When Harrison Ford’s Han Solo first made our acquaintance in the original Star Wars 40 years ago, he was such a dashing, charismatic presence that it never crossed your mind to wonder what his backstory was. What was this guy doing at Mos Eisley? Why did he have a Wookiee as his copilot? How on earth did he manage to do pull off the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs? And what the hell is the Kessel Run anyway? You just accepted the cocky mercenary at face value because he was so damn confident and cool. Next to the boyish Luke Skywalker, here was a blaster-packin’ space cowboy who shot first and asked questions later (RIP Greedo).
From the beginning, Han Solo was George Lucas’ resident man of mystery – a worldly, seen-it-all cross between John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and Buck Rogers brought to life by an actor who mixed just the right amounts of swagger, bravado, and danger. But that was then. Flash forward four decades and we now live in an age where there can no longer be mysteries. Every corner of the “galaxy far, far away” has to be strip-mined for content, demystified, and spun off into its own standalone sequel, prequel, or sidequel. Which is why, just five short months after The Last Jedi, we now find ourselves wrestling with our favorite scoundrel’s origin myth in Solo: A Star Wars Story.
As the film opens (minus the signature fanfare and scroll of the main Star Wars saga), there’s something a little jarring about seeing someone else being called Han. And it frankly takes a few minutes to get over the strange cognitive dissonance. Han, of course, is now played by Alden Ehrenreich, a gifted young actor who grabbed a lot of attention for his small-but-declarative performance in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, and then made good on that promise in Warren Beatty’s little-seen Rules Don’t Apply. Still, I don’t envy the poor guy’s latest assignment. Ehrenreich is more moon-faced and boyish-looking than Ford was when he started playing Solo in his mid-thirties. He may have the same vest and sideburns and lucky-charm dice dangling from the dash of his cockpit as Ford’s fast-talking, smirking antihero had, but it’s hard not to feel like something is missing. How couldn’t it?
Directed by Ron Howard, who replaced the film’s original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller to much Twitter handwringing, the new film kicks off with Han doing what he’s always done best — trying to talk his way out of a jam, this time alongside his love, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Like the character we all know and love, the young Solo has a knack for getting into intergalactic pickles with all kinds of unsavory types that he always thinks he can out-grease, even if he usually can’t. He’s a master bluffer who’s only a master in his own mind.
Without giving too much away, Han and Qi’ra are separated and the film’s plot (credited to Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan) takes him to the furthest reaches of the galaxy in an attempt to find his way back to her so they can live happily ever after. But if there was ever a character to whom happy endings weren’t promised it’s Han Solo. The romantic subplot is the least interesting thing in Howard’s film. The moments of unfiltered pop space-opera joy are the ones of high adventure and those that fill in little jigsaw pieces in Solo’s backstory: How he and Chewbacca (now played by Joonas Suotamo) first met, how he got that chip the size of Alderaan on his shoulder, and how he won his beloved Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), fair and not so square.
Speaking of Glover, it’s no spoiler to say that the Atlanta star is easily the best thing in this good-not-great movie. More than any big action set piece or narrative double cross (and there are plenty of them thanks to a smooth crime boss played by Paul Bettany), it’s Glover’s mack-daddy, Colt 45 swagger as the rakish gambler formerly played by Billy Dee Williams that will be the thing you’ll be buzzing about after the lights come up (well, that and how much you’d rather see his standalone origin story). Unlike most of the recent Star Wars films, Solo feels more like a character study than an epic sci-fi adventure. The Empire is present, but mostly as a presence felt rather than seen. If anything, Solo is really a heist flick, where Han and a couple of fellow mercenaries (Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, a droid named L3-37 voiced by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge) have to steal a MacGuffin (in this case a highly coveted glowing blue kind of hyperfuel called Coaxium), only to have it stolen from them, and so on. It’s all fun and rollicking enough until you walk out of the theater into the daylight and realize just how trivial and insignificant it all really is.
What you’re really left with, apart from a yearning for the young Ford at his most cavalier, is a slightly fuller and more rounded understanding of who Han Solo is – where he came from, what makes him tick, and how he’d much prefer to shower alone than with a Wookiee. In other words, it’s pure fan service. And if that’s what you’re after, then you’ll be more than satisfied. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for the sort of jaw-dropping visual grandeur and epic poetry of The Last Jedi (not to mention the original trilogy), then you’ll probably be a little nonplussed. Solo feels like a placeholder, a wafer-thin palate cleanser before the next big course. It’s the very definition of “solid” and “competent.” Nothing more, nothing less. B