Blatant cash grab or a delve into a beloved timeless character?
I went into Solo: A Star Wars Story with zero expectations. Maybe it was because Disney didn’t bother to market the film until less than a month before its release. Maybe it’s because it’s a standalone film that takes place in the past and has little chance of affecting the Star Wars universe at large. Whatever the reason, I didn’t find myself really excited until we got about a week out. Was it worth getting excited over? Let’s find out.
As the film progressed I went back and forth on Alden Ehrenreich’s performance as Han Solo. Out of the main cast, his performance was undoubtedly the weakest. As the only actor who doesn’t have widespread mainstream fame, I had hoped this would lend to allowing us to see him simply as Han, yet Ehrenreich’s lack of star power didn’t do him any favors. Understand that I’m not saying his performance was bad, he just wasn’t as good as Glover, Clarke or Harrelson.
There were a number of scenes where the young actor seemed completely unsure of himself; as a fan that grew up on Harrison Ford, you’re sitting there thinking “What the heck is wrong with this guy?”. To be fair it can’t be easy to pull off the immensely likable overconfidence that Ford so effortlessly put on display during his time with the role. I don’t know if this is a failing on the director for letting these scenes make it to cut, or the audience for having too high expectations.
When the film started I found myself looking at Ehrenreich as the guy trying to fill the shoes of one of the most iconic characters of all time and that was a big mistake. A mistake I fear too many fans are going to make. Allow me to explain.
When we were first introduced to Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, we met a young man who was foolish, brash and without the slightest clue about the the workings of the galaxy beyond Tattooine. Through the original trilogy we watched Luke transform from a scared, nervous moisture farmer to a confident Rebel hero and powerful Jedi Knight who took on Darth Vader and the Emperor. This transformation didn’t happen overnight. Luke’s trials and experiences during his adventures shaped him as an individual and slowly cultivated his personality into a man who barely resembles the young boy who left Tattooine all those years ago.
So why then would we expect Ehrenreich as a young Han Solo to resemble the Han Solo we first met in A New Hope? From what I’ve gathered this film takes place in 13 BBY and jumps ahead 3 years to 10 BBY. This gives Han 10 years before the Galactic Civil War begins — by comparison, Luke Skywalker became a completely different person in four years, which was roughly the length of time between the Battle of Yavin and the death of Emperor Palpatine. Han Solo didn’t simply wake up one day as the most famous smuggler in the galaxy, known for his swagger, confidence and skills. Solo slowly grew into that person over years of trials, adventures and experiences.
Please don’t mistake me; that’s not to say the character we all know and love doesn’t exist in this film. He’s here, just maybe not as you’re expecting him to be. There were wonderful moments where Ehrenreich naturally slipped in Han’s signature lean, exuding calm confidence with that legendary grin sitting on his face and it was like I was looking at Han Solo as a kid all over again: completely drawn to this character that gave off this aura of complete sureness about himself and his environment. It felt like Han was brought back to life, right there in front of me, and it gave me goosebumps.
Ehrenreich’s best moments were easily those where he didn’t have time to stop and think, he simply had to take action. One such moment was when he and Chewy were piloting the Falcon during a high speed chase with TIE-fighters, and man it was just quite simply freaking awesome. Seeing those two together again in the pilot seats had a smile plastered on my face and when Han told Chewy to punch it, it felt so right.
Next to Han my main concern was Chewbacca. You can’t have Han solo without Chewbacca; they’re brothers, fates forever intertwined. I’m happy to report that the dynamic between them couldn’t have been more natural. It felt organic. It felt right. Howard’s team nailed it.
Being an avid Star Wars geek and knowing Chewie’s Legends history, the introduction was along the lines of what I was expecting. For those without the benefit of that knowledge, it still worked as it was a great foundation for the relationship with Han to be built on. Something that I hadn’t expected whatsoever was seeing Han speak Shyriiwook, the wookie language. It was handled surprisingly well and was as hilarious as you’d imagine it to be.
