A Brief Note: If you are like me and enjoy going into these films with as little information as possible, this review will only contain very early plot points and character names, though I will still try to be as vague as possible. If that is you, then it may be best to go see the film for yourself and then come right back to reading the review.
When “Solo: A Star Wars Story” was first announced, I was skeptical as to whether an origin story for the famed smuggler was something we truly needed in this space of anthology films. Was there anyone who could really imitate the outstanding work Harrison Ford did with bringing the character to life in the Original Trilogy and Episode VII? Flash forward to around the middle of last year, when we found out the director duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller had been replaced by Ron Howard, who went on to reshoot a good portion of the film. With the film’s first trailer shown only a mere three months before release, all of these factors left many fans puzzled as to what kind of product we would be left with once it was finally released.
I’m happy to share though, the film is simply a delight.
“Solo” finds itself situated around the halfway mark between Episode III and Episode IV, meaning we find the state of the galaxy under the oppressive rule of the Galactic Empire. The film follows the beginnings of the young hotshot Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), who struggles to thrive in the slums of Corellia along with his close friend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Once he makes it off-world, he soon meets Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and both are taken in by Beckett (Woody Harrelson), joining his crew to work a job for the crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Along the way, Han comes to meet the famed Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover); the current captain of the Millennium Falcon.
Likely the biggest concern to rest your mind at ease about, Ehrenreich steps into the big shoes of Han Solo quite well, not just matching Ford but leaving his own mark on the character as well. Never does his performance feel as though he is simply trying to imitate what Ford did, as his delivery feels fresh yet right at home as the famed smuggler. The quality of the writing also plays a role in how not only Ehrenreich thrives, but the rest of the cast as well. “Solo” was written by Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jon Kasdan, the former of which is no stranger to writing for iconic Harrison Ford roles. He made contributions to not only Episodes V, VI, and VII, but also worked on “Raiders of the Lost Ark” as well, so his presence in the script does not go unnoticed.
As far as building up Han to the character we see in Episode IV, I think the best comparison for this film is to take the introduction of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” and make it about a film’s length and set it on Han rather than Indy. Much like Alden, the late River Phoenix played a younger version of another iconic Harrison Ford character, this time Indy, and in about the first fifteen minutes of the film, there are a number of big character moments for who Indy would become. Things like how he gets the famous hat, why he is so afraid of snakes, and we see him use the whip for the first time. This is pretty similar to how “Solo” plays out in terms of qualities unique to Han, though they are put in smartly and never feel as though they detract from the plot, only enhance it like that intro to “The Last Crusade.”
The rest of the diverse cast deliver excellent performances as well, and I felt much more attached to this cast of characters than I felt I was able to in “Rogue One.” Harrelson unsurprisingly does a great job at playing the sort of mentor role to Han, setting him on a path in the “Star Wars” underworld to where we end up finding him in “A New Hope.” Continuing with the Disney tradition of casting British female leads in the new films, Emilia Clarke does stellar work as Qi’ra, someone who shows throughout the film she is more than capable of taking care of herself in this crime-ridden side of the galaxy. While he is not as present as I may have wanted, Bettany as the film’s antagonist also furthers the line of strong villains we have gotten from this new era, presenting a seemingly friendly yet unsettling crime boss. Beckett’s crew comprised of Val, played by Thandie Newton, and the four-armed Ardennian Rio Durant, voiced by Jon Favreau, both left me wanting to see more of their characters after their limited tenure in the film. Funnily enough, this isn’t Favreau’s first time voicing a character in the “Star Wars” galaxy, originally playing the leader of the Mandalorian terrorist group Death Watch as Pre Vizsla in “The Clone Wars” animated series.
Similar to Ehrenreich, the extremely talented Donald Glover comes into the role of the suave Lando Calrissian, originally played by the great Billy Dee Williams. Glover plays the role of the smoothest man in the galaxy perfectly, once again making the character his own but still following the cadence and poise set by Williams in the Original Trilogy. Phoebe Waller-Bridge plays Lando’s co-pilot droid L3-37, a sort of unique free spirit, which has not really been explored when it comes to droids. I was worried her role may have been an attempt to mimic the success of the blunt K-2SO from “Rogue One,” but without giving anything away, Waller-Bridge does a great job as a droid who holds interesting beliefs and plays well into her relationship with Lando.
