There will always be something transporting about the music that John Williams has composed for the Star Wars universe. As soon as the old themes and styles of orchestrations (lavish strings, sharp brass) kick in during Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, it’s difficult not to feel a little jolt of excitement — or hope.
The key to the film — to my eye, at least — is that feeling. When Solo works, it soars, but it’s more to do with making what’s being retread feel fresh (not just in terms of familiar property but in terms of its coming-of-age — or perhaps more accurately, coming-of-scruffy-looking-nerfherder — plot) than dazzling audiences with any new material. What purer joy is there, after all, than a romp through space, species, and systems?
This isn’t to say that Solo is a facsimile. Lacking any significant connection to the Jedi rise and fall that forms the backbone of the main series, it’s its own entity, simply taking place in a universe that we’ve gotten to know and love, and embellished by old, familiar musical flourishes. It also happens to star a character from the original series, but like the film itself, he’s best when taken as a compatriot in spirit, but not as an exact replica.
Alden Ehrenreich is a charmer, to be sure, and one of the most impressive, nuanced young actors around (his performance in Hail, Caesar! is a stunner), but his Han Solo is best taken as a character completely divorced from the scoundrel we know thanks to Harrison Ford. He just happens to be named the same thing. It’s a separation that’s made somewhat easier by the fact that Ehrenreich isn’t doing a Ford impression (which is for the best), and is accompanied by a rogue’s gallery that, apart from a couple of players, is entirely new.
Woody Harrelson (who seems to have cornered the market on grumpy mentors in blockbuster franchises) and Thandie Newton make for an appealing team-up to the point that I wished there’d been more of them, and Paul Bettany makes a delightful villain as Dryden Vos, a slick, rich gangster who could easily pull off his own version of Little Shop of Horror’s “Dentist!”
Emilia Clarke is also quite good in a role that (as far as I’m concerned) is perhaps the best use of her talents that I’ve yet seen. She plays Han’s sweetheart, Qi’ra, who becomes his main impetus to take the low road, so as to more quickly return to her. Of course, as with most women in the Star Wars universe, she doesn’t need saving, and there’s much more to her than meets the eye.
As far as the old guard (so to speak) is concerned, Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian steals the show — though, really, he’s so charming that the show might as well just be handed to him. His side of the story falters, however, when it comes to his relationship with his droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). Though their “will-they, won’t-they, oh-they-actually-have” dynamic is well played, it feels awkward when taken in stride with L3’s determination to see some equality when it comes to droid rights. It’s a point that’s come and gone with minimal impact in the series thus far, and the heavier focus on it here, while warranted, isn’t carried through in a way that makes it feel at all thought out, ultimately crippling that part of the story.
It’s a problem throughout the film; Solo was pretty clearly meant to be fun summer fare, and though its efforts at some deeper commentary are appreciated, they’re not balanced in a way that gives them their fair share of the limelight. The journey that Qi’ra takes, for instance, isn’t truly questioned in this installment (though the door is fairly brazenly left open to explore it later), and the optics of a “poor” and abandoned planet being populated solely by mute people of color isn’t one that rings particularly well. (It brought to mind the “Lando’s Summit” sketch from Glover’s recent episode of Saturday Night Live, though less in terms of strict numbers and more in terms of thinness of portrayal.)
The same half-baked quality goes for the genres that Solo passes through, as the very beginning feels like it was pulled from a noir, and Han’s brief foray into the ongoing war is so kinetically and grimly shot that it might as well come from a different movie. These aren’t necessarily bad things, given Howard’s skill as a director, but the degree to which these sidebars are interesting and worth exploring ultimately undermines the way the film stumbles when it tries to get back to explaining Han’s origins.
One of the very first character reveals, as it were, is exactly how Han got his name. It’s an eyeroll-inducing moment, and the kind of scene that goes over about as well as a lead balloon, in contrast with just how breathtakingly exhilarating the film’s first heist sequence is. The script also doesn’t seem to know whether to lean into Han’s roguishness or to portray him as an honest dweeb; in part, this makes sense, as Han is supposed to grow from one into the other, but the balance between the two personality types isn’t level enough for even Ehrenreich to manage to make it seem coherent.
But again, when Solo really gets cooking, it’s roaring fun. Come for the Star Wars, stay for the new characters and rip-roaring action. If this Solo endeavor ends up spawning sequels, maybe the formula will smooth out a little. But for now, it’s all it needs to be as a franchise installment, and not too much more.