Before Disney bought Lucasfilm, Star Wars fans, like myself, were used to having every single corner of the Star Wars universe filled in with various novels, comics and video games. The now-defunct Expanded Universe (or EU) was our place, as fans, to get the extra material and backstories to characters that we never got in the movies (along with a lot of contradictions). But since Disney bought Lucasfilm and decided to do away with the EU (now rebranded as Legends) and make everything going forward canon (let’s be honest the EU was never truly canon) it feels strange that Lucasfilm decided that Han Solo’s story needed to be told in movie form. A stand-alone novel seemed like a perfectly adequate way to tell that story given that the novels are as canon as the movies now. We have already been treated to a few standalone novels centering on specific characters and it has been done to great effect (Star Wars: Tarkin and Star Wars: Thrawn come to mind). So why the need to make a young Han Solo movie?
These spin-off movies have presented interesting possibilities. Rogue One is a movie that maybe wasn’t needed but the story was grand, big and given enough emotional weight in order to feel completely worth the time connecting it to the original film. The prospect of a Han Solo movie wasn’t exciting, it felt like an uninspired choice. What could a Han Solo movie offer to really add to the Star Wars Saga? I wasn’t really interested in a standalone character Star Wars movie; it felt too small in scale. Star Wars is an epic space fantasy and the epic part felt like it was going to be lost.
Once the movie was over though I was pleasantly surprised by the whole thing. Solo: A Star Wars Story isn’t the greatest Star Wars movie ever made. The movie doesn’t take the most risks, it is all in all harmless but it is absolutely a fun movie to watch that adds in some neat little backstory to our favorite scoundrel and captures perfectly the serial storytelling vibe that George Lucas was originally striving for with Star Wars.
Returning to write the screenplay is a long time Star Wars scribe Lawrence Kasdan (along with his son Johnathon Kasdan) who specifically returned to co-write The Force Awakens just so he could write this script, an origin story for Han Solo.
This is probably the most straightforward a Star Wars movie has ever been. Even though this is an origin story it doesn’t feel like an origin story that we see from superhero movies. This isn’t a riff on that formula, and despite being smaller in scale, this still very much feels like Star Wars. This is guided by the sure hand of Lucasfilm veteran Ron Howard (who took over after Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired during mid-production). Howard is clearly familiar with the universe and brings forwards a knack for fun action sequences and strong character interactions. Howard also directed Lucasfilm’s cult classic Willow and is thus pretty in tune with George Lucas’s style of storytelling (not to mention he also starred in another Lucasfilm production American Graffiti which was directed by Lucas himself). This has an almost futuristic western heist movie feel to it. There are several shots that feel like they are almost begging to be compared to a Sergio Leone western.
In the grand scheme of the Star Wars Universe, we are seeing Han Solo in his proto stages. His real arc is in over the course of Episode IV-VI so the Kasdans don’t have a lot to go with in terms of development. But, they wisely find moments where his characters build relationships with others and become more skilled as a smuggler; learning to detach himself from the job. It is enough to feel like Han has grown over the course of the movie. The worst thing this movie could have done was re-contextualize Han Solo into something unrecognizable. Solo: A Star Wars Story completely avoids that pitfall. This is Han Solo and since Kasdan has such a strong grip on that character he knows where he needs to go and doesn’t overplay his hand.
Some of the strongest bits with young Han Solo is his meeting and development with Chewbacca. His meeting with Chewie is nothing short of memorable and Ron Howard never seems to miss a moment to highlight Chewie in a way that has been lacking in other Star Wars movies (even some of the original movies didn’t always make the best use of him).
In front of the camera is a much younger actor playing Han Solo. The thought of anyone else playing Han Solo other than Harrison Ford seemed ludicrous. Harrison Ford is Han Solo. Solo: A Star Wars Story isn’t going to change Ford’s place (nothing ever could) but newcomer Alden Ehrenreich delights and completely owns the character of Han Solo. Ehrenreich has captured the mannerisms of Solo down and carries on that cocky, smug scruffy looking nerf herder core of the character that we have all come to love. Alden proves to be worthy of carrying on Harrison Ford’s legacy.
The rest of the cast also impresses. The one everyone will be talking about (and already has been talking about) is Donald Glover as Lando. Glover is perfect as Lando. I wish there was a more analytical thing I can say about him but Donald Glover is cool, smooth and perfect as Lando. There is a lot of Billy Dee Williams in Glover’s performance. Woody Harrelson is always good and plays a mentor of sorts to Han Solo. Emilia Clarke is also good in the movie and adds some complexity to the part of Qi’ra and could prove to be a pivotal Star Wars character going forward. Paul Bettany is really good as a villain in the movie. I wish there was a more present antagonist throughout the running time but Bettany proves to be a memorable villain when on screen.
Solo is a fun, fast-paced and is a breezy movie. It does carry on that serial tradition of storytelling. However, it does lack some depth. There are sections of the movie where some of the characters get short shifted, or material isn’t dug into. The movie tends to be glossy and is rather surface level. Even though this is an origin story and the Kasdans do some fine character work, there are times where there is a bit of a missed opportunity to really dig into the character of Solo.
There is no doubt that this is also a “safe entry” in the Star Wars saga. This doesn’t do much to break ground on the franchise but I also reject the notion that it has to be. I really liked Star Wars: The Last Jedi but even I found after watching that entry (an entry that did take so many risks) that Solo was a nice pallet cleanser. It seems to me that these spin-off movies (thus far) are a bit more fan-friendly and delivers more fan service in the process playing more into the larger canon of Star Wars (as a Star Wars I can’t deny this is a fun prospect. I am a fan and I am served). Despite this being a safer and more predictable entry there is still some nice surprises and clever twists. There was one massive reveal (if you’ve seen the movie you know EXACTLY what I am talking about) that literally had me jumping up and down in my seat while tapping my friends on the arm like the Yankees just scored the go-ahead run late in the game, it was that huge.
Does Han Solo need his own movie? No, he doesn’t NEED one. Am I in love with the idea that Lucasfilm is still interested in making more standalone character entries? Not really. Am I glad Solo: A Star Wars Story exists? I am. It is easy to become jaded and cynical with this new Star Wars once a year machine (and lord knows I hope they don’t overkill it) but with a movie as light and fun as this, it is hard not to enjoy it. It won’t become my favorite Star Wars movie but it doesn’t have to be. I came in with the feeling that I might dislike it and had little expectations for it. But I came away with a fun Star Wars adventure that filled the void that the wait for Episode IX has left for me. Solo: A Star Wars Story might not look like much but it’s got it where it counts.