Note: I believe I’ve seen the Mario Van Peebles version, but I don’t remember it at all, so I won’t be able to make a comparison.
SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY is the movie about Han Solo when he was a little younger than in STAR WARS. This is a generalization, but I’m gonna go ahead and say that no one in their right mind wanted to see a movie about young Han Solo. The only exception is George Lucas, who actually had Lawrence Kasdan writing this before he sold everything to Disney. I’m guessing it was his idea of what the fans who hated his prequels wanted to see.
The trouble is that if there was one Star Wars character who would be the MOST difficult to recast, it would definitely be Han Solo. This is a character that’s all about the specific charisma of Harrison Ford. If Kurt Russell or somebody had gotten the part then it might’ve still been a cool character, but it would not be the same. And you can’t re-create that. You can’t reverse engineer it.
So, with that in mind Alden Ehrenreich (the funny cowboy actor from HAIL, CAESAR!) has done as good a job as one could hope in an impossible task. He only looks a little like him and only sounds a little like him, but he gets some of his mannerisms, some of his attitude, some of his charm without ever seeming like he’s doing an impersonation. (If there’s one area in which it’s an uncanny reproduction I’d say it’s in his gun poses, which always look ready for a promotional poster.)
According to my calculations, Ehrenreich is about 7 years younger than Ford was when he was in STAR WARS. So it’s kinda weird because there’s not that huge of a difference between 28 and 35. But oh well, I’m willing to go with it. I knew this wouldn’t hit me like THE LAST JEDI did, and as “A Star Wars Story” it doesn’t need to. Not being an official chapter in an ongoing saga, these side adventures have less weight but also license to just be breezy and fun within this world Lucas created that we enjoy. And at that humble task SOLO is pretty successful.
The story begins on the streets of (and in the literal underground of) Corellia, where young Han is in the middle of a scheme to bust him and his girlfriend Qi’ira (Emilia Clark, from TERMINATOR GENISYS I’m afraid) out of their space-Dickensian existence doing petty crime for a giant caterpillar with the excellent name Lady Proxima and the perfectly alien voice of Linda Hunt (POPEYE, DUNE, KINDERGARTEN COP). There’s smart-assery, high-speed thrills, comic overconfidence and emotion as the two make a run through this populous area where regular people are desperate and gangsters seem to operate with impunity right under the noses of Stormtroopers.
Note: I think there’s an homage to the original Star Tours when Han drives a speeder through a shipyard and workers are trying to get out of the way – it’s a very similar shot at least. (If the nearby spaceport has any Star Tours ships in it or anything I missed it.)
Only Han gets away. Like so many kids trying to find a way to make some money after a hard life, he joins the Empire. He doesn’t get to fly and he sucks at taking orders, especially when he knows they’re full of shit, so he ditches and falls in with a gang of criminals led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, NATURAL BORN KILLERS). And the whole time he’s just trying to get enough money to buy a ship and fly back to look for Q’ira, kinda like how Joel Edgerton in JANE GOT A GUN was fighting the civil war just trying to get back home to Natalie Portman.
I was hoping Kasdan (writing with his son Jonathan) would make this kind of like SILVERADO, and fittingly SOLO does have more western tropes than any other Star War. There’s at least one HIGH NOON through-the-legs shot, he calls himself an outlaw, he’s involved in a train heist, there are quick draw shootouts, he makes a friend in a jail cell and they have to escape chained together, there are card games, there’s a rival gang that tries to get in on their scores, he’s a war deserter, and I’m gonna go ahead and consider the Beckett gang wearing military uniforms in a war zone while after a score to be a reference to THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, even if the battle is much more WWI than Civil War.
The spectacle is well executed and imaginative, with a good amount of unusual vehicles and settings. The worlds build on previous STAR WARSes without feeling like rehashes, and by the time they end up on a pretty standard desert planet you’re ready for a good western style showdown so it doesn’t really matter that we’ve already had two of these places.
It does a good job of that very Star Wars thing of having characters that you just get a little taste of, enough to capture the imagination while retaining mystery. My favorites of this type in SOLO are Lady Proxima and the gang leader Enfys Nest, who wears scary armor sort of reminiscent of Sand People style (and maybe even a little Rammellzee!). You sometimes hear people complaining that there’s not enough of a character like Darth Maul or Boba Fett but I think that’s a complete misunderstanding of this particular storytelling technique. If you got what you’re asking for you wouldn’t like the character as much anymore.
But actually I would be open to arguments that we could use more of Val (Thandie Newton, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2), who makes an impression in her relatively brief screen time as a badass heister with a haircut that reminds me of Huey Newton with his beret on.
Developed or not, Star Warses need a colorful cast of side characters. Here there’s a short, four-armed alien in the gang called Rio, voiced by Jon Favreau. I like his design, but I don’t like how his dialogue references mostly previously established Star Wars things like mynocks and that he knows what Wookiees are or that he pronounces it woo-key as in John-Woo-key, but I especially don’t like that he just sounds like a disembodied cartoon character voice, unlike so many of the other aliens and droids. On the other hand I don’t so much like the design of the rebellious droid L3 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Broadchurch), but she has some funny dialogue.
