Though Ehrenreich and Glover shine, Solo: A Star Wars Story could have been so much more.
The production troubles surrounding Solo: A Star Wars Story have been well-documented. If you have been trapped in a Sarlacc pit however, you might not be aware that its original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (the guys behind The Lego Movie and Jump Street series), were reportedly fired by Lucasfilm halfway through shooting as a result of “creative differences” on set, to be promptly replaced by the workmanlike figure of Ron Howard. A grey cloud has hung over Solo ever since, with further rumours of turmoil surrounding its young star Alden Ehrenreich – posed with the quite unenviable task of emulating one of cinema’s most iconic characters – and a last-minute advertising campaign seeing it become perhaps the most muted release of a Star Wars film ever. What has emerged is a fun, light adventure with a charismatic leading performance from Ehrenreich and swaggering support from Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian, but a safe, predictable story that offers few surprises and doesn’t entirely manage to justify this prequel’s reason for existence.
Solo sees a young Han, a petty thief with aspirations of being a pilot, join the ranks of a smuggler gang led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). Han needs a big score so that he can buy a ship of his own, longing to return to his dingy home planet Corellia to reunite with childhood friend and lover Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Han meets Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) in an introduction befitting of the two beloved characters, establishing their lifelong bond in an efficient, believable way, and the pair join Beckett on a heist under the employ of cold-blooded crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Along the way, the crew encounters Glover’s Lando and a whole host of your typical Star Wars droids and beasties, this spin-off sticking with the charming dedication to practical effects that has been a constant since Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm.
The cast is largely fantastic, with Ehrenreich in particular dispelling any questions over his ability. Whilst it’s impossible to match the ineffable charm of Harrison Ford, he gives it his best. The voice might not be quite there, but the mannerisms are close enough. You can just about believe Ehrenreich as a young Han, though it’s still hard to shake the image of Ford from the brain. Whether it’s a problem with the scripts, the production design, the casting, or even the shift from shooting on grainy film to high-definition digital formats, Star Wars has lost the sex factor of the original trilogy – not even Ehrenreich and Donald Glover can bring that back, sadly. With Lando, Glover switches intermittently from direct imitation of Billy Dee Williams to a more loose, relaxed style of performance. His impersonation is pitch-perfect, uncanny in how similar it sounds to Williams, so it’s slightly jarring when he eases up a bit. Nonetheless, Glover is so talented that he’s delightful in both modes. He rocks the cape, of which Lando has a whole beautiful wardrobe full.
Woody Harrelson is Woody Harrelson, the gruff, weathered character that he’s settled into well over the last decade. Yet, the verisimilitude of these films always seemed to take a hit when they cast such recognisable faces. The same could be applied to Emilia Clarke, who has never been able to convince outside of Game of Thrones. She’s certainly better here than she was in the woeful Terminator Genisys, but the inclusion of a heartfelt romance between Han and Qi’ra sits uneasily with the ‘once in a lifetime’ emotion of his relationship with Leia. Paul Bettany is fine in a run-of-the-mill villain role but, as with Lord and Miller, it’s hard not to think what might have been if Michael K. Williams had remained signed on.
Solo goes through all the familiar beats of the prequel, giving detail to almost every little nugget of Han’s backstory. The pacing is an issue. It’s somewhat preposterous how Han acquires so much that would later define his character – his best friend, his blaster, his ship – in such a short period of time. The action set-pieces are thrilling and visually-stimulating, but they feel like a good-looking distraction from a script that sees the need to explain a character who doesn’t really need explaining – and doesn’t even do it that well, his characterisation feeling wonky in comparison to the sleazeball we meet in A New Hope. It can’t be denied that Solo is a fun ride, but the freshness and originality that Lord and Miller may have brought to the table is sorely lacking. Whether this is a story that was necessary to tell, with the climax promising potential sequels, remains to be seen.
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), directed by Ron Howard, is distributed in the UK by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, certificate 12A.