Warning: Possible spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story may follow
Solo: A Star Wars Story might be the tenth movie in the Star Wars franchise, but it feels like the first film in the series that isn’t essential to the franchise’s mythology. This is the pure definition of a spin-off story, telling an individual tale set within the Star Wars world that has no real bearing upon our overall understanding of this universe. To be honest, Solo feels like fan fiction. While it hits all the beats that you would expect, the movie plays it so unbelievably safe it feels like more a spec script for an episode of a long-going sci-fi TV series than another installment of the most influential movie franchise of all time. The final result is a fairly entertaining film that is nonetheless completely middle-of-the-road.
Solo is an origin story for Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), first seen running schemes in the street in his home planet of Corellia. It is a world reminiscent of the grimiest parts of Blade Runner, filled with grey colours and heavy rain. Han wants to leave with his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), but is essentially enslaved by his leader, Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt). They finally have a moment to escape, but at the last minute Qi’ra is caught, while Solo runs free.
Like a space version of Barry Lyndon, Solo finds himself caught in the midst of endless war. He meets Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a bandit who is pretending to be a soldier, and with a newly acquainted Wookie named Chewbacca, they set out to perform missions for their dodgy boss, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). They naturally get involved in all sorts of hijinks, before concluding with a bunch of hints as to the man Solo will eventually become. The plot is actually extremely convoluted — filled with time jumps, endless double crossings, and unexpected deaths of just-introduced characters — all made to show just how complicated the life of a bandit can be. It lacks any of the classical purity we have come to expect from Star Wars, instead dangling tales that will be presumably delivered upon in sequels.
Nonetheless, the love story is surprisingly deep, featuring a sense of genuine chemistry between the two leads. Deeply entwined when they first meet, their reunion has a real sense of tension — neither person is able to recapture what they once had. The big fear with this romantic subplot is that it would be the one trite driving reason why Han Solo became who he is, but instead Qi’ra’s actions serve to illustrate the cutthroat nature of the Star Wars world. If Rogue One didn’t hammer it in hard enough, Solo reminds us once again that this galaxy is constantly at war. However, this story also focuses on those in the grey areas looking to make a quick buck. We understand why things turn out the way they do, and this manages to imbue the legend of Han Solo himself with a well-earned deeper meaning. There is such a tenderness here that its no wonder Han never said a single world about his past love to Princess Leia.
Some moments function as pure fan service, answering questions such as how Han got the surname Solo, how he met Chewbacca, and how he won the Millennium Falcon off Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). Yet, the most important answer given in the film is how Han Solo did the Kessel run in under 12 parsecs — a thrilling sequence that functions as the movie’s centerpiece. The Kessel Run actually felt like something that needed to be dramatised, and Ron Howard does a really good job of making it a truly legendary mission.
In all other aspects, Ron Howard, delivers a competent and workmanlike story. A strong director with seemingly no outstanding personal traits, he is perfectly suited for safe studio movies, as he rarely brings anything new to the table. While far from a poor director (he has an eye for small details and a smooth sense of action), perhaps a more visionary presence was needed to make this a truly great movie.
Every now and then, the far quirkier movie Solo could have been had Philip Lord and Christopher Miller stayed on board slips through (they were fired and replaced by Ron Howard halfway through). This is best represented by L3 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Lando’s impassioned droid who has ideas far above that of a normal robot. She believes that Lando has feelings for her, men and robots can definitely have sex, and even convinces other robots to rise up against their masters. This is the kind of wacky character the Star Wars universe needs more of. Ultimately, she isn’t given enough to do.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is the latest example of the Marvel-isation of the Star Wars brand, creating an extended cinematic universe with shoutouts and surprise cameos that only seem to exist to please the most hardcore fans. In fact, the movie seems perfectly designed to win back those who were upset by the visionary The Last Jedi‘s devastating twists and turns. While The Last Jedi deconstructed the very idea of what a Star Wars movie is, Solo feels like it was made to please just about everyone.
This approach works for Marvel because it apes the nature of comic books, which constantly feature crossovers and elaborate world-building, but Star Wars has a different duty. Confusing things too much only serves to ostracize those who haven’t understood every detail of this world. While all the films in the original trilogy — and even The Phantom Menace — could all be enjoyed on their own, much of the pleasures of Solo is dependent on prior knowledge of who these characters are and who they will become. In the end Solo feels like a collection of references to other, better movies rather than a piece of cinema in its own right.