When I took Improv Comedy classes a long, long time ago, one of the warm-up exercises to get our creative juices flowing was making up words that sounded like they were from “Star Wars.” Our teacher would approve of terms like Gamma Visor, Keruvian Canal and DET-ROIT Blasters, but not so much things like Space Sanctum, Light Brigade or Galactic Gambit. Even though there was no official rule book, there was a general sense of what makes something feel like genuine “Star Wars” versus knockoff imitation. “Solo” does manage to conjure a “Star Wars” aura, but crafts too many ties to the larger galaxy to be the great, confident, stand-alone film it could.
While “A New Hope” showed Han Solo’s transformation from deadbeat smuggler to honorable rebel devotee, “Solo” pushes that origin decades back when the character was just a two-bit hustler on a no-name planet. Alden Ehrenreich plays the young Solo, more arrogant than charming, a smidgen more quick-witted than actually smart. While “A New Hope’s” Han was something of a lady-killing loner, “Solo’s” hero carries a blaster in one hand and a torch for his ex-gf Qi’ra in the other. Played by Emilia Clarke, Qi’ra has spent years in cahoots with intergalactic criminals after her separation from Han. The attraction is still there, but the innocence of their young love has burnt up in hyperdrive.
Reuniting with Qi’Ra is Han’s driving code, one that brings him into the crosshairs of the unmannerly Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his strong-willed partner Val (Thandie Newton), the sultry Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), Calrissian’s robot romancer L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), and the graaaaaaaggghhh Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). They find themselves running heists and pulling Danny Ocean-inspired schemes at the behest of a criminal syndicate called the Crimson Dawn. While the original trilogy’s heroes were united by a shared hope, “Solo’s” form bonds through mutual distrust.
It’s a refreshing take on “Star Wars,” a feature-length expansion on the idea posited in “The Last Jedi” that most people in the galaxy couldn’t give two shits about whatever’s happening between the Empire and the Rebellion. Han doesn’t join the Imperial ranks because he believes in the cause, the guy just wants to fly starships. And nobody has the time to worry about laser blasts from Star Destroyers or Tie-Fighters when space criminal Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) has their necks on the line.
It’s in these casual moments outside of the Skywalker saga where “Solo” carves the most enjoyment, a showcase of the ragged bar fights and duels happening on home planets while bigger heroes were fighting it out in the stars. The movie doesn’t develop its full personality or panache until its halfway point when all the characters have been introduced, but everything until then is still a relatively fun jaunt. When J.J. Abrams returns to direct Episode IX, he should ask for directorial advice from Ron Howard or the Lord brothers, because the aerial sequences in “Solo” are absolutely stunning.
But, just as “Solo” was coming into its own, it latches onto the greater “Star Wars” universe in a way that isn’t satisfying or entirely necessary. We’re willing to suspend our disbelief that Han met all of his longtime “Star Wars” friends on just one mission, but when certain ties to the larger films reveal themselves near the end, it feels like we’re being pulled out of a fun detour and tractor-beamed back onto gridlocked “Star Wars” traffic.
Ultimately, “Solo” begs the question of what actually constitutes a true stand-alone film in Disney’s “Star Wars” universe. “Rogue One” made no false claims when it served as an independent story but also direct prequel to “A New Hope.” But “Solo” can’t seem to straddle whether it wants to be a prequel to “Rogue One,” a sequel to the prequels, a “previously-seen-on” addendum to “A New Hope,” or just an add-on to Han Solo’s backstory that asks we simultaneously be aware of and ignore everything else that’s happened in “Star Wars” in-between.
Ehrenreich still does an admirable job at Solo, rendering those reports that the actor needed drama coaching moot as he brings style, swagger and heart to the role. Clarke shines as Qi’ra, a woman who’s boiling internal conflict can be felt even when she wears a cool smile on her face. Harrelson acts exactly as himself and in turn gives exactly what we wanted. Glover captures the mannerisms and charm of Billy Dee Williams in a way that’s so uncanny it feels spooky. And Bettany does his best as Vos, even though the villain feels poorly crafted, like it’s only by miracle chance he’d be in a position to cause the heroes so much trouble to start with.
“Solo” certainly possesses the most distinct visual style of a “Star Wars” movie yet, but the replacement of the Lord brothers with Ron Howard can still be felt. The movie juggles between tones, still making us laugh and gripped with suspense, but with an uncertainty that we don’t know when we should be feeling joy or fear. Often times the movie is just plain boring, probably the first “Star Wars” movie you’ll actively check your watch during just to see how close you are to the end of those 135 minutes.
It’s a movie you won’t have a firm conclusion on until a week after you leave the theater. Even then, we’ll still find thinkpieces bubbling up over the next few years with critics proclaiming things like “‘Solo’ is actually worse than ‘The Phantom Menace,'” or “‘Solo'” is so good it puts ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ to shame,'” attempts to justify or recon this movie’s supposed level of quality now that an appropriate amount of time has passed. You’ll still have fun, but it’ll be the most baffling ride you’ve shared with “Star Wars” yet.