I’m a film person who has never loved “Star Wars,” so I wasn’t looking forward to seeing “Solo,” especially considering that it’s just Disney’s latest cash grab. That being said, I was surprised to enjoy a majority of Han Solo’s (Alden Ehrenreich) origin story. A combination of semi-decent screenwriting and Ron Howard’s astute direction make this a “Star Wars” effort worth the time, but not the steep ticket price (well, most movies aren’t worth that).
“Solo” is cut from the same cloth as 2016’s “Rogue One” (Gareth Edwards), meaning that no one asked for it, yet it handles its themes with intelligence. In “Rogue One,” we were given a reason and timeline of events that led to the Death Star’s destruction, and it wrestled with dark themes of sacrifice and loss. “Solo” is admittedly a lighter journey, chronicling the beginnings of Han’s path to become the galaxy’s greatest pilot, but it still reveals the galaxy as a harsh world of competition and back-stabbers. People betray each other constantly in this film, but it doesn’t become a tired plot device just meant to move things along. The audience guesses along with the characters, wondering who will strike next in the grand game of deception. There is no better narrative backdrop for Han Solo.
The film’s atmosphere matches its thematic material, as most scenes take place in seedy hideaways and corrupt lairs. From the opening in Corellia, a planet besieged by poverty, to the robot-fighting club where Han meets Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) for the first time, “Solo” displays the sleazy locales of the “Star Wars” universe with incredible skill. Howard directs this very well as an action film, but his attention to detail is equally commendable; hard lighting and yellow tints drive home the point that these hidden places are part of a squalid underworld. Stark contrast is then appropriately made when we are shown Dryden’s (Paul Bettany) lair, where the rich flaunt their ridiculous costumes and odd forms of entertainment. The bizarre levels of excess are brief, so perhaps they cannot be dwelt upon as much as in a franchise like “The Hunger Games,” but the film is wise to make sure we at least notice.
Ehrenreich is a solid choice to play the young Han Solo, and though he doesn’t channel a young Harrison Ford, he happens to compare quite well to a contemporary Leonardo DiCaprio. His confidence, charm, and voice are all reminiscent qualities of the risk-taking actor, and I mean that as a high compliment. Ehrenreich has the talent and now the recognition to move on to more worthwhile projects.
Unfortunately, for such a dynamic cast, Ehrenreich is the only standout. I see some of the appeal behind Donald Glover, especially given his ability to be both a seasoned actor and successful singer/rapper (Childish Gambino), but he doesn’t steal any scenes here. Phoebe Waller-Bridge (sounding quite a lot like Tilda Swinton) provides the voice for the delightful droid L3, but her screen time is hardly enough for us to properly appreciate her. Woody Harrelson and Paul Bettany are both wonderful actors with plenty of notable titles under their belts, but neither of them are given the chance to expand here as characters. Bettany in particular can play a good villain, but like Waller-Bridge his screen time is not sufficient to show that.
What more can you do? “Solo” raked in disappointing box office numbers for its opening weekend (well, this is Disney and Hollywood, where $101 million is “disappointing”) and still hasn’t gained much traction with audiences. Several outlets have already said it, and I’ll say it with them: maybe it’s time for “Star Wars” to hang up the Millennium Falcon. I know it won’t happen, but the support and hype has to run out eventually. Though “Solo” is an entertaining flick and gives Ron Howard more prestigious credentials, it’s not cinematic gold. It certainly flies higher and takes more risks than both “The Force Awakens” (2015) and “The Last Jedi” (2017) though, which is an automatic plus in my book.
Summary: Fun, stylish, and not much else, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is everything it needs to be. It meets the bare minimum requirements and shows off Ron Howard’s exceptional talent behind the camera.