Four months ago I went to a packed screening of Black Panther, which was a pretty memorable night at the movies for everyone involved for a lot of reasons but one moment that stood out to me was something that happened before the movie even began. That moment came during the trailers when, in a moment of Disney corporate synergy, they played a trailer for the new Star Wars spinoff Solo: A Star Wars Story. I thought the trailer looked pretty good all told. It had some neat images and looked pretty fun, but when the trailer ended I overheard something. A girl who sounded like she was about nine or ten sitting a row or two behind me said out loud “that guy doesn’t look like Han Solo.” This was one of those moments where someone spoke up and said what everyone was thinking and it mirrored something I had tweeted a month earlier when the film was advertised during the Super Bowl: “The #SoloAStarWarsStory trailer looks solid, shame it has to be about a character called Han Solo who isn’t played by Harrison Ford.” The thing is Han Solo isn’t really a very deep character, he’s an architype, and his appeal is largely focused on what Harrison Ford was able to bring to him. What’s more there just seemed to be something kind of odd about recasting original trilogy characters like that. Yes there were a few examples like that in the prequels like Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan, but the age difference there was so wide that it feels like a whole different ballgame. As such I wasn’t too excited about this, but at the end of the day it is a Star Wars movie so it’s not like I can just not see it.
Solo begins about ten years before Han Solo showed up at the Mos Eisley cantina in the original Star Wars and sold his services to an old man and a young farmer on a quest to find a princess. This younger Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is revealed to have been an orphan raised on the streets of an industrial planet called Corellia. There he and a girlfriend named Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) dream of running away from the planet and the gangster who they’re in debt to. Unfortunately for Han his escape plan goes a bit awry and while he gets off the planet Qi’ra does not. From there he swears he’ll come back with enough money to get her off the planet but first he finds himself enlisting with the Imperial army in order to become a pilot. We cut to three years later where he meets a group of thieves led by a rogue named Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and plans to join his crew of outlaws but needs to find a way to impress him first.
Now, in my introductory paragraph I focused in on the question of how a movie about Han Solo can possibly be made without Harrison Ford and I was walking into the theater with my mind pretty thoroughly closed on the issue. To Alden Ehrenreich’s immense credit, I found these worries pretty actively slipping away while I was actually watching the movie. It’s not even that Ehrenreich is particularly impressive in the movie so much as the youth of the Han Solo seen here makes more of a difference than I expected it to. He’s younger here and less cynical and it’s easier to envision him becoming everyone’s favorite smuggler than I expected from the movie. He also manages to look more like a young Ford than I expected and the movie did a pretty good job of replicating the character’s slightly dated 70s hairstyle without making it look silly.
Additionally, I remembered about half way through the movie that Ehrenreich actually isn’t the first young actor who was tasked with taking on a youthful version of a legendary Harrison Ford role. The previous actor with this task was the late River Phoenix, who at the age of 18 needed to become the young Indiana Jones during the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which we learn exactly what inspired most of that character’s trademarks like his hat, his interest in whips, how he got his scar, and where he got his fear of snakes. Solo plays out a bit like that sequence but for Han Solo and expanded out to feature length. We see how Solo became a pilot, met Chewbacca, met Lando, encountered the Millennium Falcon, and made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. It doesn’t get up to the point where he met Jabba the Hutt and became indebted to him but other than that it leaves basically no stone unturned in establishing most of the traits associated with the character albeit in a somewhat shallow way.
Solo: A Star Wars Story comes out less than six months after the release of the divisive The Last Jedi, a movie that I was highly critical of. That was a movie that took big risks, something I’d be in favor of in theory but decidedly was not in favor of the way they chose to go about it. Solo by contrast is a movie that plays it safe. If anything I feel like it should be the other way around. The “saga” movies should be the traditional movies carrying on a tradition and these spinoff movies that people are less invested in should plainly be the place where they’re free to experiment but the opposite seems to have happened here. Despite that, if asked whether I liked Solo better than The Last Jedi my answer would almost certainly be “yes.” I might not have a great deal of respect for Solo but it doesn’t make the same kind of boneheaded mistakes that Rian Johnson’s movie did and it mostly succeeds at its rather modest goals. On the flipside The Last Jedi, for all its faults, was a movie that inspired me to write a 3330 word review which remains a site record while I’m straining to even come up with a thousand words about Solo. At the end of the day this is a fun movie, and when compared to any number of other summer movie it measures up. However, people generally expect a bit more of an event out of Star Wars and that sense of excitement is what’s missing from Solo.
***1/2 out of Five