Of course we also have Han’s first encounters with returning-but-recast beloved sidekicks Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, THE LAST JEDI) and Lando (Donald Glover, MAGIC MIKE XXL). They both have several fun scenes but probly don’t fulfill the maximum potential of their characters. I like that Chewie acts like a vicious monster before he trusts Han, and seeing them develop a bond that’s more of a mutual respect than the “life debt” we’ve always been told it was. Some of his best scenes are arguably hampered by his fur being wet. It’s like when you see a dog after a bath and they’re much skinnier than you realized and it just looks weird.
Do you guys think it would be cool if Chewie kept fondling a treasured locket throughout the movie and finally Han asks him about it and he shows him and it’s a photo of Yoda riding on his back from that scene in REVENGE OF THE SITH
I agree with the current conventional wisdom that Glover is something of a genius – his show Atlanta is by far my favorite thing on TV – but in my opinion Lando is not his best work. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy his arrogance and cape collection and occasional bickering with Han, but it comes off as more of an imitation and joke than the natural smoothness of Billy Dee Williams or of Glover at his best.
The prequely shit is mostly reasonable. Maybe I’m dumb that I always thought the Kessel Run was a race, but I like that it’s not what I expected. It doesn’t overexplain Han, because we still know nothing about his family and now know that they’re not even named Solo because he got a new last name just like Luke Skywalker did. (Not the Jedi from Tatooine – the rapper from 2 Live Crew.) So in that sense we know less than before. Good.
The only thing that did bother me a little as far as it being a prequel is the possibility that what we’re seeing here is supposed to be the “What you pulled” that Lando refers to when he first sees Han in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, in which case their relationship goes by too fast. They don’t have time to be Butch and Sundance or Riggs and Murtaugh in this, and I’d I prefer to think they had a bunch of shenanigans and debauchery together before it went south. Similarly, where Han and Chewie are headed in the end could imply that it’s not very long before STAR WARS happens and if so he would really only be a beginning smuggler and he and Chewie wouldn’t be old friends, they’d be just getting to know each other. But there’s reason to believe there are still some years between the movies (evidence of that interpretation in the spoilery nerd shit section below).
Oh yeah, and I didn’t really like that (SMALL SPOILER) Beckett wears Lando’s disguise from Jabba’s Palace. Didn’t that seem specific to the people who hung out with Jabba? But I guess it makes sense that that’s Lando’s go-to disguise that he keeps in his wardrobe. I noticed that he had sort of the space equivalent of a Hawaiian shirt in there, and then he wears it at the end. Is this the first patterned fabric in Star Wars, other than stripes and shit?
I have to wonder if the comical Lando is a remnant of original directors Chris Miller & Phil Lord (21 JUMP STREET, THE LEGO® MOVIE), who were fired after several months of filming, reportedly because Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy and the senior Kasdan didn’t like the comedic tone and off-script dialogue they were coming up with. It is genuinely weird that the new Lucasfilm has so far replaced directors on as many films as they’ve completed (BOBA FETT, ROGUE ONE, SOLO and EPISODE IX all had replacement directors). They obviously need to find a more efficient way of judging who’s on the same page with them.
In this case they went to an old friend, Ron Howard, who I have sometimes considered to be a hack and a square. That would be a good explanation for why he could come in on short notice and reshoot approximatedly 70% of an almost complete movie using the already-prepared script and designs. That’s the negative way of looking at it. But I actually always looked at it in the positive way: maybe some seasoned directors with old school storytelling chops can still do the best Star Wars, or are more compatible with a Kasdan space western script. This is the director of WILLOW, he collaborated closely with the actual Lucas, learned lessons from him, made the most STAR WARSy non STAR WARS film. (Bonus points for working with Lucas as an actor.) And I gotta give him credit for APOLLO 13 and RUSH – he can be a good director. (I haven’t seen his western THE MISSING, but have heard good things.)
So here we have the child actor turned director of GRAND THEFT AUTO opening his movie with the young version of his AMERICAN GRAFFITI/MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI co-star committing grand theft speeder in a fantasy world as detailed as the one in WILLOW. I particularly thought of that movie in the great early sequences of underworld thugs chasing Han with attack-dog-like monsters. I wouldn’t try to justify how things went down, but I do think Howard did well, and I don’t think I would’ve preferred the comedy version.
Lucas famously connected his stories using the characters of R2D2 and C3PO, and this is the first theatrical Star Wars that doesn’t do that. So – I mean this in a positive way – it feels kind of like a much better version of an EWOK ADVENTURE. A fun little tale on the side, nothing big. You know, a Star Wars story. Their first attempt at that, ROGUE ONE, definitely did more new things with the world stylistically and tonally, but I find SOLO much more satisfying – it has the captivating leads, pacing and coherence that one lacked. Also, I’ll just admit it, I can admire a STAR WARS where everybody fucking dies, but maybe I prefer one where we get to smile at the end (and through most of it).
