In what might be a new record between rumor and official confirmation, Lucasfilm announced on June 22nd that Ron Howard would be taking over the directing duties on the (as yet still untitled) Han Solo Star Wars spin-off film. Howard takes over the director's chair from Lego Movie filmmakers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who left the production officially days earlier due to “creative differences.” With less than a year to go before the announced release date and months into production already, Howard certainly has his work cut out for him. What might we expect from his entry into the Star Wars canon?
A Strange Choice?
At first glance, Howard might seem an odd choice to be directing a Star Wars film. After all, he is better known for his work on more personal and down to earth films. 2001's A Beautiful Mind which starred Russell Crowe as the Nobel Prize winning mathematician John Nash is a prime example of that with its story of Nash's life including his struggle with mental illness. The film also won Howard his Academy Award for the best director, making it something of a career high mark.
Indeed the film is also one of a number of period dramas that Howard has made. These include 1992's Far And Away, 2003's Missing, and 2008's Frost/Nixon (the latter being based on Peter Morgan's award winning stage play). There's also comedy/dramas from earlier in his career including Gung Ho and Parenthood, both of which are about as far removed from Star Wars as one can imagine.
A Varied Career
Yet that is merely a surface glance at Howard's career. As a director, he has often gone for films that also present technical challenges to make as well as telling compelling stories. The 1984 film Splash with its underwater filming is an example of that, as is the 1991 film Backdraft about Chicago firefighters dealing with an outbreak of arson cases. Both films feature solid casts, filming in difficult environments, and sometimes compelling storytelling.
Perhaps the strongest example of that is his 1995 film Apollo 13 which told the story of the 1970 NASA mission that nearly went disastrously wrong. The film not only presented the real-life story with a cast that included Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton but also combined filming at real NASA locations including on board a plane to simulate weightlessness with special effects work including CGI and models. Despite the film's ending being a well documented fact, the film remains among the most successful of Howard's career both critical and at the box-office.
Howard has also made the occasional foray into genre film making as well. The aforementioned Splash saw him taking on a fantasy film, albeit one set in a (then) modern setting. His follow-up to Splash was the 1985 science fiction film Cocoon which saw a group of retirees encountering a group of extraterrestrials near their Florida retirement home. Cocoon in particular is a fine example of Howard combining personal dramas with unique storytelling.
The Lucas Connection
There's also Howard's past work with Lucasfilm and with Lucas himself. As an actor, Howard appeared in the 1973 film American Graffiti, Lucas' ode to his youth in the early 1960s. It was that highly profitable film whose success would eventual help Lucas make the original 1977 Star Wars film. Howard also returned for the sequel film that Lucas did not direct (Harrison Ford also appeared in both films and whose casting as Han Solo makes the choice of Howard as the spin-off film's director all the more ironic).
As a director, Howard worked with Lucas and the company on the fantasy film Willow. Released in 1988, Willow remains Howard's biggest leap into the fantasy genre with a proper sword and sorcery tale which starred Warwick Davis in the title role alongside a cast that included Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, and Jean Marsh. Though not a large box-office or critical success upon its initial cinema release, the film has become something of a cult classic in the nearly three decades that have followed.
An Opportune Moment?
The Han Solo film could also be a way of setting Howard's career back on track in a way as well. Several of Howard's recent films have been box-office flops including the 2011 comedy The Dilemma starring Vince Vaughn and Kevin James which also opened to scathing reviews. Worse came with 2015's In the Heart of the Sea, based on the non-fiction work by Nathaniel Philbrick about the loss of the whaler Essex which inspired the novel Moby Dick which failed to recoup its $100 million budget.
Even Howard's most successful recent films have had their issues. His most successful films financially has been the trilogy of Dan Brown adaptations starring Tom Hanks (The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons, and Inferno). All three films have received mixed to negative reviews despite their box-office successes with Inferno in particular being ill-received. So perhaps the Star Wars film could help buck both trends?
What Might We Expect?
So with all that in mind, what might we get from the film? As we've seen, he tends to favor works with strong characters and a sense of drama while also going for a sense of scale and drama. Howard has also worked on films that have needed considerable effects work and has shown that he is often capable of dealing with both admirably.
If last year's Rogue One was any indication, the anthology films are intended to both expand the Star Wars universe while also exploring the people inhabiting the universe. Early indications are that the Han Solo film is also intended to do exactly that. Indeed the Hollywood Reporter indicated that the reason for Lord and Miller parting the production was down to a disagreement over style and tone with the pair wanting to go for something more comedic in the style of their successful Lego Movie outings. It seems likely that, given Howard's track record, he may well be more in line with the vision originally laid out for the film.
Howard's take on Star Wars is, at the time of writing, largely speculative from the outside. Yet it seems a reasonable assumption that based on his previous track record, interest in characters and performances, and his ability to also work with effects, that he is more than capable of taking on the film that is set to expand upon the early years of one of the franchise's most iconic characters. With filming set to start up in early July followed by five weeks of re-shots, it may be a tight squeeze but not a terrible one. Rogue One underwent eleventh-hour re-shoots of it own that helped improve that film, so Howard taking over the film midway through production with the ability to film new material isn't unprecedented.
For now, I wish him luck. Howard is a capable filmmaker and, if nothing else, it might be a unique take on the Star Wars universe. So may the force be with him and we'll see how the film turns out next May.