Go West, Young Han
By Mikhail Lecaros
Another year, another Star Wars prequel. Ever since the House of Mouse bought up the Star Wars franchise, they’ve released a film every year since 2015. How does Solo: A Star Wars Story hold up in a franchise that’s largely been hit and miss whenever it diverges from characters named Skywalker?
With The Last Jedi receiving a decidedly mixed reception from critics and audiences barely six months ago (disclaimer: I loved it), it is no exaggeration to say that fan excitement was at an uncharacteristic low for Solo: A Star Wars Story. Was it because the title character was being played by someone other than Harrison Ford? Surely it wasn’t the lack of Jedi, as Rogue One had proven that there was an audience for compelling, well-made stories set just outside the main Saga. Maybe it was the fact that it seemed odd to be doing a backstory for a character that never really called for one.
For whatever reason, this was the first Star Wars film in twenty years that audiences just didn’t seem all that interested in seeing, and that is a damn shame; Solo, for all its flaws, is a surprising, enjoyable throwback to the sort of old-school western romp that helped inspire the original Star Wars in the first place.
A (SOMEWHAT) LONG TIME AGO, IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY
Solo: A Star Wars Story delves into the backstory of everybody’s favorite outer space scoundrel (not named Star Lord), his earliest adventures with his (literal) partner-in-crime Chewbacca, and his first run-in with one Lando Calrissian (Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover, TV’s Atlanta, Community). Along for the ride are an amoral career criminal (Woody Harrelson, Zombieland), a cantankerous droid with aspirations of rebellion (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), and a femme fatale who’s (by definition) more than she seems (ably played by Game of Throne’s Emilia Clarke). That everything culminates onboard the Millennium Falcon during the legendary Kessel Run was something you probably saw a mile away, but the fun definitely lies in seeing how it all comes together.
Unlike previous entries in the franchise, whose mostly-unknown casts helped sell the notion of a galaxy far, far away, Solo boasts names like the aforementioned Harrelson, Clarke, and Glover, while throwing in Thandie Newton (Westworld, Mission: Impossible 2) and Paul Bettany (Infinity War, Wimbledon) for good measure. While potentially jarring for some, the franchise newcomers not only largely impress, but even manage to make one wish they had more screen time.
A WESTERN AT HEART
Gunfights at ten paces. Smoke-filled saloons populated by characters of ill repute. Scoundrels and outlaws trying to stay a step ahead of the authorities in a largely lawless landscape. More than any of the films that came before it, Solo embraces its roots as a western, not the least of which is a train heist that goes very, very wrong. At the center is Han Solo himself, played by Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!), who is, at this point in his life, somewhere between an idealist and a realist who believes he can save the love of his life from a life of crime. With his trademark gunbelt and character’s natural swagger in place, a lot is riding on Ehrenreich’s young shoulders for his first blockbuster role.
WHO’S SCRUFFY LOOKING?
Ehrenreich may play a younger version of Han Solo, but he wisely avoids anything resembling an imitation or impersonation of his predecessor; much like Chris Pine’s portrayal of Captain Kirk, Ehrenreich puts his own spin on the character that, for the most part, works. This isn’t the Han Solo we remember and, seeing as this story is set some time before A New Hope, that’s fine. Of course, if Solo yields sequels, the room for interpretation shrinks, and it will be interesting to see how this iteration of Han grows into the cynical smuggler audiences first met back in 1977.
THE COOLEST MAN IN THE GALAXY
Regardless of one’s reservations for the film, Donald Glover as Lando was one of the few things that people were actually looking forward to in Solo, and he doesn’t disappoint. Effortlessly charming, shrewd, and condescending (in equal measure), this version of Lando is a successful gambler who counts the Millennium Falcon as his prize possession. Glover toes the line of imitation by lowering his voice to better mirror Billy Dee Williams’ dulcet tones, but never lets his performance descend into parody. Being one of the few people of color in that galaxy far, far away, as well as a smooth talker who could wear a cape like nobody’s business, the pressure was on Glover not to screw up, and he absolutely delivers in whatever the sabacc equivalent of spades is.
Besides the obvious big name connections, including a last minute cameo that left the premiere audience simultaneously delighted and confused, Solo is littered with references to other entries in the franchise, from throwaway mentions of characters like Aura Sing (The Phantom Menace) and Bossk (The Empire Strikes Back), to a downright baffling reference of one of the worst Star Wars video games ever (the godawful Masters of Teras Kasi).
NEVER TELL ME THE ODDS
Following the controversial firing of original directors Chris and Phil Lord (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street) midway into production, it seemed that Solo: A Star Wars Story was dead in the water. The announcement of Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind), being called in to complete the film did little to inspire confidence. While a solid choice, with a number of award-winning dramas under his belt, nothing in Howard’s filmography (don’t get me started on his sleep-inducing Da Vinci Code movies) gave one the impression that he could handle a big budget special effects blockbuster.
And yet, here we are: Solo features a couple of impressive set pieces that, while not about to set the cinematic world on fire, fit perfectly in establishing the more grounded adventures Han had before he entered the larger world of space wizards and planet-exploding battle stations. Granted, a big part of that comes from the nostalgic thrill of seeing young Han and Chewie outrunning Imperial forces in the Falcon as familiar musical stings play, but fortunately, Howard lets the scene (along with the rest of the film) play out with such earnest glee that it’s difficult not to get swept up.
An underrated gem, Solo won’t blow your mind, but it is well worth a watch.
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