Review: SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY Is Enjoyable But Underwhelming

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Depending on who you ask, the now Disney-owned Lucasfilm either reinvigorated the Star Wars franchise or betrayed its very essence with last year’s The Last Jedi. In either case, Solo: A Star Wars Story represents an understandable jolt back to the familiar after such a polarizing middle chapter in the current trilogy. But that doesn’t mean the film — which delves into the origin behind fan-favorite Han Solo — is a successful return to form, even for the harshest critics of the franchise’s previous entry.

Going into Solo, it’s impossible to shed the inescapable reports of the film’s rampant production issues, which ultimately led to the exits of filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who still retain executive producer credits, nonetheless) during filming. In the end, Academy Award winner Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) stepped in to direct the film, overseeing the extensive reshoots that aimed to temper the comedic edge of Lord and Miller’s vision. With Howard’s experience not only in the industry but as the director of Lucasfilm’s own 1988 fantasy-adventure Willow, the hire seemed like a safe choice, albeit one that might not have brought as distinctive a style.

And “safe” is definitely the perfect word for Solo. From its opening text (not a crawl, per se, but it may as well be) to the way in which it winds up tying directly into A New Hope, it’s clear that Lucasfilm knew exactly what elements to reprise from previous installments. Solo does intend to shed light on the criminal underworld of the “galaxy far, far away” in the same way that Rogue One brought the rebels to the forefront. In that respect, the film largely works, though it does lean too heavily on delivering tried-and-true gangster tropes simply with a Star Wars twist.

One of the biggest problems with the story of Solo is that it doesn’t feel like one that ever needed to be told. Sure, we get some payoffs for the bits of Han’s mythology fans have long known about (how he meets Chewbacca, wins the Falcon, completes the Kessel Run, etc.), but too often Solo feels like its narrative is built around checking off those boxes, rather than it coming about organically. Occasionally, a bit of cleverness creeps through in this approach, such as regarding Lando’s mispronunciation of Han’s name. But did anyone ever wonder how the scruffy-looking nerf herder got his surname? If so, prepare to be severely underwhelmed. Also, really?!Solo: A Star Wars StoryThat said, Solo does further cement the underlying purpose of these anthology-style spinoffs: to unify and connect the entire canon and fill in the storytelling gaps. As mixed as Rogue One turned out to be, that film wisely opted not to play out events within the saga that we already knew about but to offer details that enriched the experience of the other films and the canonical tales that tie into them. This is, unfortunately, lacking for much of Solo, with the most notable exception being a third-act reveal that could have interesting ramifications elsewhere in the franchise.

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It’s telling that we’ve gotten this far without mentioning the figurehead of this particular “Star Wars story.” Stepping into Harrison Ford’s iconic vest, Alden Ehrenreich isn’t nearly as much of a wet blanket as many fans feared he would be, but he doesn’t make nearly the impact or possess anywhere close to the swagger. In fact, if Solo proves anything, it’s that everyone’s favorite space pirate is best employed as the sardonic side character, not the leading man. The film does build in plenty of references to Han’s character that ring true to what we’ve previously seen of him. Yet, even within Solo, Ehrenreich winds up surrounded largely by far more interesting characters.

Though their roles feel somewhat rote, both Woody Harrelson and Emilia Clarke bring the right balance of gravitas and fun to the roles of Han’s mentor and love interest, and seeing Paul Bettany play the imposing crime boss Dryden Vos just a month after he appeared as Vision in Avengers: Infinity War is satisfying, even if he’s severely underdeveloped. As Chewbacca, Joonas Suotamo nearly steals the film, in part thanks to the unexpected way in which the Wookiee is introduced. Moreover, the all-CGI alien Rio Durant and activist droid L3-37 (voiced by Jon Favreau and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, respectively) make quite the impression with far too little screentime.

As literally everyone expected, Donald Glover steals every second he’s onscreen as Lando Calrissian, begging the question of why he isn’t headlining this film. If Lucasfilm is wise, the sequel to Solo will actually be Lando: A Star Wars Story, allowing Ehrenreich and company to return in an ensemble context built around the future administrator of Cloud City. Glover is effortlessly charismatic as the character and brings it to life more than his co-stars can. Perhaps the best potential use of these spinoffs would be to develop heretofore supporting characters like Lando, and such a move would provide ample opportunity to have Glover and Ehrenreich (and Suotamo, of course) play off of each other as we learn more about Lando’s history.

For now, Solo emerges mostly unscathed from its production hell. However, the final film demonstrates the troubling trend of the spinoffs to fall into complacency. As much as fans may have been divided by The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson’s film brought something new and fresh to the series, whereas Solo plays simply like a compilation of Han’s greatest hits. Although most of the sequences are enjoyable enough (especially for hardcore fans), the experience doesn’t hold a candle to the thrill of truly new material. Even Rogue One dares to take chances, after all.

For as much fun as Solo: A Star Wars Story is from time to time, the film still ranks among the hollowest in the Star Wars franchise and serves as the greatest argument yet against these character-focused spinoffs.