The Han Solo “origin” feature, Solo: A Star Wars Story, is smoothly directed by the reliable Hollywood hand Ron Howard and smoothly written by Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote, among many other things, the best of all the Star Wars movies, The Empire Strikes Back) and his son, Jonathan. Whatever the upheavals behind the scenes, what’s onscreen is just that — smooth. The movie is a good old-fashioned linear piece of storytelling, different in kind from the disjointed, multi-narrative spectacles of which Disney has made a specialty.
We follow the young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) as he escapes from a fascist planet, reluctantly leaving behind his love, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke); enlists with the army of the burgeoning Empire as a means of making money to retrieve Qi’ra; and falls in with a group of interplanetary thieves headed by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his gal pal, Val (Thandie Newton). The big, hairy wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) begins as Han’s antagonist, but comes aboard under dramatic circumstances. Later, to obtain a ship, the rejiggered team goes in search of the slick young gambler, Lando Calrissian, played by Donald Glover — who is having a big anti-fascist moment himself. The murderous villain isn’t a Darth Whatever but an elegant gangster named Dryden Vos, played by Paul Bettany in well-tailored monochromatic suits and with a face that looks to have been raked by talons — or a woman’s fingernails? He’d deserve it.
The creature designs are wittier than anything since the first Star Wars films, from the giant water-worm (I don’t know the exact species) with the voice of a Knight Who Says “Ni!” to the nightclub-singing duo of a fish and a black woman with some sort of giant, ringlike appurtenance where her mouth should be. One player at Lando’s card table has branches sticking out of his head with multiple eyes — which Han commands he keep on his own cards. Another has a mouth like a wood chipper that shreds the cards when he loses. It’s very funny. There’s a superb new robot creation — a bowlegged female named L3 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) with a navigational genius and complicated relationship with Lando. She loves him but convinces herself it will never work, a useful defense mechanism.
The production design is just as striking, with extraordinary wintry vistas, especially when a train carrying some sort of McGuffin (a powerful explosive) threads its way through the mountains as Han and Beckett attempt an aerial assault. The subsequent robbery is typically overcomplicated, but it’s not, at least, the usual hash — we always have our bearings. Nothing Howard does is dazzling, but nothing leaves you feeling cheated. It helps that when the Millennium Falcon makes its most dizzying maneuvers, John Williams’s familiar themes kick in. They’re Pavlovian at this point. We’d be stirred by whatever’s onscreen.
Apart from the opening scenes, Solo doesn’t expend much effort on the Empire, but it shows a fairly sophisticated view of how fascism works below the surface. For all the Empire propaganda, which promises to spread “peace and prosperity” (on pain of death) through the galaxy, what fuels the galactic economy is the black market. This isn’t a small point. It’s a form of oppression that’s overseen by gangsters of various levels and tacitly permitted — it distracts the populace from larger injustices — by the totalitarian state. More to the point, it’s how Beckett survives and how Han will make his living until he one day meets Luke and Obi-wan and becomes, like it or not, a soldier in the rebellion.
The performances are largely excellent. Harrelson’s Beckett is better and more lived-in than his Haymitch from the Hunger Games movies — he’s always striving to find new modes of weirdness. The only thing wrong with Thandie Newton’s performance is that there’s not enough of it. I’d watch her in anything. I’m not entirely sure about Emilia Clarke, but that mostly because Qi’ra — who comes back into the movie — is such an unknown quantity. With her overbite and natural dark hair rather than lavish blonde tresses, she does bear an uncanny resemblance to Felicity Jones in Rogue One — an eerie echo. Does she still love Han or is she playing an elaborate game? (Beckett counsels the young man to trust no one.) This is another one of those movies with four or five climactic twists, at least two of them overkill. Our movies are suffering from twistosis.
And Ehrenreich? He has obviously studied Harrison Ford’s wise-ass cadences and arrogant, gunslinger stride. He’s a lightweight, but you can project the older Han on him, which is more than half the battle. But there’s a problem with the character that suffuses the whole movie and makes it less than the sum of its parts.
From the start, Han makes it clear that he doesn’t take orders from anyone. He’s his own man — a loner, Dottie, a rebel. “Solo” isn’t even his birth name, it turns out, but one he earns. But he has a girlfriend he adores and a surrogate family. He bonds so quickly and firmly with Chewbacca that he’s hardly a Solo act at all — he’s Han Duo. He’s rarely even alone onscreen! With Qi’ra reminding him constantly that he has a heart of gold and a nagging sympathy for social-justice warriors, there’s no real dramatic tension. Maybe in the next Solo film — there will be another, sure as shootin’ — he’ll become the Bogart-like cynic we met at the start of this whole saga, but something is lost when a prequel negates a character’s essence so firmly. Solo: A Star Wars Story hits all its marks except the one it needed to hit most: accounting for one of pop culture’s most cantankerous charismatics.