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If you found Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One (2016) too dreary and Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi (2017) more morose than playful, then you’ll probably take a liking to Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), the troubled, Han Solo-focal prequel caper that’s credited to the stately Ron Howard but also sort of belongs to the adored jesters Phil Lord and Christopher Miller too. (More on that later.)
In the film, we’re introduced to the beloved Han as he was both before he became a much-sought-after smuggler and was played by the stern-faced Harrison Ford. Here, he’s in his early 20s and played by Alden Ehrenreich. (Who is great, by the way: This shaggy semi-newcomer with a lot of false starts under his belt has all of Ford’s mannerisms down to a T but also slyly stirs his own idiosyncrasies into the mix.) It’s a conventional origin story undoubtedly. But there are no Peter Parker-style tragedies here — just a medley of old-fashioned misadventures that prove themselves easy to get lost in.
As the film opens, Han is living on the miry, practically inescapable planet Corellia, which is controlled by the austere, authoritarian worm lady Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt). Little is known — or really revealed — about him, except for the fact that he’s been here for some time and that he’s courting the convivial brunette Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), with whom he plans to soon embark upon a getaway.
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That much-fantasized-about escape, though, becomes a reality within the film’s first few minutes: Han breaks a rule that pisses Proxima and her aggressive lackeys off, and so he and Qi’ra have no choice but to loudly depart the premises. They almost get away with it without a hitch. But a separation at the last moment results in Qi’ra getting apprehended, with Han free to escape. Then and there, he reasons he’ll come back to rescue her soon enough.
The following three years are spent toiling away in the Empire’s military. Then, after having decided that he’s had enough, Han teams up with a dirty-faced triad of heretics, which includes the rodent-esque Rio (voiced by Jon Favreau) and the criminal power couple Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). Eventually, a certain Wookiee tags along, too.
It’s that latter development that’s more defining — it takes up a better portion of the movie. Two plot points prove this. First, we memorably watch Han and his new crew attempt to audaciously — and unsuccessfully — steal a titanous amount of a precious fuel called coaxium from a cliff-bound train. Then, for the rest of the feature, we watch as Han and company try to make up for their shortcomings to the scarred overlord Dryden (Paul Bettany), who was the one who hired them to do that job in the first place.
This leads the crew to the coaxium-heavy, dusty mining planet Savareen, where much of the explosive climax expectedly takes place. Joining them is the urbane smuggler Lando (Donald Glover, scene-stealing), who provides the gang with his ship, the Millennium Falcon; Lando’s bot co-pilot L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge); and, to Han’s delight, Qi’ra, who serendipitously (but unfortunately) works for Dryden.
And it’s all exquisitely arch and subtly retrophilic — a vision of what a Star Wars movie could be if it were exclusively made with the undemanding, high-spirited panache of a comic serial. I think it’s delightful. But a great many critics and ticket buyers aren’t as taken with that jauntiness, either deeming it frivolous or throwaway, or, like the hirsute New Yorker critic Richard Brody has, flimsy in such a way that undermines the way the originals were as thrilling as they were intellectually stimulating.
But because Rogue One and The Last Jedi were comparatively dark, a feature as straightforwardly amusing as Solo makes for a nice change of pace. It has been accused of mediocrity, but I’m inclined to believe that such a reaction has more to do with the fact that Star Wars movies are rarely as overwhelmingly lighthearted as Solois.
I suspect, though, that it could have enraptured more had Phil Lord and Christopher Miller been kept at the helm. Perhaps you’ve heard the dramatic backstory: the filmmaking partners, known for the much-loved larks Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009), 21 Jump Street (2012), and The LEGO Movie (2014), were hired to direct; encouraged improvisation on set; essentially molded Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan’s script into a comedy; but were fired by the producer Kathleen Kennedy and the Kasdans for purportedly veering too far away from what was originally envisioned. Ron Howard, a close friend of George Lucas, was brought in for the remaining three weeks of shooting, and then he remedied what had been done via extensive reshoots.
That Howard was able to steer the difficult production back on course is impressive. And the resulting film is, fortunately, cohesive, in spite of the behind-the-scenes pandemonium. But I continue to wonder what Lord and Miller’s version might have looked like. Would it have been acclaimed for newfangled boldness in the ways Marvel’s ultimate expectations-defying Thor: Ragnarok (2017) has? Or would it have been maligned? What we have here is spirited and effortlessly diverting, no doubt. But could it have been more than that?