Directed by Ron Howard [but also, let's be honest, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller] (2018)
by Hunter Bush
Solo: A Star Wars Story is the least satisfying of the new era of Star Wars films.
I wasn't sure what foot I wanted to start my review on, as there is good as well as bad to talk about here, but then I asked myself: "What would Han Solo do?" The answer, famously the subject of much nerd argument, is that Han would shoot first. Shooting first is one of the many things that define who the character of Han Solo is.
What I mean is, were you to make a list of "HAN SOLO AF" qualities and visual trademarks, the phrase "Han shoots first" would most definitely be on there. And that's what this movie is at its core: a "Han Solo AF" checklist that we watch get crossed off, one box at a time. You knew that's what it would be, deep down. Search your heart. You know it to be true. I mean, we all did, right? Maybe not when it was announced initially, but most definitely after the trailer premiered. There's no story here that needed telling to make anything about the Star Wars universe better or fuller or more impactful, it's just: Hey, you wanna see where Han got that blaster? Wanna see him meet Chewbacca? Etc. etc. And the thing with a list like that is, deciding which things are "more important" and should take precedence over others is highly subjective.
I'm not going to get into a whole (ultimately very dumb) tirade about how this film "misunderstands the character of Han Solo" because anyone taking the time to make that argument will be much more well-versed in Star Wars knowledge than I am. But I can and will say that I almost never really felt satisfied watching Solo. The things which I feel are more important to who Han Solo is don't really get developed much. I kept waiting to see Han Solo form and I never felt like I got that.
This is where Prequelitis kicks in. More of the movie is spent watching Han meet people, perform deeds & acquire items that we know he "has to" (for that "Han Solo AF" checklist) than is spent watching the character of Han Solo develop. If these two halves of the character were better balanced in the story I believe it would be ultimately more satisfying. Han meets Chewbacca and Lando, he performs the famous Kessel Run in 12 parsecs and gets his signature blaster, but we never see him become a competent con man or a great pilot, for instance. He just keeps saying he's a great pilot and then he is. If he weren't a dude, the cries of "Mary Sue!" would echo down the halls of the internet.
But the biggest hurdle for Solo is Solo himself: Alden Ehrenreich. My man just does not make a good Han Solo. I'm not saying that he should be doing a Harrison Ford impression for the whole film, but if you're not gonna at least try to channel the spirit of the character, you have to bring something to the table, ya know? Ehrenreich doesn't bring anything, really. No swagger, no multifaceted overconfidence, no real affability; nada.
Obviously, this playing-of-an-existing-character-by-a-current-actor thing isn't new. De Niro played a young Brando in Godfather II, River Phoenix played a young Harrison Ford in Last Crusade and Ewan McGregor played a young Alec Guinness in this self-same universe in Star Wars Episodes I - III. I mean, your mileage may vary with how well any of them pulls it off, but it isn't exactly a novelty anymore and I think the gild is long enough off that particular lily to stop grading on a curve.
Ehrenreich isn't the only person filling such shoes in Solo. Joonas Suotamo plays Chewbacca here, fully inheriting the role from original Chewie Peter Mayhew (as he did in The Last Jedi after only being a stand-in on The Force Awakens) and Donald Glover takes over for Billy Dee Williams as suave smuggler extraordinaire Lando Calrissian. For my money, both of these performances are more successful than Ehrenreich's Solo, even though I only felt like Glover was truly nailing it most of the time. I was extremely impressed by Suotamo, who manages to convey emotion and personality underneath what amounts to several layers of shag carpet.
The standout performance for me was Paul Bettany as the crime lord Dryden Vos. Bettany was actually a late-in-production recasting when original Vos actor Michael Kenneth Williams wasn't available for (what I've heard were extensive) reshoots. Personally I love Michael Kenneth Williams and think he would have done excellently in the role, but luckily for us Bettany does as well. He's charming and weird, menacing and commanding; basically everything you want from the head of an intergalactic crime syndicate.
Vos' design is pretty great as well. I mean, he mostly looks a lot like Paul Bettany in a sharp space mobster suit except he has several ragged scars down his face that flush blood red (as do his eyes) when he's angry. It's...pretty gnarly, kinda scary and exactly the kinda thing I personally want to see in the Star Wars universe. One quibble I have is that I wish we knew anything about what it's supposed to be. Is he a new alien race we've never seen before? Is it a war wound? How/why does it get so bright red like that? I'm not suggesting I need a long expository scene, but one offhand "What happened to that guy?" would go a long way.
Regardless, I really dig that character design. There's quite a bit of really cool, unique, fun design work. Lady Proxima, The Fagin in Solo's Oliver Twist childhood, is a really crazy alien amphibian creature that I won't ruin for anyone, but her design is really creepy and fun. Also, cool helmets were a big thing, apparently, in this era of that galaxy far, far away. Lady Proxima and Dryden Vos both have henchpersons who have unique helmet designs. There's also a band of "Marauders" whose varied headgear makes them look like the tribe that Daft Punk originated from. Their designs are all very cool and eclectic.
The Marauders as a story element is another thing entirely. They show up, and then you almost entirely forget about them until they show up at the climax, but when they do, they're no longer just some anonymous phalanx for our heroes to deal with, they're expanded into full characters. Or at least the beginnings of full characters (because seriously, there's like fifteen minutes left, how well-developed could they be in that time?). To be honest with you, they're characters I would like to know more about, spend more time with and I think that's something Lucasfilm / The Mouse House is (quite literally) banking on.
Thus, we get to a real problem for me: Solo is disingenuous. When this neverending onslaught of Star Wars material was announced, these "A Star Wars Story" films were supposed to be stand-alone films; good jumping-on points for people who feel overwhelmed by the volume of history behind the Star Wars films proper. Rogue One succeeded far better because, by its nature, it was only connected to the main storyline by a single MacGuffin (the Death Star plans). It also has a proper ending, something Solo really does not.
Han's main goal in Solo is to rescue his lady, Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) from their crapsack of a homeworld. But at the end of the movie, their storyline/relationship is not resolved in any way. She says to him something like "You go ahead, I'll be there in a minute" and then the ship she's in takes off. There's no way the Han we're shown in this movie would assume she has chosen not to be with him (he's kind of bad at reading the room). It only makes sense if he's going to go after her at some point. Combine that with the late reveal that the Marauders are worth paying any attention at all and a truly baffling appearance from a recognizable character in the closing minutes leave the film feeling unfinished.
It feels like the first installment in a series. Ehrenreich is signed to a three-film deal with Lucasfilm, but rather than making a complete film and leaving the door open should fans want that, they've stacked the deck in their favor, which really, as a fan, pisses me off. From a story standpoint, Star Wars ended with the Death Star destroyed, but the universe still in peril; if there had never been another film in the franchise, at least they had told a full story.
The smart money is that the next Solo film won't be named like a direct sequel (2olo?Duo?Duolo?) but will probably be a Lando: A Star Wars Story, baby situation featuring the same overall cast and continuing the storyline. And listen, that would be a prospect I'd 100% be for, if they'd said that was the plan outright. You're already taking people's money and time and for that investment, you're not even giving them what you promised. It's a bigger con than anything we see in Solo, that's for sure.
As a film, Solo is competent if somewhat unspectacular overall, with enough lively action set-pieces to keep you paying attention. There’s plenty of Chewbacca and surprising no one, Donald Glover almost steals the movie, but like most of this troubled production, never quite hits the stride you want. I can't believe I'm about to say this but: skip Solo until it hits VOD.