The clumsily titled Solo: A Star Wars Story takes us all the way back to the origin of one Han Solo, the dashing and sardonic space smuggler made famous by Harrison Ford in 1977’s iconic Star Wars, since become one the biggest film franchises of all time.
After escaping the hellish industrial planet of his upbringing, Han falls in with a group of bandits headed by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and joins them on a heist. After a botched job they are forced down a more dangerous path to redeem themselves in the eyes of Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) and return with their cargo unscathed.
The story feels a bit procedural, tracking down and stealing another consignment of Coaxium (The McGuffin) so as to avoid death at the hands of a brutal crime boss doesn’t carry the same grandiose stakes as the rebellion against the Empire. The whole affair doesn’t seem a particularly revealing or deep investment into the mythos of the Star Wars universe and we learn very little about life outside Han Solo’s bubble. Amusing side characters are introduced only to be dispatched a few scenes later. Presumably we the audience are supposed to feel for their demise but sadly too little time is invested in them for any emotional attachment to set in.
Paul Bettany is back in his role of machiavellian Brit bad guy. It’s a sound casting choice and he puts in a good turn as Dryden Vos, the films main antagonist, but we’ve seen him in much more nuanced and interesting roles recently (track back to Unabomber) and he is basically interchangeable with any number of other space-faring gangsters in the canon. Alden Ehrenreich is believable as the younger, more wide-eyed Han Solo. He carries off the bluff roguish charm and devil-may-care attitude well. However, there are a few moments where you can see attempts to mimic mannerisms from Harrison Ford’s Han which don’t quite land, leaving you nostalgic for the original series. A similar fate which befell actor Sean Patrick Flannery in the origin films of another iconic Ford role, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.
Woody Harrelson puts in the best performance of the ensemble and has by far the most interesting character in Tobias Beckett, Han’s first underworld mentor. Donald Glover is clearly having a whale of a time playing Lando Calrissian but doesn’t get a great deal of screen time sadly. We could have seen more of his character and his evolving relationship with Han Solo, as he is a fairly pivotal supporting character from the original trilogy.
The action is frenetic and well choreographed as the film whips along at a breakneck speed – almost too fast, as towards the end allegiances can change fast. Look out for the stand out set piece in the first half – a nail biting hijacking of an over-under monorail through snowy mountains that gives Han his first taste of banditry. The film is an excellent example of the immersive successes of IMAX 3D which will put you right in the cockpit of the most iconic fictional spacecraft of all time. There is no denying that Solo is a fun thrill ride.
James Powells bombastic orchestral score doesn’t disappoint and fits in well amongst the rest of the franchise’s soundscape (John Williams contributes a theme for Solo, but Powell delivers the rest) and the grandiosity fits the space opera action like a comfy pair of leather gloves. However it doesn’t produce, on the first watch through at least, any particularly memorable music in the same way previous Star Wars films have. Nothing approaching “Duel of the Fates” from Episode I for iconic status. Still, when the brass section does finally blast out the main theme, the hairs on your arms will stand up and your midichlorians will shoot off the chart.
Solo: A Star Wars Story underwent some fairly public production hiccups, with original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller shunted off the project well into the shooting schedule where they were replaced by Ron “Safe Pair of Hands” Howard after creative differences with executives as LucasFilm. A disappointing domestic opening weekend in the US has seen Solo place as the lowest grossing of the Disney produced franchise, leaving the studio hoping to recoup is costs internationally.