The story behind Solo: A Star Wars Story is arguably more dramatic than what ended up on screen. In the midst of shooting, producer Kathleen Kennedy fired directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street) reportedly because their improv-heavy approach which has resulted in lively comedies was ill-suited for a film dependent on intricate special effects.
I wasn’t there to witness either Lord and Miller or their replacement Ron Howard direct the movie, so I’ll have to settle for judging what made the final cut. As it stands, Solo is briskly paced, and screenwriters Jonathan Kasdan and his father, Lawrence — who was the primary writer on The Empire Strikes Back — create dozens of memorable characters and give them plenty of snappy things to say. Unlike series creator George Lucas, the Kasdans know better than to have Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) compare a woman he’s infatuated with to sand.
Curiously, the least interesting thing about the movie is the title character. Ehrenreich was terrific as a movie cowboy in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar!, but as everyone’s favorite nerf herder he’s trying too hard to fit into Harrison Ford’s sizable boots. By having Ehrenreich imitate Ford’s mannerisms with a blaster, Howard and company only remind viewers what an indelible impact Ford had in the role.
Thankfully, the Kasdans have created a deep bench of sleazy humans and aliens, which prevents Solo from becoming a two-hour impersonation of the previous actor’s performance. Set before 1977’s Star Wars (the one now called Episode IV — A New Hope), Han is something of an urchin who lives a Dickensian existence by stealing to survive. He and his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), hope their latest heist will finally get them away from the ship-building planet of Corellia.
Despite Han’s ability to hot-wire any conceivable vehicle, their escape falls through, so he winds up joining the Imperial military but soon grows weary of risking his life for its dubious cause. So Han worms his way into a band of smugglers led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). The older man and his gang score contraband for a crime lord named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Dryden offers anyone who fails him a, well, permanent severance package. So Han and Beckett come up with the novel ideal of finding crude hyperspace fuel (which is dangerous to transport) and refining it so that they can sell it at a steep markup.
Helping out in the venture is a suave, cape-loving gambler named Lando Calrissian (played with appropriate relish by Donald Glover), a sarcastic droid (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and, of course, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), the wookie, who’s only 190 years old at the time of this story.
The Kasdans go to great lengths to answer some long-standing questions about the Star Wars galaxy. In Solo, we actually learn how Lando and Han became frenemies and what making the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs means. Throughout Solo, there are plenty of deep cuts that you might not pick up on if you haven’t spent the last four decades exploring George Lucas’ galaxy. If you have, there are some small delights.
Still, one wonders what might have happened if Howard and company had focused more on Beckett’s exploits and dropped Han altogether. Because Han’s story has already been set in stone (or carbonite), we know he’ll get out of most of the obstacles presented here. If the story had been about Beckett or one of his associates, there’s a clean slate, so there’s more opportunity for suspense. Beckett wasn’t even in The Star Wars Holiday Special, so there’s plenty of room to create a fresh story around him, and Harrelson upstages Ehrenreich so often, he seems to win over the film by default.
Perhaps Harrelson could star in a between-the-scenes documentary about the messy production of Solo. But even the original Star Wars had a stressful creation — with Ford at one point reminding Lucas his dialogue was difficult to recite — so maybe it’s better to not know how the sausage gets made.
80 Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau, Linda Hunt, Ian Kenny, John Tui, Anna Francolini, Andrew Woodall, Warwick Davis Director: Ron Howard (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, uncredited)
Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/ violence
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Print Headline: So-so Solo; Alden Ehrenreich’s Han overshadowed by cast mates in tepid Star Wars story