Directed by: Ron Howard
Runtime: 135 minutes
Why was this film made? That’s not a very useful question, and I’m sure many great films don’t have a concrete answer. But that question persisted in my mind when Solo: A Star Wars Story was announced, repeating itself a little louder when I saw the trailer, and reaching a fever pitch as I watched the film in the cinema.
It’s not an unenjoyable film by any stretch of the imagination. Though it’s billed as a space western, Solo is a conventional sci-fi action flick, and by that metric, it ticks all the boxes.
As a Star Wars anthology movie, however, the film is a screaming existential crisis.
The story follows a young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) as he ventures into space to prove himself as a pilot and find a quality ship to rescue his beloved Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) from the clutches of a possessive gang on his homeworld. The narrative serves its function well enough, sending him hurtling into the paths of swarthy space rogues, fascinating underworld figures, and introducing him to his fateful companion Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, taking over after Peter Mayhew’s excellent tenure in the fursuit) and future frenemy Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).
Taking on the mantle of Han Solo, Ehrenreich makes no real attempt at emulating the enduring screen grumpsterism of Harrison Ford, opting instead to tackle the role on his own terms—a fair choice considering the recognisability of Ford and the limitations of Ehrenreich (who I love, but let’s be real). Glover wears the role of Lando Calrissian with more flexibility, slightly adopting Billy Dee Williams’s speech patterns and mannerisms, but not enough to outweigh his overwhelming Donald Glover-ism—you don’t get to disappear into roles when you’re enjoying the kind of media blitz Glover is enjoying. It’s not a missed opportunity so much as it is what it is; Eherenreich and Glover both give compelling performances that fit within a pulpy sci-fi action framework.
The new cast of characters deliver equally competent performances. Paul Bettany commits cinematic larceny as space gangster Dryden Vos, effortlessly outcharming the story-mandated charmers and making me wish I’d watched a film called Vos. Woody Harrelson is a surprising fit for the Star Wars universe as seasoned criminal Tobias Beckett, though his character could easily be slotted into any number of sci-fi action flicks as a generic crime-world mentor. Emilia Clarke fares much better than in her previous blockbuster roles, but her performance is limited by a script that asks too much and gives too little at crucial moments in the film.
The film finds its footing most clearly when it enriches the existing Star Wars universe, providing moments of much-needed vitality. The grimy industrial slums of Han’s homeworld Corellia bustle with possibility and oppression, gritty war scenes paint a vivid picture of endless fighting that gets lost in the epic brushstrokes of the main trilogies, and some electrifying moments hint towards the eldritch far reaches of space.
But none of these are central, at least for very long, and the movie never wrestles its way out of feeling like a money-fueled Ouroboros. The cascade of referential ending scenes—I was optimistically prepared for something punchy that threw away the pretence of being anything other than a pulpy action film—speaks to a writhing confusion as to the point of the film beyond aligning young Han’s orbit with that of the enigmatic rogue we meet in A New Hope.
And therein lies my issue. Meeting Han Solo in media res in A New Hope always felt compelling to me; with great storytelling economy, he is crafted as cynical and self-centered from decades of surviving as an outlaw, but too smart and kind to ignore his moral compass completely. This simple equation provides enough tension to propel him through the entire original trilogy and beyond. While Solo does leave us with the suggestion that Han’s experiences will leave him sour in his older years, his neat heroic character arc speaks to a lack of interest in adding any greater depth to the character beyond what we could readily assume about his past.
While there’s plenty of charm to Solo, there’s also a listlessness to it that can’t be rectified by space pirates and hyperfuel. Well executed in all of the ways that make for entertaining viewing, Solo nevertheless comes off as an unnecessary chapter to an already finished story.