Director: Ron Howard.
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover
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“I love you.” “I know.” Han Solo’s line, one of the most iconic in movie history – and a character-defining piece of dialogue – came from Harrison Ford on the set of The Empire Strikes Back. That fact tells you all you need to know about Star Wars’ smuggling antihero – namely, that he’s intrinsically tied to Ford, who nailed the balance of confidence, selfishness and humour needed to make his rogue loveable but no less roguish. Asking anyone else to take on that persona is an impossible task, but in Solo: A Star Wars Story, Alden Ehrenreich pulls it off.
It’s fitting that he should do so just as we watch Han also working out who he is. We first meet him as a plucky kid on a mining planet where inequality has left him scrabbling in the dirt alongside Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). They run small jobs for a sinister back-alley criminal – think Oliver Twist in Space – but when they get their hands on some valuable energy, they use it to bribe their way onto a ship, and flee to the stars without turning back.
Except Han does look back, because Qi’ra ends up staying behind, and he promises to return to get her. It’s a suitably melancholic hook for a protagonist whose sweet appeal has always stemmed from being slightly sour. But Han has never been a doomed relationship kind of guy: he’s got too many other romances going on. There’s the simmering attraction between man and Millennium Falcon, outlaw and Wookie, gun-toter and cape-wearer, pilot and freedom. It’s no wonder that the bond between him and Qi’ra takes a back seat.
That, however, means Solo struggles to find its (hyper) drive; there’s no real through-line for his journey here, apart from having to mention all the above things fans already know and love from his future escapades. It’s a voyage into the known, a box-ticking exercise that’s driven not by character but by fan-pleasing references – the opposite, in many ways, to The Last Jedi. From the introduction of Chewbacca to Han winning the Millennium Falcon in a card game, the necessary plot points render the whole thing oddly unnecessary.
That means we end up with Han hopping between genres every few scenes, from a war movie (his brief stint in the Imperial Army) to a Western (a train robbery for more mining fuel) and a crime drama (encountering Paul Bettany’s crime boss Dryden Vos in a seedy bar). Fortunately, Ron Howard (who has proven his ability to bring pace to even the stodgiest of material with The Da Vinci Game) is a safe pair of hands and nimbly skips between each set piece, shuttling us along this on-rails experience with energy and excitement; the heist sequence is brilliantly executed, while the obligatory sequence involving the Kessel Run (made in less than 12 parsecs) echoes The Empire Strikes Back with some gorgeous visuals. The fact that it does all this while still finding a way to explain away that parsecs are a unit of distance, not time, is even more impressive.
By the time we get to our finale, though, the script by Jonathan Kasdan and Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan struggles to find any real sense of climax. That, instead, comes slightly earlier, thanks to the appearance of Lando Calrissian, played with scene-stealing suave by Donald Glover. Poking fun at his vain love of his capes, as well as his arrogance at the gambling table, he’s a rascal that gives Ehrenreich something to play off, and their friendship becomes one of the cornerstones of the whole project – it’s telling that they’re the ones who get to nod towards Han’s famous exchange with Princess Leia, not Han and Qi’ra. When our dynamic duo are together with Chewie, Solo lights up with movie magic. The presence of Phoebe Waller-Bridge as a sarcastic droid, L3-37, only steps up the charm, as she passionately fights for robot/human equality amid the calamity. Her loyal service, and bitter smarts, only emphasise just how underused Emilia Clarke and Thandie Newton are in their wasted supporting roles – apparently, on the spreadsheet of prequel requirements, female characters were disappointingly far down the list.
For better or worse, though, that’s not the primary yardstick by which Solo: A Star Wars Story will be measured. Ehrenreich was always the biggest hurdle facing Ron Howard’s sequel – even as the Da Vinci Code director was parachuted in by Lucasfilm to replace 21 Jump Street’s Lord and Miller, the main question was whether the young star could successfully step into Solo’s shoes. After some shaky first steps, Ehrenreich begins to walk in them, then run in them, then strut across the screen in style. Howard keeps the lighting just low enough to make you double-take at Alden’s physical similarities multiple times, but once he starts breaking out Ford’s mischievous grin, you really get a feel for how he’s making the idea of a youthful Han his own. If only the same could be said for the whole film. This is Star Wars at its most inessential, but Han Solo is never less than entertaining.