In the same way that musical movies eventually become sing-alongs, I wouldn’t be surprised if the later theatrical run of “Solo: A Star Wars Story” included “Hey, I Recognize That!” screenings.
Audience members could be handed little hotel-desk bells that they could hit every time the movie lays out some bit of “Star Wars” lore. Han Solo meets Chewbacca for the first time? Ding! Discussion of the Kessel Run, complete with parsecs? Ding! Deep-cut reference to one of the Lando Calrissian novels? Ding ding ding!
“Solo” is less a movie than it’s that page in Highlights Magazine that makes you feel good for finding the chair and the bicycle in the hidden picture. As an intergalactic adventure, it’s mostly adequate, with some very successful elements, but if you stripped the “Star Wars” names and places and put it into the world as a free-standing sci-fi-action movie, it’s doubtful that it would spawn much excitement, let alone sequels.
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Yes, the film has had a somewhat tortured production history, with original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller getting shown the escape pod before Ron Howard came in and did a majority do-over. But the shortcomings of “Solo” are the shortcomings of most prequels: at least as far back as “Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies,” these tales have been the ultimate brand of fan service, showing us established characters meeting for the first time and offering mini origin stories for outfits, vehicles and catch-phrases. (I’m shocked “Solo” didn’t squeeze in a movie-star entrance for Han’s vest.)
Screenwriters Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan clearly relish the opportunity to write dialogue for swashbuckling renegades, but they’re also stuck doing a lot of retrofitting that goes nowhere. We don’t learn much about Han Solo’s background that fleshes out or deepens his character, but we sure do learn who gave him his last name.
When we meet young Han (Alden Ehrenreich), he’s one of many thieving orphans being exploited by the reptilian, Fagin-like Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). Han and his sweetheart Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) have a plan to run off together, but they’re separated at the airport, where he makes it through the gate and she doesn’t. Vowing to get a ship so that he can come back for her, Han volunteers for the Imperial armed forces.
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Three years later, he’s been kicked out of pilot training and stuck in the mud in one of the Empire’s many ongoing wars. But he sees a way out by hooking up with a team of thieves led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). Ditching the army to join their crew, Han sets off on a series of adventures that will reunite him with Qi’ra – now in the thrall of mobster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) – and introduce him to a helpful Wookiee named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and a rakish gambler named Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).
What works best in “Solo” are the performances, from droids voiced by Jon Favreau and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”) to the utterly charismatic Ehrenreich and Glover. Ehrenreich proved his old-school star quality with his daffy and charming performance in “Hail, Caesar!” and here he pulls off the daunting task of stepping in for Harrison Ford, masking the character’s commitment to seemingly lost causes with devil-may-care insouciance.
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The “Star Wars” movies always criminally underutilized Billy Dee Williams as Lando, but Glover sweeps this film off its feet as often as he can, swanning through it like the Cary Grant of Outer Space. These two are more than “Solo” deserves, since the action is routine when it’s not genuinely baffling, while the plotting is pure “go to the place and get the thing” filler.
This might also be the least epic “Star Wars” movie to date: The big set pieces either last too long (a heist on a suspended railroad) or lack narrative logic (the legendary Kessel Run), and the muted color scheme sucks the fun out of the proceedings. (Cinematographer Bradford Young’s palette pops only for Lando’s outfits and to visually convey the new-car-smell of the Millennium Falcon’s maiden voyage.)
“Solo” tells us nothing about these characters that we didn’t already learn from Episodes IV-VII — although hearing their names said aloud so frequently does raise the question of whether someone named “Han” should be Chinese and “Calrissian,” Armenian. While the movie ends in a way that’s clearly designed to prompt further sequels, we don’t get that prequel X factor that makes us interested in a character arc whose outcome we already know. “Better Call Saul” knows how to do this; “Solo” doesn’t.