SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY
**1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Ron Howard
STARS Alden Ehrenreich, Donald Glover
I first saw Star Wars upon its original release during the summer of ’77, when I was a mere lad of 11. There I was loving it loving it loving it — a spunky princess! a dashing hero! an imposing villain! – and, after nearly an hour, figured it couldn’t get any better. I was wrong.
At the 48-minute mark, in saunters Han Solo, and this wholesome entertainment found the rough-hewn edge it needed to truly kick it into overdrive. As superbly played by Harrison Ford, Solo was a rogue, a scoundrel, a mercenary, and a guy who — before George Lucas got wimpy with the Special Editions — had no problem shooting first. And until Lucas inexcusably regressed the character a tad in Return of the Jedi, Solo was a beautifully conceived and executed figure, and his initial appearance in Star Wars and subsequent maturation in The Empire Strikes Back marks him as the best character to ever set foot in a storyline that unfolded a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
For the vast majority of my life, Han Solo has been — along with Atticus Finch, Indiana Jones, James Bond, and a few others — one of my defining cinematic heroes, which is why it pains me to see the character’s iconic dimensions reduced so drastically and dramatically in Solo: A Star Wars Story. To be sure, the movie largely delivers on entertainment value, and while there are no specific moments that rank among the best in the franchise (even the much-maligned prequels had some formidable set-pieces), the picture is zippy enough to earn a modest recommendation. But while those folks who love all things Star Wars regardless of quality will adore it, those of us who grew up with the franchise since a young age and find it still rooted in our DNA deserved something better than what director Ron Howard and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Jonathan Kasdan deliver.
The biggest hurdle, of course, was finding an actor who could do both Han Solo and Harrison Ford justice. Stepping into such an iconic character created by such a popular actor is a daunting task for any young thespian, and Alden Ehrenreich probably does as well as just about anyone else who might have been cast (certainly, he’s a better choice than such auditionees as Miles Teller, Dave Franco, Scott Eastwood and Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Ehrenreich, so terrific in the Coens’ Hail, Caesar!, isn’t bad here, but he doesn't vanish into the character like Ewan McGregor did with Obi-Wan Kenobi. It was easy to see McGregor morph into Alec Guinness; it’s impossible to see Ehrenreich morph into Ford.
This isn’t entirely the actor’s fault, as the Kasdans have created a Solo who’s altogether too soft and sweet. “I’m not one of the good guys!” bellows Solo at one point, but that’s absolutely not true. Other characters, like Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, who does manage to create a bridge to Billy Dee Williams) and newbie Beckett (Woody Harrelson), are more Solo-esque than Solo himself, and while the idea is doubtless to toughen up the character in the next installment (Solo 2: Yet Another Star Wars Story), there needs to be a foundation in this film for such a development, and it’s woefully missing.
In addition to Beckett, other players new to the saga include the villainous Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, taking a break from his Vision quest), Solo’s childhood love Qi-ra (Emilia Clarke), Beckett’s sweetheart/sidekick Val (Thandie Newton, mostly wasted), and a pilot named Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau). These are acceptable characters, but the same can’t be said of Lando’s co-pilot, a droid known as L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge). Simply put, L3-37 is one of the worst characters to ever appear in a Star Wars film, perhaps ranking only under Jar Jar Binks, little Annie Skywalker, and Jabba the Hutt’s belching baby. L3-37 is supposed to be an activist droid who’s forever demanding equal rights, but she’s an ill-conceived embarrassment. Apparently, the Kasdans and Lucas were attempting to be woke to today’s progressive issues by clumsily interjecting this character, but the truth is that she instead comes across like a conservative's caricatured version of a feminist, complete with huge "hips" derived straight from the Rush Limbaugh playbook (cuz, you know, FemiNazis and all). Honestly, I'm surprised they didn't find a way to add hair to the robotic legs of this tone-deaf character.
The story proper – basically, a caper plot involving the theft of valuable coaxium fuel — offers little in the way of surprises and adds nothing to the saga’s mythology. It’s generic enough that, stripped of the sci-fi elements, Sandra Bullock and co. could have employed it for the upcoming Ocean’s film. Where Solo: A Star Wars Story mainly succeeds is in its ability to offer satisfying scenarios that loop back to stories we heard in the original films, from the initial meeting between Han and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) to the game that allowed Han to snatch the Millennium Falcon away from Lando. These sequences are infinitely amusing even if they’re ultimately unnecessary. After all, part of the mystique of Han Solo emanated from his lack of a backstory, and filling in the gaps diminishes rather than enhances his legacy. In retrospect, Sy Snootles: A Star Wars Story or Porkins: A Star Wars Story would have been more appreciated, thus leaving the larger-than-life character of Han Solo to remain unblemished in our memory banks from a long time ago.