Solo is the latest installment in the ever-expanding entertainment juggernaut that is Star Wars. The subtitle “A Star Wars Story” (also used for Rogue One in 2016) signifies that audiences should expect to narrow the scope to Han Solo’s backstory and that no one should be disappointed by a lack of Ewoks or Jedis (though few would complain about a lack of Jar Jars). The smaller scale works well in Solo, where the film’s main contribution is its exploration into the character’s complicated rebellious streak, vacillating between legitimacy and outlaw as the circumstances warrant, always following his moral compass.
There is a definite by-the-numbers feel to the film, and it’s not hard to see the screenwriters dutifully hitting all the notes and checking all the required Star Wars themed boxes to please old fans and win over new ones, striking a balance between nostalgia and bringing something new to the table. For those wanting to know how Solo and his Wookie buddy Chewbacca first met, that question is answered. The same goes for the origin of the Millennium Falcon, how Han was named(!), and a few other matters in the Star Wars canon. We meet Han’s first love, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), with whom he tries to escape a Dickensian existence on their home planet of Corellia. Lando Calarissian (Donald Glover) plays an important role in the proceedings, as does his bullheaded and beloved droid L3-37, who displays an unexpected and humorous social justice streak.
The film amiably borrows, both directly and indirectly, from a dozen sources including The Road Warrior, Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Great Train Robbery (I’m pretty sure I saw a reference to the early arcade game Asteroids as well). The special effects are quite good (a refreshing change of pace from Black Panther’s clunky CGI) and the creature effects are both familiar–the Mos Eisley Cantina was first seen over forty years ago, after all–and impressive (a giant centipede-like character will likely haunt me for a few more weeks).
Alden Ehrenreich capably conveys the swaggering, rakish charm that Harrison Ford imbued in the role decades ago, and Emilia Clarke (best known to audiences from Game of Thrones) is by turns a doe-eyed ingénue and a plucky kickass warrior with more depth than is apparent. Woody Harrelson and Paul Bettany show up in small but satisfying roles to round out the diverse cast. Ron Howard, who replaced the original directors well into production, does a fine job keeping the visuals interesting and the plot plodding along. The script is episodic, jumping from chase to chase and mini-quest to mini-quest with abandon, not giving the story time to really gel as a cohesive narrative. Despite a loud and clunky middle third, Solo is an enjoyable Grade-B popcorn muncher.