Directed by: Ron Howard
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Paul Bettany, Joonas Suotamo, Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Written by Chris Gelderd
In 10 films spanning 41 years, ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ is the first of the franchise that started and ended production under a big black cloud. Original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, wanting to make a “space comedy” were let go just 6 months into production due to creative differences. Acclaimed director Ron Howard came on weeks later to carry the film forward. Following that, extensive re-shoots were carried out to shape the film into the vision Howard and LucasFilm intended.
But before all this happened, the fans and critics were divided. Do we need or even want a film about a young Han Solo, a character immortalised in three films by Harrison Ford. Does the story of how he became the roguish smuggler and pilot with a bounty on his head and a large walking carpet as a friend need to be told? Who will ever be as talented and physically similar like Ford to pull this off? Will this fit into the wider Star Wars timeline or just be totally unique?
These questions never went away, and coupled with the rumours and hear-say and negative views on the production, it’s safe to say ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ has had a mountain to climb just to get where it is today and win over audiences and critics alike.
Well, you can forget the woes about a trouble production and leave your picky questions at home because this space Western is slick, stylish and shows no sign of trouble at all. It’s a fun and light-hearted space adventure, just the sort George Lucas envisioned back in 1977. There is no dark, brooding conflict and mystical power hanging over the story – not to say there isn’t plenty of menace – and there are no Jedi Knights, Force powers and tedious links to the Skywalker story. This is how Han became Solo.
Think of it as a watered down ‘Casino Royale’ for all generations.
From the outset, Alden Ehrenreich had near impossible shoes to fill. Yet to enjoy his performance, we owe it to this talented actor to see he is portraying not Harrison Ford, but Han Solo. A character we know nothing about at this young age. Yes, it’s hard not to look for Ford in him, but if you look BEYOND the man he becomes, you enjoy him all the more for it. Alden bleeds Ford’s mannerisms in subtly, such as his stance, the way he fires his blaster and that dry sense of humour starting to form. He carries the film and proves that he was the right choice to cast.
Emilia Clarke is a little hard to buy into at first, and she only comes to life more in the second half. She may be a talent on the small screen, but somehow her presence on the big screen never leaps at you and she’s just a little forgetful for most of the time, and you don’t buy her relationship with Han as much as you probably should. Paul Bettany is our merciless villain, and while he also is a little glossed over sadly, he commands much of the threat our heroes face in the film and it’s refreshing to NOT be an Imperial officer or a Sith Lord as the bad guy.
Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian, equally having a big character to represent like Solo, does a fine job here. He’s smooth, charming and equally proud to look good and fight the good fight. The film could have benefited from more of his friendship with Solo to blossom, because you’re left wondering is this it? Is this the last time they see each other until the frosty reunion of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ a good 15 or so years later? You probably expected more, but you at least get to understand Lando’s ESB greeting of “Why you slimy, double-crossing, no-good swindler!”
Chewbacca finally comes to life more than ever after six films and he really does what you’d expect from a Wookiee here, in more ways than one. Seeing the beginning and formation of a life-long friendship is wonderful to see, and there is nothing more satisfying than seeing Han and Chewie together doing what they do best. Joonas Suotamo, a more than worthy successor to Peter Mayhew, does a brilliant job.
One of the best performances comes from Woody Harrelson as Beckett; a mentor, gun-slinger, smuggler and outlaw. He’s the one who guides us and Han into the world of crime and also the real dangers that the galaxy throws at you. Harrelson is instantly likeable and really looks the part, spinning those blasters and leading his crew into battle. He’s having a blast, and it shows. It’s clear all the cast are enjoying themselves in these iconic roles and situations, and that makes it easy to invest in to have fun too, but some seem to enter and exit the film quicker than you’d expect.
Characters drive the film, and they are key in making it flow. While the run time is not too hefty, and certainly doesn’t drag, the story stumbles a little in the first act. It tries to find its feet, which may be evidence of the production woes. Another slight irk is the humour; it’s not silly humour at all but sometimes you get the feeling the script is trying too hard to be funny when it doesn’t need to be. Phoebe Waller-Bridge as droid L3-37 is a highly off-putting and pointless character. When she speaks, the attitude and humour doesn’t seem fit for a Star Wars film. Something about her portrayal and character didn’t sit with me – it certainly wasn’t funny.
Once Howard does establish the story and the tone, it takes off a lot quicker. The story zips to various new planets in a blend of genres – from crime to drama to Western and sci-fi opera – to deliver something that adds nothing new to the timeline, but lets us have some fun out there without the need for Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker or the importance of civil wars being the focus point.
The action is slick and well executed, and the visual effects are spot-on. One bonus is that Howard seems to opt for more practical sets and action over CGI, and that adds to a much more real looking universe. From the slums of Corellia, to the dunes of Savareen and the nightmarish vortex of the Kessel Run, this is Star Wars at its finest, adventure planet-hopping best. It may be hard to adjust to a Star Wars film where Stormtroopers aren’t the main bad guys and the faceless Empire doesn’t do much or you see nothing of the Rebellion, but this is why the film is much braver than it appears.
It takes risks, it forces us to buy into a new idea and wants us to do nothing but enjoy the ride. Han Solo is just warming up and I want to see where he goes from here.
Is this a Star Wars film we needed in the timeline? Not really, but I’m glad we have it because Ron Howard just whetted my appetite for more of this sort of anthology film away from the ‘Episodes’. And on the basis of a certain cameo towards the end, the timeline just got a whole lot spicier!