Ron Howard is a welcome director to the “Star Wars” universe. His experience of growing up in the business with a pioneering filmmaker like George Lucas (“American Grafitti,” and later “Willow”) is seen in nearly all of his films from “Cocoon” to “Apollo 13” where characters are given moments to imagine an even greater fate or destiny for themselves. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is another example of that quality. It’s only better because the film is adapted from a script from Jonathan Kasdan and his legendary father, Lawrence (“Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” “The Empire Strikes Back”).
With the film set after the events of the prequel trilogy and long before the original trilogy that begins with “A New Hope,” “Solo” offers a side story of the famed smuggler and scoundrel and how he came to be everyone’s favorite space pirate. Alden Ehrenreich portrays a younger version of the title character. He’s fine in the role while never attempting to impersonate Harrison Ford, and it’s better and safer that way.
Han Solo has dreams of becoming a fighter pilot and after serving in the Imperial army he realizes a better opportunity is to saddle up with a hired thief named Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his merry band (Thandie Newton, Jon Favreau). Beckett is the narrative instrument who gives Han the swagger and overconfidence that developed the lovable outlaw.
Han also has a questionable love interest named Qi’ra, played wonderfully by Emilia Clarke. Clarke plays the glamorous role with a sense of adventure but also with a dubious way about her. She’s certainly not noble like Princess Leia. However her story with Han will end up you’ll be satisfied in one way or another. She could make an effective traitor or ally. What’s best is not knowing how it all plays out for her.
Naturally, Han comes in contact with his trusty partner Chewbacca the furry Wookie, and another scoundrel, the enterprising Lando Calrissian (a perfectly cast Donald Glover when compared with Billy Dee Williams). Lando is hired to pilot his ship, the Millennium Falcon when Han, Beckett and Qi’ra agree to smuggle a rare, expensive and illegal fuel called Coaxium (your MaGuffin of the film) for a sophisticated and scarred gangster named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, another well cast role). It’s not wise for the gang to upset Dryden though.
This “Star Wars” story works because it introduces newly unexplored material within its vast universe. The Kasdans take on an old west approach complete with card games, saloons, cliffhangers and and gun draws. A favorite sequence is a great train robbery alongside a snow covered mountain. The sci fi layer to this western theme is really terrific. The track is miles up in the air, parallel to the mountain. The train is double deckered with a car on top of the track, while another car is careening below the track. On curves, the train slants to a steep side making the robbery all the more challenging. I loved it.
All the performances are fine. Unless, you’re an unforgiving and nit picky “Star Wars” purist, there’s nothing to complain about with this film. Eherenreich has good chemistry with the more familiar supporting cast.
Technically, my one issue falls in the cinematography from Bradford Young. The film is way too murky at times. The winter scenes or other moments in desert sun are either too dim or too glaring. Cavern settings are too dark. So there’s a challenge with catching some of the cast’s facial expressions or action. I was surprised by that actually. All other “Star Wars” entries offer a bright clear picture whether its with a Dark Lord of the Sith or on a swampy planet. Bradford Young was not consistent with what came before. The CGI is fine, but the gloss of the picture is almost too absent and a little dull.
The Kasdans opted for a surprise, twisty appearance at the end of the film. As a die hard fan of the franchise, it’s not a route I would have taken as it appears to require some knowledge of the expanded universe contained in television animated series. I think this was reaching too far. Still, because it appears at the end and serves no plot point, it doesn’t weigh down the film. Obviously, it’s a moment to open up sequel potential.
However, and sadly, from periodicals I have read, the possibility of continuing the adventures of a young Han Solo seem nil. As much money as this film made, Disney was disappointed in the returns. I wish it didn’t come to that. If anything, George Lucas demonstrated long ago how dimensional his galaxy that’s far, far away truly is.
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” is the first film in the franchise to not recognize Jedi Knights or the Sith or the Force. There’s not one lightsaber. Plenty of blasters though. It stands on its own as a swashbuckling pirate western in space. What this cast, with Ron Howard’s direction and the script penned by Kasdans accomplished is that there is so much to be explored in the “Star Wars” universe. This is a storyline that I can only dream would continue on.