by Andrew Wyatt on May 23, 2018

For decades, it was an open secret among serious Star Wars fans that some of the franchise’s most imaginative and stimulating stories could be found not on the silver screen, but in the so-called Expanded Universe (EU) of novels, comics, video games, and other media that carried the series’ logo. One of the prevailing virtues of George Lucas’ blockbuster creation is the rich potential of its fantasy-flavored space-opera setting, and for years ambitious writers and artists have spun innumerable stories from Lucas’ raw materials – all set in a galaxy far, far away, but encompassing myriad genres, tones, and levels of quality.

The EU was dramatically upended in 2014, when Lucasfilm’s new masters at Disney announced a fresh approach to the sprawling Star Wars canon. Whereas previously the EU had existed in a kind of secondary, twilight space – official in their branding, but “sub-canon” in relation to the feature films – now every fiction with the Star Wars name would be intertwined and internally coherent, beginning with the retroactive canonicity of the astonishingly excellent Clone Wars television series (2008-15). Perhaps most tantalizing to fans was the announcement that feature films outside the core “Episode” chapters would be produced. Here, at last, was an opportunity for the dazzling promise of the Star Wars setting to be explored at a blockbuster level.

The grim Episode IV prequel Rogue One (2016) was the first such entry, and while it remains a strangely undervalued chapter in Star Wars cinema just two years later, it did reveal the weaknesses of Disney’s initial approach to these supplementary films, branded Star Wars Stories. Director Gareth Edwards put a marvelously forbidding spin on the story of how exactly the Rebel Alliance filched the Death Star plans from the Galactic Empire, but Rogue One suffered from its sweaty efforts to wedge in fan-service jokes and connect the film to the events of A New Hope. Although tonally distinct from its forebears, Edwards’ film signaled that Disney was opting for the safe and familiar, indulgently filling in the narrative gaps immediately adjacent to the franchise’s greatest hits rather than venturing boldly across time and space. (Bioware’s acclaimed 2003 Xbox game Knights of the Old Republic, set 4,000 years before the original film trilogy but still recognizably Star Wars, was perhaps closer to what more adventurous fans were hoping for.)

Now the second such Star Wars Story has arrived, and it is, if anything, an even safer and more familiar digression from the core Episodes. Rogue One presented a bracing and terrifying depiction of Darth Vader – and threw in some cameos from tertiary heroes like Mon Mothma and Bail Organa – but it rested primarily on the shoulders of its vivid new characters. Solo, on the other hand, is built on the assumption that filmgoers longed to see the younger, formative years of their favorite heroes from the original cinematic trilogy. As one might expect, the new film is focused on a fresh-faced Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), although it also makes time for the notorious smuggler’s right-hand Wookiee Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and suave gambler-cum-frenemy Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). There are new characters, of course, but the “built-in audience” that studios covet won’t be lining up for Solo to see grizzled master thief Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) or underworld femme fatale Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke).

There’s no use in mincing words: Notwithstanding the broad pop-cultural familiarity of its main characters, Solo is a deep cut as Star Wars films go, a work primarily of interest to the franchise’s most devoted fans. There’s nothing overtly dislikable about it, and compared to the gaudy, lumbering fiascoes that were Episodes I-III, it’s almost classical in its plot, tone, and sensibilities. This is hardly surprising, given the presence of studio journeymen and occasional almost-auteur Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) in the director’s chair. Taking the wheel after a rather public and embarrassing falling-out between Disney and the film’s original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Howard righted the ship capably, if the onscreen evidence is any indication. There aren’t any glaring seams in Solo, which gives Howard a welcome opportunity to flex his often-underappreciated action-cinema muscles (Willow, Rush, In the Heart of the Sea).

Howard’s reputation for crafting films that are “good enough” – not entirely deserved, as his directorial oeuvre includes both near-masterpieces and unbearable claptrap – is perfectly in line with Solo’s meta-franchise ambitions. Following last year’s critically praised, fandom-dividing The Last Jedi, Disney almost seems to be positioning its latest Star Wars Story as a palate-cleanser. Strip away the starships and blasters, and Solo is essentially a heist film combined with a skin-deep character study, owing its plot beats to both post-Furious contemporary action cinema and the Warner Bros. crime dramas of the 1930s and ’40s (The Public Enemy, The Big Sleep). The tone, however, is pure PG-13 breeziness, and even the film’s numerous betrayals and murders don’t diminish the sensation that Solo is designed to be tween-friendly while also stoking the nostalgia of middle-aged adults for whom Han remains the archetypal cinematic rogue.

The film opens on the grimy, smog-choked streets of Corellia, a shipyard planet where the young Han and Qi’ra live a Dickensian existence trapped under the spindly legs of centipede-like crime boss Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). The couple is young, reckless, and in love, and Han is stupid-lucky enough to nick a few grams of pricey, refined starship super-fuel – just enough to bribe an spaceport official, thereby securing transport off-world for himself and Qi'ra. Sadly, their hastily assembled and clumsily executed plan goes awry: Qi’ra’s is apprehended by underworld heavies and Han is obliged to present himself at an Imperial recruitment center to avoid capture.