I can’t pretend this isn’t a part of the watering down and spreading thin of STAR WARS. I not only preferred this series as the idiosyncratic vision of Lucas, but as a genuinely special theatrical event that involved years of anticipation and technological advancement. Unless they can make them all as good as THE LAST JEDI I think having a new one every year is gonna get old fast. But for now I’m enjoying them.
APPENDIX A: SPOILERY NERD SHIT – READ AFTER MOVIE ONLY
Matt Lynch told me there was a cameo that he thought was really stupid but that I would like it. I was really, really hoping it would be Chewbacca’s family from the notorious 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. It seemed possible. I do think they have an intentional nod to the possibility of them existing when Han is not sure whether to translate the people Chewie is searching for as his “tribe” or his “family.”
But of course Matt was referring to the appearance by Maul, formerly Darth Maul, now with robot legs. I do my research so I know his survival was already established in the Clone Wars cartoon series (and here Ray Park [ACCIDENT MAN] is dubbed with the cartoon’s Sam Witwer instead of PHANTOM MENACE‘s Peter Serafinowicz). The Maul cameo is my evidence that there’s still a big gap between SOLO and STAR WARS. He’s the leader of this criminal syndicate, which according to the timeline of the cartoons (considered Gospel to corporate canonists) has to be at least a few years before his appearance on Star Wars: Rebels, which takes place when Leia and Luke are still youths.
When Han did not win the Millennium Falcon in the sabaac game I thought that was a nice trick, that they were making us think “yeah, okay, this is the famously referred to incident” and then nope, still leave it to our imagination. But of course they were just saving that for the end. I gave them too much credit.
My friend joked that she wanted them to explain the origin of Han’s vest, and I realized it could’ve been when Chewie ripped that guy’s arms off and Han had been planning to steal his uniform. It was right there! (Shout out to Brian Collins, who had the same thought.)
I figured they would do something like that scene where Han just shoots Beckett in the middle of his speech. They gotta tip their hat to all the people who are so hung up on Han shooting Greedo in cold blood (as most interpreted the original theatrical cut) rather than in self defense (as Lucas made clear in the re-worked Special Edition). But even if I predicted it it’s a good character moment and a good laugh. And now if we stick with Lucas’s version (since it’s the only way STAR WARS is officially available) maybe it could be interpreted as a sign of Han’s softening toward his destiny as “the good guy” Qi’ra told him he was that he waits for Greedo to make a move rather than straight up murdering a peer and colleague who’s just doing his job in an act of petty but crowd-pleasing cowardice and moral failure.
APPENDIX B: SPOILERY SUBTEXT SHIT – MY INTERPRETATION OF THE SECRET MORAL OF SOLO
I’ve been talking about this like it’s an all-surface-level movie, but I do have a subtextual reading. I’m not sure this is intended by the Kasdans, but I like it either way. Okay, so we have all run into these people, more on the internet than in real life, who talk about “SJWs” and shit, who are upset that Disney’s Star Wars movies have done a good job of having more and better roles for women and for black and Asian actors, and that THE LAST JEDI ended on a note reminding them that the series has always been about the downtrodden, the orphan farm boys and slaves and refugees and indigenous tribes who rise up against oppression and find adventure and friendship and celebrate the love. Which they’re against.
Well, I think SOLO can be read as a friendly invite to some of the people who feel a certain way about Star Wars and real life. It all hinges on SPOILER a last act plot twist so seriously, don’t read this before the movie.
I haven’t read other reviews yet, so I don’t know if everybody else already sees it this way, but I’m talking about Enfys Nest and her gang of Cloud Riders that Beckett calls “marauders” who are out to steal all their scores out from under them. Eventually of course they are revealed to actually be a cell of early rebels,
formerly led by Val and now by her daughter. The diversity of the group is emphasized, with their mixed race leader and the others said to be from all different worlds brutalized by Crimson Dawn and the Empire.
They’re not marauders. They’re not trying to steal what’s yours. You’re just both trying to get the same thing, and they have a good reason for it. They are rising up against the criminals and the government who are hurting people and stealing the resources that belong to everyone.
Enfys sees that Han is a good person and invites him in. She says they are “allies.” You see yourself as a scoundrel outlaw, you think it’s cool to be selfish, you had a hard life and you think you lifted yourself up by your bootstraps. Yeah, no shit, so did they! You could be one of them! Do you really want to be out here living the philosophy of the very asshole who screwed you over and then tried to give you a speech about why it was justified? Do you really want to be Woody Harrelson dying in the desert telling yourself “Yep, can’t trust anybody, I was right, I sure told ’em”? Or do you want to be the good guy that Qi’ra says you are and do what you know is right (and also have cool friends and go on adventures and make it to that Ewok celebration)?
These people think Star Wars is telling them “fuck you, whitey,” but it’s really saying, “Come on dude, get in!”
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.