Solo: A Star Wars Story lifts off as a space Western while playing it safe
Starring Alden Ehrenreich. Rated PG.
Even back in the original Star Wars trilogy, everyone’s favourite space scoundrel possessed numerous elements built into his character that made him a prime candidate for a (sorry) solo venture. He was mysterious. He had a backstory. He didn’t play by the rules. And, of course, he had a good heart.
As this story zeroes in on the gun-toting Han, this entry is devoid of the Force, familial angst, and earnest skywalking. As he inhabits a shady underworld filled with smugglers, gamblers, and pirates, it's a place where no one is who they appear to be, allowing for numerous twists and shifting alliances. With the chanbara (samurai cinema) influences of the franchise withdrawn, this is the Wild West.
We meet Han and his girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) trying to escape criminal oppression on his homeplanet of Corellia. Flying by the seat of cowboy pants, Han repeatedly gets out of pickles by trading in one predicament for another, becoming increasingly indebted to others along the way.
For instance, when Han is separated from Qi'ra (a damsel self-sufficient when in distress), he vows to reunite with her by joining criminal Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his wife Val (Thandie Newton) on a mission for crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) that leads to deeper and deeper complications.
Compared to the other Disney offerings in the franchise, Solo is the most consistent—there aren’t any major flubs or weird off-notes—and avoids much of the the dreariness that bogged down Rogue One. That’s because it plays it safe. And there’s the rub. Although it does offer engaging action, the film's inherent conservatism runs counter to a character as roguish as Han Solo. Consequently, while it does lift off as a romp, it lacks enough risk-taking (and could use more humour) to make the leap to hyper-entertainment.
Part of the problem is that origin stories tend to get bogged down in addressing essential elements. In this case, it's also coupled with heavy fan-service requirements and expectations. In that area, it does satisfy by answering all the niggling questions and endless references made in previous films about Han’s past, including the story of the Millenium Falcon, the Kessel run, how Han met his loyal canine Chewie as well as his best frenemy forever Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). And an unexpected cameo offers a chance to rectify one of the major screw-ups made by the heavily flawed prequel trilogy.
Ehrenreich’s performances in early scenes don’t intially help matters and the pacing is sluggish at the outset, but eventually things pick up momentum in both respects. While Ehrenreich lacks the theatrical flair of his predecessor, delivers Han’s swagger on a more nuanced level than Harrison Ford. (Ehrenreich would make a good fit for a young Fox Mulder.)
Something this installment does offer that other Disney Star Wars entries tended to neglect is presenting new technological creations (while remaining pious to retro sci-fi style), ranging from vehicles to robots. In particular, a train sequence offers some fresh visual dynamism within the film series that offsets the de rigueur space-chase-through-asteroid-fields sequences. It takes some time but eventually the script provides the new droid character, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), with comedic context for her crankiness.
While this spin-off isn't a multistory epic like The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi, it does offer enough adventure and traditional elements that should please loyalists and popcorn-flick-goes as a side show while we await the last chapter in the latest sequel trilogy.