Movie Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

As has become my habit in the new Star Wars era, I went to see Solo: A Star Wars Story the morning after it opened. The big difference this year was that I had the lady friend along as well. Rather than write a spoiler-free review of the movie now, then one with spoilers later, I’ll cover them both. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want a lot of details about the fates of various characters or who ends up doing what to whom, you can skip that part when it comes up. I’m friendly that way.

Spoiler-Free Version

Solo is the second side story set in the Star Wars universe and features, oddly enough, the story of a younger Han Solo before he encountered the Skywalker offspring and found himself swooped up in the rebellion against the Galactic Empire. We get to see his first meeting with Chewbacca the Wookiee, his acquisition of the Millennium Falcon, and his early acquaintanceship with Lando Calrissian. None of those are spoilers if you’ve seen the commercials.

Alden Ehrenreich, as the lead character, had a huge act to follow; after all, Han Solo is the role that made Harrison Ford a major movie star. Ehrenreich had to recreate the raffish, hapless freighter pilot as a younger man, and more importantly look and act the part. He does a good job portraying Han, who tends to muddle his way through situations, sometimes with more confidence than is warranted. He even looks somewhat like Ford, right down to the little mannerisms like facial expressions and stance. However, his voice is nowhere near the original actor’s, which is somewhat distracting. So I’m splitting the difference: yes, he does a great job as Han Solo, but no, he is not and never will be Harrison Ford.

Another actor who was going to face a lot of fan scrutiny was Donald Glover, who plays the cool, suave, and morally ambiguous Lando Calrissian, originally portrayed by Billy Dee Williams. Unlike Ehrenreich, Glover is a better vocal match for Williams and does a better job with matching his vocal intonations. In appearance, he also does a fine job as “young Lando” and “young Billy Dee Williams.”

The actor running around in the Wookiee suit is a Finnish actor named Joonas Suotamo, who also played Chewbacca in The Last Jedi. His primary jobs, following from Peter Mayhew’s portrayal, were to be big and menacing, but also make the big furball lovable. The voice is the work of Ben Burtt’s inspired mix of bears and other Earth-creature vocalizations. The most obvious match Suotamo does to Mayhew’s work is Chewbacca’s caveman-like running style: arms near his sides, legs pumping furiously. Much of the rest of it is the costume.

The rest of the actors are a mix of knowns and unknowns–some depicting their human selves, some providing the voice and bodies for motion-capture aliens or robots (droids, in Star Wars parlance), including Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Weller-Bridge, and Paul Bettany. Of this cast of people new to the SW universe, Harrelson seems the best fit as a sort of criminal mentor to young Han Solo. Clarke is young Solo’s emotional connection, though her character takes an interesting turn. Newton is one of Harrelson’s gang. Weller-Bridge, a comedienne, provides the voice and much of the movement of a droid accompanying Lando Calrissian, and is a major milepost in droid characters, just as much as Anthony Daniels’ portrayal of C-3PO was. Bettany is perhaps the supreme bad guy of the film, and he comes across as more of a Bond villain than anything else.

The story itself is relatively straightforward: young Han is trying to make an independent life for himself and ends up falling in with a band of criminals who will eventually come to shape the scoundrel he would later become. An Entertainment Weekly publication indicated that the film tries to be a combination gangster, film-noir, and space adventure movie. I’d say it manages to do all of those to one degree or another. The action moves things along at a good clip–at times there is too much going on–and it’s otherwise fun. As with some of the Star Wars films, it’s better to just nod and go with the story as a friend of mine puts it, because logic isn’t always the series’ strong suit.

Visually, the film is, like Rogue One, quite a bit darker in terms of environments and color choices. Han Solo’s home world is a dark, industrial place more in keeping with a Batman film. The places the cast visits are often grim, gritty, and closer to the non-colorful areas of the color palette: browns, blacks, and greys. The costumes also have a gritty, dented edge to them, with even familiar droids, aliens, and others looking like they could use a good hosing down.

Oddly, one of the cleanest places in the film is the Millennium Falcon, which was in quite a different condition when owned by Lando Calrissian. That same Entertainment Weekly publication also noted that Donald Glover used to hang out in Lando’s room between takes. It’s that cool. The ship itself looks a bit different, with the distinctive gap-toothed nose being longer, smoother, and more elongated. Some other little details differ from the Falcon we see in the original trilogy, which fans will no doubt point out to you. However, the ship’s metal-cave interior and familiar engine whine are all there to be enjoyed for those of us who like technological nostalgia.

So the non-spoiler summary of Solo is that it’s a fun film, and gives the audience some interesting “origin” moments for one the original trilogy’s lead characters. I won’t start nitpicking until I pick up with the spoilers.

The Spoiler Version

I don’t know if this is a spoiler, per se, but the film started angling for a sequel in the last ten minutes, which means we could be seeing many of these actors/characters again in another spinoff movie. Fair warning: there will be betrayals, there will be character deaths, and there will be some inversions of the Star Wars mythos we’ve come to know.

It was interesting to me to see where the audience I was sitting with reacted most strongly to the film: there was applause the first time Solo takes the controls of the Falcon and the first time both Han and Chewbacca are at the controls. There was a collective gasp when the supreme bad guy behind the scenes is revealed toward the end of the film. It was not Darth Vader or Jabba the Hutt, as I’d expected, but Darth Maul, from Episode I, a villain who was sliced cleanly in half by a younger Obi-wan Kenobi. How that’s possible is a little beyond me, but he must have had one hell of a surgeon.

Being that this is a film noir-type of story, there are a lot of suspicious characters abounding in the story, to the point where you’re just wondering who is going to betray whom and which point. There aren’t a lot of “good guys” and “bad guys” in this film in the traditional sense, though we find ourselves relating to and rooting for Solo and Calrissian, if only because we know them from the previous films. Everyone else is subject to scrutiny. Trust nobody.

We get some good looks at Han Solo’s famous “Kessel run” exploit in the Falcon, as well as some hints about how the ship went from the clean machine Lando maintained and the “hunk of junk” it became later.

The sequence earlier in the film–where Han is fighting in the Imperial infantry–is gritty and, for the Star Wars universe, reasonably believable. It’s interesting to see Stormtroopers and other Imperial equipment covered with mud.

One gripe I had is that even at 2 hours, 15 minutes, toward the end the film experience started to feel long, perhaps because they were cramming in too much exposition as part of that whole sequel-setup thing. Again, there’s a lot going on in the story–plans within plans, as they say in the Dune movie–to the point where it can be difficult to keep track of who’s doing what.

Also, it took me a while to warm up to Ehrenreich’s Solo–again, this could be my Gen X attachment to Harrison Ford’s portrayal–but I also had a problem caring about several of the other principal characters as well. The story doesn’t really take off (so to speak) until we encounter Chewbacca.

I’d be curious to know what problems led Disney/Lucasfilm to go through two directors before they finally brought in Ron Howard to finish the production. The final result is a decent movie. Not awe-inspiring, not mind-blowing, but fun.

All this said, none of these gripes kept me from enjoying the film. However, there are enough gripes that I don’t think I’ll need to see it again until it comes out on DVD. Take that as you will, and may the force be with you.

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