Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau
Director: Ron Howard
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
It's hard to believe an Imperial overload like Disney would dispatch of filmmakers responsible for rehashing old properties and turning them into cash cows. Of course, this is exactly what happened with Solo: A Star Wars Story, wherein original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (best known for cynical assembly line drivel like The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street) were tossed out of the galaxy far, far, away for riffing on set with improvisations, costing the studio millions while giving Star Wars emperor Kathleen Kennedy cosmic migraines. To think there's actually fan outcry over what Lord and Miller's film would have looked like-- as if these guys are outlaw auteurs or something-- rather than the sad reality that Solo: A Star Wars Story just isn't a movie that needs to exist in the first place.
The film does exist, however, credited to director Ron Howard, who apparently reshot 70% of Lord and Miller's original vision; leading to a case of a younger corporate product being replaced with an older, more seasoned corporate product. If this all sounds incredibly reductive, the fact that Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi came out less than six months ago, is indicative of Disney/Lucasfilm's widespread commoditizing of modern entertainment. Star Wars used to be something fans swooned over; debating the mythology and filling in the gaps of the larger universe while clutching to the hope that another entry would surface sometime within the next decade. Now, it appears fan-culture has wrought something too good to be true. Like Marvel, Disney no longer has the need to create interesting narratives or films that work on their own terms. They only need to fit into brand awareness; perpetuating a cycle of nostalgia and pandering that results in safe, risk-adverse consumer product. Of course, Star Wars has always been partially about selling toys, so is this aggressive push for more spin-offs and prequels inherently detrimental?
Well, Solo: A Star Wars Story is neither an embarrassment to Disney's bragging rights nor an exciting piece of escapist entertainment. Instead, it feels like the case of a Hollywood veteran director stepping in to right a spacecraft that was probably crashing into an asteroid field anyways. With a script by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, the film aims to be a mishmash of classic genres--heist picture, war movie, rouge cowboy Western--mixed in with a Han Solo prequel following the canonical character (played by Alden Ehrenreich) as he runs scams on his home-planet of Cornellia. There's a childhood sweetheart, Qi'Ra (Emilia Clarke), whom Han is separated from early on before teaming up with thief cum imperial officer, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), whose rowdy crew includes a multi-limbed alien, Rio (voiced by Jon Favreau) and kick-ass girlfriend, Val (Thandie Newton). After surviving some hellish trench combat, Han's goal of buying his own ship in order to get back to Qi'Ra leads him into dangerous territory, including the company of mercenary Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).
There's some streamlined pleasures to be had throughout Solo which makes it far from the dismal trash heap many feared. For starters, Ehrenreich wisely downplays Solo's sneering cynicism and goes for less of an impression of Harrison Ford (an impossible task, anyhow) than a clever riff on an iconic character. His chemistry with Clarke, whose Qi'Ra is unfortunately a bit of a red herring, crackles whenever their scenes are allowed time to breathe. Meanwhile, Donald Glover goes in the opposite direction as Lando Calrissian, doing a full-on mimicry of Billy Dee Williams; complete with vocal inflections, hand gestures, and suave cape collection. This works mostly because Lando's screen time is kept to a minumum--truthfully, he's fulfilling the role of Han from the original trilogy--popping up periodically to offer a snide aside or dumbfounded facial reaction. Meanwhile, Lando's relationship with female co-pilot L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) adds a few new wrinkles to the Star Wars mythology; including the notion of droid gender equality and revolution.
Beyond the fact that Solo is essentially a $250 million fan-film; complete with cringe-inducing winks at how Han got his last name, whether or not he "shoots first", and his eventual ownership of the iconic Millenium Falcon, there's a dispiriting sense that the film's very existence is questionable. Han's winning banter with Lando, Chewbacca's habit of ripping limbs, and a nifty train heist sequence almost make up for the sluggish pacing and pandering fan-service; for instance, does anyone care about the infamous Kessel Run or the face-palming late reveal of a certain canonical villain?
For every moment that feels fresh (i.e. Lando's possible robo-sexuality), there's a dozen more giving us answers to things we never wanted answers for, which begs the question; why make a movie centered on a character whose backstory is almost entirely irrelevant? Han Solo was always a breath of fresh air because he was the wise-cracking cynic who gradually developed a bit of conscience over the course of the original three films. So, this is not Ron Howard's fault, and no, Lord and Miller's possible riff-heavy version would likely not have been much of an improvement, either. The fault, ultimately, aligns with the corporate empire of Disney/Lucasfilm; whose incessant desire to crank out more product is beginning to sputter and buckle under the strain of fan expectation and general audience fatigue.