Fast-forward three years: Thanks to his problem with authority and smart-ass inclinations, Han has flunked out of naval flight school and now is languishing as a scrub private in the Imperial infantry. Dodging enemy fire and AT-ST walkers on the hellish surface of a subjugated planet is not where the would-be pilot imagined himself, and when he bumps into a trio of savvy thieves posing as soldiers, he seizes on the opportunity to fast-talk (or blackmail) his way into their ranks. Through a convoluted series of events, Han is briefly captured for desertion and imprisoned with ravenous Wookiee slave Chewbacca, only to team up with the creature and escape. The addition of this 8-foot-tall newcomer – whom Han nicknames “Chewie” in short order – ultimately convinces ringleader Tobias Beckett to bring the pair on board for the crew’s latest heist.

Han’s new allies – including explosives expert Val (Thandie Newton) and four-armed alien pilot Rio Durant (Jon Favreau) – lay out a plan to steal a king’s ransom in starship fuel from an automated magnetic railcar on a snowbound planet, all to pay off an underworld debt. The scheme goes spectacularly pear-shaped, thanks to some truly crummy luck and the interference of a rival gang, which means that Beckett is back to square one with Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), a cold-hearted underboss with the Crimson Dawn syndicate. Ever the bullshitter, Han salvages the situation, ad-libbing a proposal for a complex heist that involves filching a cache of unrefined fuel from a cryogenic vault on a mining colony, slipping through a cluster of treacherous dimensional wormholes, and getting the heat-sensitive material to a processing outpost before it becomes critically unstable. (It’s sort of a criminal, hyper-speed variation on the slow, nail-biting nitroglycerine delivery featured in Wages of Fear and Sorcerer.)

There’s also the matter of the sudden reappearance of Qu’ra, who as luck would have it is now a silver-tongued lieutenant in Dryden’s criminal fiefdom – throwing the lovesick Han completely off his game (when it wasn’t all that great to begin with). The new scheme requires a very fast starship, prompting Qu’ra to turn to an old acquaintance: smuggler, card shark, and irrepressible bon vivant Lando Calrissian. The swaggering, self-mythologizing Lando not only brings his modified Corellian freighter Millennium Falcon to the table, but also his feistily independent droid co-pilot, L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), whose celestial navigation skills are vital for Han’s nigh-impossible scheme.

That’s a massive amount of plot for a Star Wars picture that’s ostensibly all about the simple, fan-service pleasures of a young Han Solo bouncing off beloved franchise characters and familiar gangster-movie archetypes. However, while Solo relies on the same A-to-B-to-C, MacGuffin-centered episodic plotting that characterizes innumerable studio tentpoles these days, Howard handles it skillfully enough, keeping a weather eye on the primary, escapist appeal of the Star Wars saga. (These movies should, at bottom, be fun, dammit.) Although it admittedly drags a bit in its final stretch – Howard must love Mexican standoffs, because they pile up quickly at the film’s climax – Solo is lively enough that the viewer doesn’t really feel its 135-minute running time, which is more than one can say of most summer blockbusters that push past the two-hour mark. 

The most salient question about Solo is whether it justifies its own existence: Namely, is there anything that distinguishes it from any other $250 million action-adventure tentpole, aside from the Star Wars branding? Unfortunately, not so much. The film will undoubtedly appeal to the franchise’s fans – whether 14 years old or fortysomething – who have a fondness for the saga’s iconic characters, but it’s hard to recommend Solo strictly as a slice of Hollywood diversion. It’s too cinematically conventional to elicit a galvanic response from the average action filmgoer, and far too enamored with in-jokes, callbacks, and the mythological minutiae of the Star Wars galaxy. (Case in point: One late-film cameo will likely be startling and tantalizing to hardcore franchise devotees, but the viewer who hasn’t binged six seasons of Clone Wars will be baffled by it.)

In places, the screenplay from the father-son pairing of Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan hints at a spikier, more fascinating feature, one less beholden to the tropes and schematic beats of the 21st-century event picture. The acidly charming L3-37 is often at the center of these gestures. A weirder, more daring Solo is visible in her unapologetic droid-liberation worldview – culminating in a scene where she ignites delightfully cartoonish robotic chaos in a control room simply by huffily removing one droid’s restraining bolt. It can also be seen in the deeply weird but enthralling intimation of a simmering, will-they-or-won’t-they romance between L3-37 and Lando. The Kasdans dribble other details into the margins that suggest rich, unexplored narrative threads, particularly an entire, un-captioned subplot between Chewbacca and an enslaved Wookiee miner that evinces more pathos than anything else in the film.

Solo is so hellbent on rushing from one planet to the next while shoehorning in ironic callbacks to previous films that the teasing presence of such breadcrumbs is more frustrating than nourishing. However, as a character study of the titular scoundrel, Solo holds up reasonably well, at least for a studio blockbuster. Ehrenreich, blessedly, doesn’t attempt a Harrison Ford impersonation, but rather concentrates on conjuring the inimitable combination of laid-back charm, growly menace, and comic overconfidence that defines Han. If the actor doesn’t quite hit the mark, it’s largely to the film’s benefit: His iteration of the smuggler comes off as slightly guileless and starry-eyed, which suits Solo’s intent to zero in on the moment when the character’s cynicism truly congealed. In this, Howard’s film functions as an inversion of another prequel from a Harrison Ford franchise, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Where the latter film depicted the adventure that nudged archaeologist Henry Jones Jr. from greed to altruism, Solo pinpoints the downfall of Good Guy Han, who won’t re-emerge until years later, when the smuggler-turned-Rebel comes to Luke Skywalker’s rescue in a Death Star trench.

Rating: C+