The worst thing about Solo is that it’s good. It’s just…good, and it has no ambitions to be anything more than that. At every turn, it is so predictably competent that it’s dull—blunted to a flattened, sleepy front. Sure, it probably has to do with the rapid recovery from the unceremonious dumping of original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, but it also simply lacks substance.
You kind of have to imagine that’s why you bring in a stylish duo like Lord and Miller, the same manic minds that made projects like 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie unlikely success stories. But a lesson taught through the aggressive usurping of Gareth Edwards by Tony Gilroy in post-production with Rogue One, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy realized it’s easier to do it all on set and not in the edit bay (and deal with a bunch of Hollywood credits drama).
Unlike Rogue One, however, Solo is more of a mishmash than a retool, and it is all the worse for it. The story is already so paint by numbers that it desperately needs someone at the helm with extraordinary panache. And it’s not like replacement director Ron Howard doesn’t have that, but he very obviously works better when he’s helming something already brimming with a sentimental bent like Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. Otherwise you end up with In the Heart of the Sea and The Da Vinci Code.
Even those not versed in Star Wars lore knows the story of Han Solo: a kid born into the slums escapes to the stars to become a roguish smuggler with a heart of gold. This much we know from the original trilogy, and as for how his time went in those slums and subsequently garnered all the signature accoutrement of his ascent to Rebellion leader, it’s all been covered to death in the Expanded Universe (which has been labeled as noncanonical while still being canonical because Disney’s house is a mess). Even if it were all completely different, would it matter?
It’s a question that plagues the early goings of the film. Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) are aiming to fulfill their dreams of jumping ship and heading off of the dire planet of Corellia. Things go, well, less than according to plan and Han has to head off on his own with a promise to return and make things right.
This, more than anything, is a hard rip into the criminal past of one of the most famous outlaws ever to grace the screen. To that end, it only makes sense it would be a heist movie, and so much of it ends up feeling that way. Han eventually shacks up with a crew of headed by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and begins being coerced into a series of jobs, all with the goal of returning home. And each act features one of these cons, each as twisting and tragic and backstabby as the last.
The only problem is that no one told Howard. It’s an action movie that forgets it’s a heist movie, and as anyone can tell you, a heist movie without an abundance of steez isn’t much of a movie at all (read: Ant-Man). It instead reads like a checklist of all the major characteristics of Han Solo until it just sort of ends and then you walk out of the theatre.
It’s a shame because a lot of it works at an immense level. When the film embraces its action sheen, it is genuinely thrilling. The first job with Beckett is a breathless and exhilarating affair, probably one of the best Star Wars has to offer. Granted, the rest of the set pieces aren’t as engrossing, but they do the job, infusing humor and action with grand spectacle.
And when Howard flexes his penchant for sentimentality, it works. It can lean towards overwrought at times, but that’s mostly a consequence of the story, feeling like someone shoving the sword into Link’s hands and telling him it’s dangerous out there. But there are a few moments where, in a grand exercise of restraint, you can’t help but smile—maybe even tear up a little—before it all quickly (and necessarily) moves on. One in particular is such a treasured bit that I’ll be thinking on it for days.
It even hits the other end of the spectrum with one of the most shocking moments Star Wars has ever produced. (Shocking, that is, if you fit into the probably gargantuan overlap of people that has seen every Star Wars movie released but not any of the television entries.) And it’s teased and built gently and logically over the course of the movie that it feels earned, which is a pleasant surprise when it also easily could have been a twist for twist’s sake.
So much of this, though, and everything else that works is only marginally attached to what the character Han Solo brings to the table, which begs the question of why even be a Han Solo movie at all? The answer is glaringly obvious, of course, but from a narrative perspective, we could have spent all this time and money exploring something new.
Han’s arc is one we’ve already seen before, one that we subconsciously ascribe to any roguish outlaw with an irreverent shell hiding a hero in waiting. This is the cardinal sin of prequels: giving us nothing new and instead more of the old. Monsters University, for example, works because it explains how the bond between Mike and Sully came to be in an unexpected way. We learn something and explore familiar territory through a fresh lens.
Solo, on the other hand, gives us nothing of import. Anything new is simply fleshing out what we already knew such as finally seeing what the Kessel Run is (and a better understanding of why the parsec is the unit of choice). Or perhaps details for why Han’s friendship with Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) is so natural yet contentious. It’s fun seeing it all come to life, yes, but that’s a poor substitute for substance.
It certainly doesn’t help that Ehrenreich’s performance doesn’t mesh with either the material or Harrison Ford’s guiding light. He’s buoyant and charming and mischievous but in all the wrong measure. If anything, it’s harder now to see how young Han becomes the older Han we first met in 1977. He is, however, lifted up by the performances around him, namely by the always stellar Harrelson and menacing Paul Bettany and the absolute highlight of the film in Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3-37.
By the end, all we’re left is a few chuckles and cool splashes of action. Nothing insightful or introspective or inventive. Nothing to mull over or to spark our imagination as the credits roll. It’s just a question. A question of what if Lord and Miller still held the reins. A question of why Han Solo.
Why at all.
Final Score: 6 out of 10