Alongside Han and Chewy for the job they signed on for is the woman who holds Han Solo’s heart, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), the crew’s leader Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and the king of charisma himself, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).
Emilia Clarke is unsurprisingly wonderful. Qi’ra is arguably the character who faces the hardest choices in this story and Clarke excels in transforming her from a frightened street urchin to a sophisticated lieutenant in one of the most dangerous crime syndicates in the galaxy. Qi’ra intrigues us with the mystery surrounding her past and with the frightening destination her future holds. I have no doubt we haven’t seen the last of her character in the Star Wars franchise.
Everyone knew it would happen, so don’t act surprised when I tell you: Donald Glover more or less stole the show. There was never a single moment that I watched him in which I didn’t see him as Lando Calrissian. Every single time he was on screen you drank in his performance and every time he left you found yourself wanting more. Glover’s performance was absolutely brilliant, embodying the character with perfection and I’m still having trouble understanding why he didn’t get more screen time. Glover needs his own film as Lando. He earned it.
Woody Harrelson’s performance wasn’t Oscar worthy but it was certainly worth noting. He was essentially a pillar for the younger folks to stand on; this rock solid bridge that linked everyone together perfectly. Exactly what a great supporting actor should be.
Our main antagonist was Dryden Vos, played by Paul Bettany, and as expected he was good. Bettany’s character was a merciless yet sophisticated crime leader with a serious anger problem. Sort of like Tony Soprano and a Bond villain wrapped into one.
To be honest though, Dryden and the coaxium story was a big MacGuffin. I didn’t find myself ever really caring about the story. The plot was moved entirely by the characters and all the story did was allow us to dig into these characters, find out what makes them tick and what motivates them. That wouldn’t work in most films, that’s why you rarely see it happen. Thankfully in this instance it worked out great.
If you’ve ever read any of my film reviews you’ll know I have a strong hatred of how often CGI gets abused in film nowadays. It makes directors lazy (see the Hobbit trilogy) and strips significance away from characters and scenes that could otherwise be much more impactful. Thus I find myself quickly endeared to studios and directors that take the time to build proper costumes, sets and props.
I’m not insane — it’s a space opera, of course they’re going to have to use CGI. But you don’t need it for everything and man were the costumes, props and sets very well done in Solo. Tons of different species were represented and by and large they were all done in costume and make up. The prop department outdid themselves with the interior of the Falcon and seeing Han wielding his trusty DL-44 blaster was great. All that being said, when CGI was used it was fantastic. There’s a scene where TIE-fighters are chasing the Falcon through a particularly dangerous area of space near Kessel and it looks incredible.
I kept myself from having expectations of this film is because I didn’t want to be disappointed. Next to Luke Skywalker, Han Solo is probably my favorite character to come out of the Star Wars universe and Harrison Ford’s portrayal of him is impossible to live up to. No one will ever be able to recapture what Ford did with the character, so how could a film about the character be any good?
Ehrenreich’s Solo was a bit lacking in the confidence and scoundrel departments. He was a little too nice, a little too clean. But he still managed to bring that Han Solo magic to life and send goosebumps down my arm when he did it. Most importantly the relationship between him and Chewy was exactly what it needed to be: organic and authentic. I wouldn’t have accepted anything else.
I saw the film last night and it wasn’t until I started writing my review today that I realized this film works without even a mention of the Force, Jedis or Darth Vader. Sure, there are plenty of throwbacks that longtime Star Wars fans will catch and there’s a pretty incredible surprise waiting for you toward the end, but this is the first film in the franchise to operate without the Force.
Disney already showed to me with Rogue One that they can tell one-shot stories starring new characters in the Star Wars franchise. Solo: A Star Wars Story proves that they can tell new stories about characters that people love and care about. This wasn’t the blatant cash grab many had feared. This was an expansion of a beloved character with a careful hand. I hope this leads to more…
…Lando Calrissian and Qi’ra.