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After a year of behind the scenes drama that threatened to sink the project, Solo: A Star Wars Story has arrived in theaters. Famously, the directing duo of Lord and Miller were fired from Solo: A Star Wars Story following creative clashes with producer Kathleen Kennedy and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. Ron Howard was brought in to salvage the project and wound up reshooting most of the movie.
Nine out of ten times this would destroy any chance a movie had of being watchable. Thankfully, Solo: A Star Wars Story is the exception to the rule, a rare movie that survives behind the scenes drama to arrive in theaters in a competent and entertaining form. Ron Howard may not be a daring or adventurous filmmaker but he is a professional director with solid mainstream instincts and that’s really all Solo: A Star Wars needed.
So, where did Han Solo come from? That’s a question that the Star Wars franchise creator George Lucas and star Harrison Ford laid into the original trilogy. Each piece of the trilogy made mention of Han’s past and created the dramatic pieces that make up Solo: A Star Wars Story. How did Han Solo get his unusual name? How did he meet Chewbacca? How did he get the Millennium Falcon? And how did he become the best smuggler in the galaxy?
Each of these questions are answered in Solo: A Star Wars Story with actor Alden Ehrenreich taking up the role of the young Han Solo. Han was an orphan on the planet Corellia who worked as a small scale criminal for an alien crime boss. With his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), Han plans to steal some valuable fuel and use it as currency to buy their way to a new life.
Unfortunately, their plan goes awry and Han winds up joining the Empire in hopes of becoming a pilot. He winds up an infantryman and finds his only escape is via a return to his criminal path, joining with a con-artist smuggler named Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his band of criminals including Val (Thandie Newton) and Rio (the voice of Jon Favreau). They get him and a new friend of his, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), off the planet and on their way to a major action scene.
Along the way Han will meet Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and Lando’s co-pilot L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). Lando has the fastest ship in the galaxy and Han and company want to use it for a score that will allow Becket to retire and allow Han to reunite with Qi’ra for a happily ever after. Naturally, things don’t go as planned as the criminal Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) makes sure to thwart their plans.
Ron Howard is not known as an auteur, a director with a signature style. Howard’s work tends toward, safe, mainstream fluff and while that won’t create much lasting art, his approach is appropriate for a movie like Solo which doesn’t aspire to art but rather to spectacle. Star Wars and Han Solo may have a place in the zeitgeist, a corner of the culture but no one is mistaking anything in the Star Wars canon for genuine art.
Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story is exactly what it needs to be, a competent, well-crafted piece of adventure fiction. The special effects are terrific, the story flows with terrific pacing and well edited story beats. The characters are colorful and memorable with Donald Glover delivering a standout performance as Lando Calrissian and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s droid character stealing scenes in the same way Alan Tudyk did in Rogue One, a strong vocal comic vocal performance that takes on unexpected weight as the story unfolds.
The big question in Solo: A Star Wars Story surrounds star Alden Ehrenreich and whether he can fill the shoes of Harrison Ford and for the most part he’s successful. Ehrenreich has the smile and the swagger and while he doesn’t quite achieve the same level of charisma as Ford does he has plenty of time to grow into that kind of star power given that Solo: A Star Wars Story sets up potential avenues for sequels.
If Solo: A Star Wars Story struggles it’s likely its nature as an origin story/prequel which controls and constrains much of the narrative. The movie has a lot of bases to cover in what fans already know about Han Solo and it does so, even as it seems a tad strange to compact his momentous occasions, the Kessel Run, meeting Chewie, meeting Lando et al, into a very short period of time. Bases must be covered and fan imaginations of these events create a challenge in dramatizing them.
That said, getting these well-known adventures out of the way here opens the door to sequels that can stand apart from our nostalgia. Solo: A Star Wars Story accomplishes quite a task in overcoming the legend of Han Solo and building a foundation for new stories that perhaps aren’t already part of his lore filled with more of the wonderfully colorful characters played by people like Woody Harrelson and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
That may just be the real stand out Han Solo story and it makes me like Solo: A Star Wars Story so much more for the potential that Ron Howard and Lawrence Kasdan built into this story. Do I wonder what Lord & Miller might have done with this story? Maybe a little, the movie, as it is, is quite funny and I imagine they would have played that up but it’s difficult to imagine they would have delivered a movie any more compelling than what we get in Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is a terrific adventure with good characters, terrific action sequences and the ability to transcend our imagination of Han Solo, a character deeply ingrained in popular culture. It's greatest achievement is likely to be discovered in sequels where the character can become richer and his adventures even more indelible for not having been imagined yet.