Movie Reviews Star Wars

Solo: Better Than it Has Any Right to Be

I’ll be honest: I absolutely hated the idea of a Han Solo standalone film from the moment it was announced. I was fine with the idea of, say, Boba Fett getting his own movie, as many had speculated (and now seems to have been confirmed), because he’s a character with a lot of blanks to fill in. He had no real characterization, no story, and therefore nothing holding back writers in creating something unique to say about the character. Likewise, Rogue One dealt with similarly uncharted territory. But Han Solo? He’s one of the most developed characters of the Original Trilogy. In A New Hope alone, he has a complete character arch, going from a selfish, morally-ambiguous smuggler to a noble Rebel hero. How can a Solo standalone film work without retreading the same ground? I supposed that the likely route would be to show how he got so jaded and cocky, but I never really thought that would be all that interesting. I had no desire to see a young, bright-eyed, pre-smuggling days Han. Also, I could already guess pretty much exactly what the plot would entail: Han meets Chewie, gets the Falcon from Lando, and completes the Kessel Run. Everything in between is essentially just filler. And given how much drama took place behind the scenes of Solo, with original directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord being unceremoniously dropped from the project when it was already near completion, my hopes weren’t very high. If anything, I expected Solo to be an entertaining movie that I would see once, moderately enjoy it, and probably never see it again.

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Well, after seeing Solo last night, I can happily say that I was pleasantly surprised: Solo isn’t nearly the train wreck it could have been. It’s actually super enjoyable for the most part, and has a lot of fun with the characters and the universe. It’s hilarious at times, and had quite a few moments where I couldn’t help but smile like an idiot. I was most surprised by how much I ended up liking Alden Ehrenreich’s performance as the titular smuggler. While not looking too much like Harrison Ford, Ehrenreich absolutely nailed Ford’s mannerisms and general swagger, to the point where, in some scenes, I genuinely did start to see him as the real deal. Likewise, as you’ve probably heard a million times by now, Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian is borderline flawless. In his introductory scene, he sounds so much like Billy Dee Williams that I almost believed it was dubbed. Glover perfectly captures the charm and coolness of the original, while still injecting a bit of believable youth and naivety into the character. The supporting cast is also fantastic, with Emilia Clarke giving her most convincing performance in years, and Woody Harrelson, as usual, doing his best to play, well, Woody Harrelson (and doing a damn fine job at it, as always). Although he’s underused, Paul Bettany’s sinister Dryden Vos is equally entertaining, giving us a sophisticated, gleeful gangster who still manages to be legitimately intimidating.

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Of course, the film isn’t without its problems. Tonally, it’s a bit all over the place, sometimes trying to be a straight comedy, and others a serious war film. There’s one scene in particular, which depicts an Imperial assault on some planet somewhere, which makes Rogue One look tame by comparison. It’s actually pretty harrowing, which makes it all the more disorienting when the film immediately starts peppering the scene with jokes. If you disliked the humor in The Last Jedi, you’re probably going to have some problems with Solo as well. I would imagine the tonal shifts are probably the result of the change in direction partway through filming, although that’s no excuse. There’s some stuff early on that I definitely think are probably Lord and Miller’s, as it matches their particular brand of humor, while other, more sincere moments, are clearly Ron Howard’s. Overall, it makes the movie feel a bit disjointed, with certain moments feeling like they don’t belong.

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The biggest issue with the film, though, is that it never really seems to go anywhere. The plot just sort of meanders, without any real, compelling end point. The plot takes a back seat to the characters, which, when handled correctly, can actually be fairly compelling. Here, not so much. The plot hits every single point you’d expect from a Han Solo origin story, to the point where it almost feels like it’s going through a checklist (and believe me, it gets exhausting after a while to have every aspect of Han’s character explained outright, even his name). All the while, it’s hard to care about what’s actually going on. Sure, there’s an end goal, but it isn’t established until too far into the movie to really feel compelling. There’s also a main villain, but he doesn’t really do much. Unlike Krennic from Rogue One, who had a clear presence and impact on the story, Bettany’s character just sort of shows up from time to time, chews a bit of scenery, and disappears again. Even the final confrontation feels rushed and anticlimactic. In the same vein, I had a huge problem with Han’s arch in the film. Again, the Han we know and love is a cynical, somewhat jaded character, who isn’t really the hero type when we meet him in A New Hope. Ehrenreich’s version of the character never really gets there. Solo is supposed to be an origin story, yet we never see Han really become Han. He’s too good-hearted, too selfless, and overall a bit too heroic to be the scoundrel we know him to be. Ehrenreich does the best with what he’s given, but his Han Solo is ultimately held back by the writing.

And that leads me to what I suspect is going to be a big problem moving forward: This film is clearly meant to be the first in a series. Han’s arch is left intentionally incomplete, with room left to grow in future installments. I was under the impression that the Anthology films were meant to be one-time, standalone concepts, yet the end of Solo leaves quite a few loose ends, including the fantastically unexpected appearance of a character I won’t spoil here. It’s blatant sequel bait, which is disappointing, as I had hoped that these spin-offs could stand on their own merits, without turning into sagas of their own.

But despite its faults, Solo is still a great time at the movies. It’s got charm and a surprising amount of heart, and is entertaining enough that it’s easy to overlook its problems. It’s certainly not the greatest Star Wars film of all time, but it’s by no means the worst. Regardless of how unnecessary a Han Solo prequel ultimately is, Solo justifies its existence by simply being a lot of fun.

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