Last June, when directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord were replaced by Ron Howard on Solo: A Star Wars Story, many fans feared the worst. But the new movie isn’t just expertly paced and plotted, starring a talented young cast surrounded by savvy veterans, it’s everything you want from Star Wars: cool chases, exotic creatures, duels and acts of derring-do, and that’s just the opening hook.
When we first meet him, young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is a grifter on his home planet, Corellia. His partner in crime is Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), a mischievous vixen who can hold her own in a tussle, not unlike a certain princess whom Solo is destined to meet one day. Han and Qi’ra are violently separated at the end of act one, prompting him to enlist as a pilot for the Empire, intent on later rescuing her.
A few years later on the battlefront, Solo falls in with Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton), a grifting duo who hint at a future version of Solo and Qi’ra. Following a gripping train heist straight out of a classic Western, Beckett lands in debt to criminal mastermind Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), raked with pink facial scars, whose henchman (or henchwoman) happens to be Qi’ra.
The reunion between Solo and Qi’ra is celebrated with restrained emotion. If they don’t deliver to Dryden a significant amount of a valuable but volatile energy source called Coaxium, he will take it out of their hides.
A fast ship is needed for the mission, and one can be had in a card game with notorious huckster and ladies man Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). As a crew consisting of Solo, Qi’ra, Chewbacca, Calrissian and his ’bot, L3 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), board their ship, the audience gets a glimpse of the Millennium Falcon when it was new, which actually elicits a round of applause.
No telling what creative differences might have come between Miller and Lord versus screenwriters Jonathan Kasdan and his father, Lawrence (who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), but Howard, who was hired with mere weeks of production remaining, reportedly shot 70 percent of the movie, according to The Wall Street Journal. In the same report, an unnamed cast member noted Howard shot in an hour what Miller and Lord did in a full day, and that the latter meant to modernize the franchise while Howard, Kasdan and executive producer Kathleen Kennedy favored a retro feel.
We’ll never know what Miller and Lord may have come up with, but what we have is a franchise movie that works as a stand-alone in a way many sequels don’t anymore. Even better, the script avoids the confusing convoluted narratives so common to modern blockbusters by providing one simple objective: Get the Coaxium.
Streamlining the plot frees up time to explore characters and relationships. Solo, we learn, is a nickname stemming from the fact that he has no family. He almost becomes lunch for Chewbacca, a desperate captive when we meet him, but instead helps him escape and wins his trust in a world in which he’s been warned to trust no one. That advice comes from Solo’s role model, Beckett, a portrayal by Harrelson that ultimately feels like a variation on similar roles in War for the Planet of the Apes and The Hunger Games trilogy.
Rivals in fortune and love, Solo and Calrissian sow the seeds of the grudging friendship Lawrence Kasdan established in The Empire Strikes Back, with neither fully convinced the other has his back. Having a moment is Donald Glover, who double-tapped last week with a buzzed-about performance on Saturday Night Live followed by the release of his video “This Is America,” a candid commentary on racism. Like Ehrenreich, his performance here dovetails smoothly with that of his predecessor, in his case Billy Dee Williams. Also like Ehrenreich, Glover must tread the line between cocky and obnoxious, a challenge easily overcome by the charm of both. Unlike Ehrenreich, one scene finds Glover holding a dying droid in his hands, crying over a piece of metal, an unfair request of any actor.
Even in Ron Howard’s best work, like his Oscar-winning films A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13, he seldom delves into murky moral areas or grapples with larger questions. He’s a yeoman, and with Solo he does a yeoman’s job, keeping things moving at a measured pace through dramatic scenes and conjuring kinetic energy in the action sequences, which are shot and edited with concise and clear narrative progression.
Anchoring Solo is Alden Ehrenreich, who has compiled an outstanding résumé in his brief film career, working with legends like Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, the Coen brothers and Warren Beatty (2016’s Rules Don’t Apply). He demonstrates an uncanny ability, particularly in the early scenes, to capture the body language and phrasing of Ford not by impersonating him but by inhabiting the role, portraying a street-smart Romeo, romance being the last vestige of his youth as he transitions full-time into the outlaw life.
Fresh off her beloved portrayal of Game of Thrones' dragon mama Daenerys Targaryen, Emilia Clarke brings a girlish energy to the first act, hardening over time into the sleek shell of a survivor. One can only guess what Qi’ra endured at the hands of Dryden, and can assume she has only herself to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
While production designer Neil Lamont paints Planet Corellia as a brutalist deco urbanscape, his landscapes consist of mainly mountains and deserts, features that dominated his previous movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and, frankly, other entries in the series. It points to a sameness in studio cinema, imposed mainly by Disney but perpetuated by all, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Obviously fans are happy to keep revisiting the bellowing Wookiee and the warp-speed dashes through the wide beyond, and satisfying as it is, Solo gives them what they want: more of the same.