It took Ron Howard to direct the Star Wars movie I had hoped Rian Johnson would have delivered after Looper (Film Review: Looper smartens up sci-fi tropes to riveting effect). So far, as someone partial to science-fiction movies and the Star Wars saga, this writer has been able to chronicle an opinion on all of the movies since George Lucas signed over the franchise to producers at Disney. Oftentimes, these reviews have noted disappointments that have overshadowed hopeful expectations. Now, here comes Solo: A Star Wars Story, and it’s a refreshing blast, as it rides a wave of gripping action sequences where digital effects never overshadow the earthy world of practical effects in a script that isn’t bloated with too many characters. It also not only tones down the self-referencing of previous Star Wars movies but elevates it.
Solo has a sense of substance and thrilling grittiness that’s been missing from the other Star Wars movies since the original trilogy hit theaters in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Working with a script written by longtime Star Wars writer Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan Kasdan, Howard brings an intimacy to scenes that reveal a richness missing from these new movies. It’s in the closeups of the characters and the gears of the machines and the wide shots of the environments featuring snowy mountaintops and desert landscapes juxtaposed with menacing technology including a train on precarious mountainside tracks and a black space yacht that looks like a shark fin. We’re even taken into muddy trench warfare that shames the battle on Hoth in its squalidness. Just by focusing on people in trenches and explosions around them, it finally feels like a war is actually going on instead of a digital effects smorgasbord of chaos trying to represent such a war. It’s this balance of practical effects detail and exciting imagery created with it that speaks to why the director who made the ‘70s era racing movie Rush (Review: Rush Is Fueled by Thrilling Action and a Ton of Heart) is such a good fit for this movie.
Pity actor Alden Ehrenreich, however, who certainly has some big boots to fill after Harrison Ford made Han Solo the most interesting if not dynamic hero in the very first of these movies back in 1977. With his conflicting feelings as a mercenary and his independent spirit in a galaxy where you have to pick sides, Ford made smarmy, sometimes bumbling Solo likeable. There are moments when Ehrenreich has to rise to such a balance, and it shows what a challenge it is to the actor. Add to that the mantle of the legendary anti-hero, and it’s an uphill battle. Still, in the face of that, he does a job that’s beyond serviceable in a role that deserves a reprise somewhere down the line that might show more of his ability.
More charming and fun to watch is Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian. He brings a breeziness to the film that no other actor seems to possess. Maybe only Woody Harrelson comes close as Solo’s reluctant mentor Beckett. And even though she has a sweet onscreen appeal, Emilia Clarke can feel inconsistent as a performer, but it makes you wonder how much of it is the problem that Howard was first brought on for reshoots before he completely replaced original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Lord and Miller ended up with executive producer credits after being fired).
For preview purposes, we’ve been asked not to mention plot, so let it suffice to say that the film does address much of the repeated anecdotes that make up Solo’s backstory. Even better is how they provide springboards to original twists in plot for a creative story in the world of Star Wars that doesn’t have to feel obliged to all the complexities of the Empire, the rebellion that rises up against it and the mysticism of the Jedi knights. Still, these movies sometimes feel longer than they should be and Solo is no exception, but there are enough surprises, story arc and even a bit of open-endedness that makes this movie compelling in ways other post-original trilogy movies haven’t felt.
Howard, the Kasdans and — let’s face it — the committee of producers have also toned down the self-referencing. What there is of it is often smartly obscure. There’s a reference to a bounty hunter some fans may have first heard of when they began collecting Star Wars action figures in the ‘70s, and later generations of hardcore Star Wars fans will be able to tap into their knowledge of the “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” TV show to accept a cameo of one surprising character. Finally, in a scene toward the end of the movie Han commits a character-defining act that is rather meta and satisfying to fans of the original trilogy before Lucas decided to re-envision the movies with added digital effects. As Solo isn’t bogged down with dogfights and lightsaber battles, the movie opens itself up to what feels like the most original Star Wars experience to date, which is certainly refreshing in a series that had already begun to feel stale to many fans of the franchise.
Solo: A Star Wars runs 135 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens pretty much everywhere on Friday, May 25. Disney Studios invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.