Han Solo’s origin story is a genuinely fun action movie that recalls the lighthearted tone of the original Star Wars films without blatantly mimicking their structure or leaning too hard on nostalgia. The new characters are fun to watch, the old ones are given genuine reasons to appear instead of simply being thrown in, and the story moves at a lively pace that doesn’t undercut its own serious aspects.
There are few scenes in this film where something isn’t moving, usually very fast, and it starts with Han and his girlfriend Qi’ra (the adept Emilia Clarke) escaping in a stolen road speeder, zooming through back alleys in a desperate and exciting escape from enforcement agents. They live in an urban slum where even some children resort to theft, but Han’s determined that he’s going to get rich and make a happy life for Qi’ra and himself. Their escape goes wrong, and she gets captured; it’s notable that the initial villainess, built up in the film’s opening text, doesn’t appear in much of the story. Throughout the film, the art design’s production values are rock-solid and perennially gorgeous to look at, from expansive cityscapes to isolated, presumably nomadic communities. The character design, showcasing the diverse array of species that Star Wars has paraded for decades, deserves ample praise.
Han wants to be a pilot, but he winds up a foot soldier and gets plopped into a remarkably intense war scene that truly feels like a war. What’s notable is that while Imperial propaganda is commonplace, the individual footsoldiers aren’t demonized but are treated primarily as people doing their jobs. Nevertheless, Han gets swept up into a heist plan involving valuable but volatile fuel. The story doesn’t get wrapped up in its own fictional intricacies or numerous subplots—to a fault, in a few occasions—and for the most part is easy to follow. His new friends are entertaining to watch, though the story forgets about a number of them almost as quickly as it declares them disposable, and their grand set piece involving what’s essentially a train robbery in the sky is tremendously exciting. Regardless of his talks of money, his human empathy interferes with his given orders and becomes a high-stakes catalyst for the rest of the movie.
It’s awkward watching a prequel story where several characters’ fates are positively or negatively predetermined, especially when an unfamiliar romance is involved; while that subplot occasionally comes close to being as cringe-worthy as it was in some of the prequel films, young Han Solo and his squeeze do have great chemistry together, and their quiet moments together do feel alluring even when poking fun at themselves. While this relationship is obviously abbreviated due to the nature of the story, I thought the inevitable twist of fate was much less ignominious than how it was handled in The Last Jedi.
Alden Ehrenreich’s grand portrayal of an iconic character does him justice, as does the charismatic Donald Glover’s turn as Lando Calrissian; both performers bring a great deal of charisma to their roles, especially Glover, and both feel plausibly connected to their already established personalities (again, Glover/Lando more so, though the film has a great deal of decency to not shoehorn Leia in). Chewbacca is very well handled with an unusual introduction that’s given not just a light touch but also, along with the rest of the film, a surprising amount of suspense.
Han’s one-sided English conversations with his unorthodox friend mirror the call-and-response “translate” jokes C3-PO and R2-D2 often shared, and speaking of robots—perhaps in a nod to modern Star Wars criticisms—there is a droid who is a literal and physical ‘social justice warrior,’ but nearly everything about her concept and arc is presented as melodramatic and played for laughs without derailing the story. Her subplot, while used for some strange but enjoyable jokes, does befit and give additional context to Han’s well-known talents and hardware.
While the film is very talkative, and characters recite plans step by step for the benefit of the audience, there’s not a lot of exposition-spouting, which makes little details all the more impressive (there’s an impressively decorated community scene that frankly does a really good job of explaining where people of color tend to hail from in this setting, without saying a word). John Powell, who’s composed music for a host of children’s films including the stirring How to Train Your Dragon series, has no problems emulating John Williams’ classic orchestral sounds without directly copying them—usually. Even as language is unusually frequent for the series, the film does an excellent job of keeping its plentiful jokes and humor in check—even the silliest moments fit their respective contexts, whether playing off of someone’s romantic affections or of someone receiving an embarrassing injury. There is a strange music scene that resembles The Fifth Element as well as some versions of Return of the Jedi, but it’s thankfully brief. Since I saw this get more discussion than I would have expected, let me simply state: There is no lactating cow.
More importantly, the setting never becomes enamored with its own mysticism, ignoring it almost entirely, and Solo becomes a story whose rules feel easy to follow and never come across as being unduly “improvised” or arbitrarily altered for the heroes’ benefit. It’s oddly satisfying to see Han get humbled and brought down to earth a few times, even as his Greatest Showman-esque belief in his own bravado gets himself and his companions into danger as often as it gets them out. The environments’ art designs never cease to amaze, whether on a planet or in space, and the film takes some of the most satisfying chances to be genuinely weird (and creative) with its environments and monsters that the series has ever had.
Toward its close, the story’s entanglement of loyalties and betrayals becomes somewhat confusing to navigate, but far from creating a “who is the real mastermind” problem, it does lead up to a very compelling character revelation. While some characters’ “yay-Rebellion” rallying cries sound stilted, the plot smartly restricts links to the original trilogy to a few vague hints instead of spelling out, “You’re going to help change the galaxy someday.” One of Solo’s greatest strengths is indeed that it never feels bloated—even the phenomenal Rogue One had more characters than it sometimes knew what to do with—and its decision to be a simple popcorn muncher, and to find satisfaction in that, is one of its best. And Han does “shoot first.”
Conclusion: It’s not ground-breaking, but it’s a lot of fun.
Solo: A Star Wars Story feels like a very back-to-basics entry that deals in gray morality without speaking at length about it or bogging itself down in ends-justify-the-means lectures. The character interactions, seeming like a group-sized buddy comedy, are as much of a highlight of the film as are its impressive and often original set pieces. The humor never gets in the way of the story or feels gratuitous, and the action nails the intensity that keeps it exciting to watch without the editing being too quick to follow. While this isn’t a story that begged to be told, the story was well worth the telling.
(Movie poster: source, property of Lucasfilm, Walt Disney Pictures, Allison Shearmur Productions, and Imagine Entertainment)