Solo: A Star Wars Story is commonly referred to as “a film that nobody asked for”. This is probably due to audiences having already seen the biggest turning point in Han Solo’s character when he returns to save Luke Skywalker at a critical moment in A New Hope. At that point, Solo gives up his life as a smuggler to become a resistance fighter – essentially going from rogue to out-and-out “good guy”. Having already seen that character arc and knowing that he can’t be a “good guy” before A New Hope, the most audiences could expect is a story that shows how Solo went from “good guy” to rogue. And that isn’t really what we want to see from hero origin stories. Nevertheless, here we are with a Solo movie, and – against all odds – it’s not bad.
At the beginning of the film, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is in his late teens (maybe?), and he’s scratching out a living, working for the local underworld boss, hoping to score something big enough to get him and his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), off the planet. Things go awry during their escape, and Qi’ra is separated from Solo, who vows to return for her.
Years pass, during which time Solo joins the Empire ostensibly to become a pilot but ends up in the infantry as a Mudtrooper. There he joins a small group of thieves who have plans to boost a big score from which Solo hopes he’ll earn enough to return for Qi’ra.
As far as action/adventure movies go, Solo: A Star Wars Story is completely watchable. There are some exciting set pieces that are presented in refreshing ways, like a high-altitude train heist and new methods of destroying TIE Fighters. Additionally, the supporting cast ranges from good (Woody Harrelson as Beckett) to fun-to-watch (Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian). The movie only becomes irritating when Star Wars baggage is tied to it.
For one, it doesn’t feel like Star Wars. It has a lot of Star Wars signifiers, like trooper helmets and other familiar Empire attire, but there is also much of the movie that feels like other movies. This feeling was strongest early on when Han was shown fighting a ground battle in a war. It looked like something out of World War II in the way that the bombing run on the dreadnought in The Last Jedireminded of the same war. Later, a train heist sequence felt like it could have been plucked from any generic sci-fi movie – or any western for that matter – and the crew that Solo joins for the heist will remind more of Guardians of the Galaxy than anything else. So, audiences expecting a Star Wars experience will probably feel like something is missing.
Second, because this is a Han Solo origin story, audiences are going to look for key Han Solo scenes. And while there’s plenty of references, like the Kessel Run, what’s missing are all of the character-defining moments. Audiences know Solo as being a good pilot – and he shows some skill here – but audiences never see him develop this skill; he just has it and is able to use it masterfully at a critical moment. This would be tolerable in a B-movie, but not in a film that’s made for exploring these details.
Furthermore, a lot of the Solo pivotal moments felt like checking off a list item. For example, the card game where Solo wins the Millennium Falcon could have been an extended sequence like in Casino Royale and be just as satisfying. Instead, audiences watch an alien game without knowing the rules and already knowing the outcome. There’s no tension and not even any time to see Lando’s reaction at losing a ship that he literally loves.
On that note, Donald Glover is a highlight in the film. Not only does he capture Billy Dee Williams’ delivery, but also his swagger. Also, kudos to Glover for making a valiant attempt to bring emotion to an otherwise ridiculous scene where the character mourns the loss of a companion that wouldn’t be given a second thought in any other Star Wars film.
Alden Ehrenreich, on the other hand, captures nothing of Harrison Ford in his performance. It’s unclear if the direction is to blame or if the reported on-set acting coaching didn’t do enough, but Ehrenreich comes off stiff and like he’s misreading the scene he’s in. He’s constantly smiling inappropriately as if he’s in a different movie than everyone else.
The rest of the cast does a fine job, but the movie moves so quickly that there isn’t enough time to care about most of them. Early on, a job goes bad and a character makes a heroic sacrifice for the rest of the crew, but the emotional impact is lost because audiences didn’t have enough time to live with the character. Even surviving crew members barely have time to mourn before the next crisis is introduced.
Despite these criticisms, Solo is entertaining. It’s adequate. There’s very little about it that critically offends my tastes in how a movie like this should be told. More importantly, the film doesn’t overtly discard the expectations of Star Wars fans who have kept the fandom alive since the 70’s and through periods of recent history when liking sci-fi and geek culture weren’t cool. Unfortunately for the film, it’s going to be viewed through the context of the larger Star Wars film history, and Solo is going to pay for the sins of The Last Jedi.