especially Glover’s Calrissian, who isn’t on screen enough here but nearly steals the whole movie.
Despite the troubled production, Solo: A Star Wars Story is ultimately well-assembled despite some clunky editing and murky cinematography and an unfortunate color palette that renders many sequences in near-total darkness. This may not be the Young Han Solo story we wanted, but it’s a fun ride if you can buy into this version of the character.