Perhaps, despite his stubborn commitment to mostly mediocre, often biographical period dramas in the long post-80s portion of his career, Ron Howard simply has a knack for fantasy. Having previously teamed with George Lucas on his dazzling, if derivative, 1988 sword-and-sorcery adventure Willow, Howard has now returned, 30 years later, to a staple of the fantasy genre by climbing aboard Lucas-less Lucasfilm’s latest jaunt through the company’s beloved galaxy far, far away. Solo: A Star Wars Story is, like Willow, comprised of recycled parts, but it’s a surprisingly enjoyable experience that proves smart enough to stay the occasional step or two ahead of lore-conscious fans.
A prequel tale about Han Solo’s origins always sounded like a terrible idea to this fan and Howard’s late hiring as a replacement for comic geniuses and improv-encouraging original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller tasted like a limply vanilla decision for a movie that could use some particularly spicy creative juices.
But beyond the directors lies a script by veteran screenwriter and longtime Star Wars associate Lawrence Kasdan, who shares the credit with his son Jonathan. While this is far from the finest work by the senior Kasdan, the script arms its story with a respect for the series and an understanding of franchise baggage that freshens the tale just enough to keep things interesting.
There’s an obvious checklist of references that the movie inevitably feels obligated to complete, but Kasdan ticks each box with a dash of humour and a fair shot at keeping the reference-anticipating audience guessing. So even though there’s an inherent lameness in knowing that the movie will cover such Solo-centric events discussed in the Original Trilogy as how the rogue-ish hero won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) or how the iconic ship accomplished the Kessel run in a mere 12 parsecs, the script parlays these tales into fun sequences punctuated with good gags.
The plot charts Han’s (Alden Ehrenreich) rise from the streets to the skies, chronicling the various happenings that help form the character as we know him, which include a stint in the Imperial infantry and the loss of his dear lover Qi’Ra (Emilia Clarke), from whom Han is separated during a risky escape attempt.
Falling in with a band of thieves bankrolled by a shady organization and led by the morally unmoored Beckett (Woody Harrelson), whose attitude makes him a Solo prototype of sorts, Han takes the long road to becoming the man that was originally played so iconically by Harrison Ford. Certain milestones along the way are marked quite wonderfully, such as the introduction of Han’s eventual best bud Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), while some of the plot twists and sequel setup drag the movie down at certain junctures. It’s not always a smooth ride and the 135-minute running time feels unwieldy for such a light adventure, but it stays pretty firmly on the rails.
Locating a balance between the checklist items and all the narrative stuffing that is required to connect the dots is the movie’s greatest challenge, one that it overcomes in the end. Kasdan’s script prioritizes Han’s arc over everything else and the movie emerges as a solid ode to the character. We watch as he tries desperately to assert himself as the villain in his own story, someone who won’t be fooled by others and is in this life only for himself, but ultimately, it’s a charade he can’t maintain. Han is a good guy who shows up for his friends when they need him most.
This is, of course, exactly what we already know of Han from his initial appearance in A New Hope, which is a movie full of famous bits where Han’s triumphant eleventh hour return to help Luke blow the Death Star and go home is one of its most treasured moments. So it’s clear that Solo isn’t really revealing anything particularly new about its protagonist, making it tempting to criticize the whole movie as rather pointless.
After all, seeing the actual Kessel run after first hearing about it more than 40 years ago feels pretty far from necessary in a franchise that has long stumbled around the specifics of its own history, but as a standalone movie that aims only to play lightly with its mythology and comically fill in some blanks along the way, Solo is considerably successful.
A big reason for this is Ehrenreich, who has the most impossible task of any one person involved in the movie. While Howard jumped on board late into production and composer John Powell took over much of the scoring duties from the legendary and incomparable John Williams, it’s Ehrenreich that’s in the least enviable position. Filling Ford’s shoes is a tall order, so Ehrenreich wisely avoids attempting a Ford impression and focuses instead on establishing his own version of the character. It’s still convincingly Han Solo, thanks partially to Kasdan’s script writing him that way, but mainly because Ehrenreich captures the essence of the character with a swagger he can call his own.
Ehrenreich carries much of the movie while Chewbacca is there to help with the heavier lifting, but the main thing is that this is all kept mostly light. The more oddball moments that feel like leftovers from the Lord and Miller portion of the shoot are often where the movie is at its best, but it’s only fair to give much of the credit to Howard, who has salvaged a solid yarn from the wreckage of a problematic production. Sometimes, it’s not about who shoots first, but rather who finishes the job.