Review – Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Director: Ron Howard

Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Joonas Suotamo, Donald Glover, Paul Bettany, Phoebe Waller Bridge, Thandie Newton


One of the things which made the original Star Wars trilogy the site of such intense fandom is that it created the sense of a universe that was bigger than just what we were seeing in the story. Through the details of different planets and aliens that we glimpsed it provided incredible scope for the imagination to run wild. It is this potential that Disney is trying to tap into with their Star Wars ‘anthology films’ – those films which are not classified as episodes of the central saga. Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story is the second on these anthology films, after 2016’s Rogue One.

While fighting with the Imperial infantry on Mimban, young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and his new, wookie friend Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) fall in with a group of smugglers led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). When their attempt to steal a trainload of a potent hyperfuel called coaxium goes awry, Beckett and his crew find themselves in significant debt to Crimson Dawn crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). In an effort to keep their lives, Han makes a risky proposition: what if they stole the equivalent in unrefined coaxium directly from the mining planet of Kessel. Vos consents, but only on the condition his top lieutenant, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), accompany the team.

Solo is a tricky film to talk about because it is two things at once. It is a blockbuster, science-fiction, heist movie running about 135 minutes with solid action and an impressive young cast. It is also one part of the larger Star Wars franchise. For the overwhelming majority of people who will go to see Solo, the first cannot be appreciated in isolation from the second, and unfortunately that means that the fact that it is a perfectly serviceable blockbuster in its own right is undermined by the issues it has as a Star Wars movie. 

As an addition to the Star Wars franchise, the function of Solo seems entirely to be to answer questions that no one was really asking. Fans of the original Star Wars trilogy will know that Han Solo won his pride and joy, the Milennium Falcon, from Lando Calrisian in a card game. But has anyone ever thought, “Gosh, I wish we could see that card game?” Similarly, is there any real desire to see how Han and Chewie met, or how Han got his surname (which until they mention it we had comfortably assumed was the same way everyone gets their surname)? Solo dramatises a formative period from Han’s youth in such a way that, rather than illuminating anything about the character, serves at best to detract from the mystery and enigma which made him such an instantly appealing character in the first place. At worst, in presenting him as an essentially good guy who is trying hard to convince the everyone that he is a rogue, it actually detracts from the emotional journey of the character in the original trilogy, undermining the impact of decisions he makes in those films.

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Despite this fundamental flaw, Solo isn’t a bad film. When original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 and 22 Jump Street) left the project five months into shooting due to creative differences, the decision was made to bring in Ron Howard. While the Oscar-winning, veteran director might lack the distinctive comic sensibility of Lord and Miller – which will likely mean there will forever be fan questions about what the Lord and Miller version of Solo would have looked like – he brings a steady hand who knows how to tell a story and realise characters. Solo takes Star Wars back to its space-western roots, returning us to the original series unique visual fusion of the 1970s, the old west and futuristic technologies. The heist component of the film feels much more akin to The Great Train Robbery or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid than an Ocean’s 11. 

Solo boasts a strong cast. Alden Ehrenreich does a good job of channeling the spirit of Han Solo without attempting an imitation of Harrison Ford. On the other hand, as Lando Calrissian, Donald Glover does his best Billy Dee Williams impression and this proves equally effective and charming. Woody Harrelson is dependably good as Han’s mentor and Paul Bettany appropriately menacing as out villain. The most interesting character of the lot, though, is Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra. We first meet her as a street rat running around the slums of Corellia with Han, before they are separated for three years. When we encounter her working for Dryden Voss she is a more worldly and fatalistic character. She has seen things and done things in the time that have stolen her innocence and hopefulness. We don’t know what those things are, and we don’t need to. The effect is evident enough. Ironically, given what the film is, the reason she is so interesting is precisely that she is allowed some mystery.

As a piece of blockbuster entertainment, Solo is fine. It is a film which quite possibly works better for an audience with no investment in Star Wars than for the devoted fans. Divorced from the larger Star Wars universe its strengths can shine through and it can be experienced for what it is, a fun romp with likeable performances and action-packed sequences. But for most of us it can’t be divorced from the Star Wars Universe, and as such it just feels… unnecessary. There is absolutely merit in the anthology concept, but with Solo only half a step removed from the central saga its effect has been to make the universe feel smaller when it was supposed to make it feel bigger. Perhaps a greater willingness to venture into the unknown is required to really tap into the incredible story potential of that time long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.

 Rating: ★★★

Review by Duncan McLean

Have you seen Solo: A Star Wars Story? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

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