It is something that I feel is often left out when discussing these films, but with Peter Mayhew now unable to continue on his role as the mighty Chewbacca due to health reasons, playing some scenes in “The Force Awakens,” Joonas Suotamo carries on the baton brilliantly. Besides the obvious need of height, Suotamo matches the standard of body language and mannerisms set by Mayhew to a tee. Conveying emotion in layers of fur and through growls is difficult to do, but Suotamo pulls it off well which is important for a film that is as much of Chewie’s as it is Han’s.
Despite the directorial shake-up, this feels very much like a Ron Howard film. Straight from the introduction involving some speeders, you can certainly see the influence taken from “American Graffiti,” a film Howard starred in and that was directed by the maker himself, George Lucas. Where “The Last Jedi” was a deep and polarizing film (which I personally loved), this is a much more lighthearted and fun film, one that brought a smile to my face on more than one occasion. That isn’t to say that it is without serious moments, but Lucasfilm realizes most are going into the film aware of what becomes of Han, Chewie, and Lando. While the humor does not always land in a few spots, it certainly feels at home in “Star Wars” when it works. The film takes an interesting approach in design, sticking to a particular color palette unique to each planet visited. It should come to no surprise based on past films that the movie features some gorgeous shots, blending together the practical locations and CGI very well, despite the smaller scope of the film.
The focus put on the underworld of the galaxy is one of my favorite parts of the film, something we get tastes of in Jabba’s Palace in “Return of the Jedi” or the Coruscant underbelly in “Attack of the Clones.” This is thanks to the nature of the anthology films and leaves me very excited for what is to come next. If there is one thing that I had to nitpick with the previous films in the Disney era, its the lack of familiar aliens among all of the amazing new creature designs we have gotten, but without getting specific, it is something that “Solo” helps to remedy. Given the film’s setting, the use of the Empire as a backdrop rather than an enemy like always works well and further provides that unique outlook we don’t often get to see.
One of the things I most enjoyed about the film is the numerous callbacks and sort of fan-service moments sprinkled about the film in reference to not just the OT, but also to the prequels, sequels, animated series, old Legend novels, and even one callback to probably the worst “Star Wars” video game of all-time. Of course, too much of this can feel heavy-handed, but the film handles them all in such a way that feels natural to the world that they are all a part of but cleverly hidden in sections as well. There is one major story-element, that if you have not seen the recent animated series yet, will likely leave you scratching your head. The moment itself fits in nicely story-wise and I applaud Lucasfilm for actually incorporating its stories outside the films like that, something the MCU has failed to do with its own series.
The score of the film was done by John Powell, though finally a theme was composed for Han by John Williams for use in the film, which works very well with the tone the film goes for. Much like Michael Giacchino with “Rogue One,” Powell introduces us to a new array of music which feels at home in “Star Wars,” while also incorporating some interludes from Williams masterful work on the main saga when the moment calls for it. My favorite piece is the one specific to the Enfys Nest and the Cloud Riders, an outlaw group encountered in the film, which incorporates tension through the use of its choir that gives off a bombastic feeling. We also get another piece, which I believe is sung in Huttese, to add to your “Star Wars” party playlist; going alongside the greats like the theme from Canto Bight or the classic Cantina band piece.
While it wasn’t something I thought I really wanted initially, “Solo” delivers on a great origin story for one of the sagas biggest characters. All of the cast fit well into their roles, with Ehrenreich and Glover stealing the spotlight as Han and Lando respectively. The way that “Rogue One” and “Solo” have further explored the galaxy’s lesser-known aspects leaves me very optimistic for the future of the anthology films, and this film certainly leaves the door open for more adventures in this part of space. Not having the burden of carrying on a saga-spanning plot certainly lends itself to these kinds of films, which especially shines through in “Solo.” I thoroughly enjoyed “Rogue One,” a film that goes from just fine to pure “Star Wars” bliss when the third act kicks in, where “Solo” on the other hand never quite reaches those extreme highs but is a much more consistently fun film from start to finish. Even while “Solo” may feel safer and more apt to tug on your nostalgia, Ron Howard balances those aspects with an excellent script from both Lawrence and Jon Kasdan, a great score from Powell and strong performances across the entire cast, all resulting in an outright fun “Star Wars” flick.
You can catch “Solo: A Star Wars Story” for yourself across all theaters now.