The demystification of the Star Wars Universe continues with "Solo: A Star Wars Story," the second stand-alone adventure (following 2016's "Rogue One") and the 10th overall Star Wars film. It's basically the backstory of one of the saga's most beloved smart-alecks, Han Solo, the pilot of the Millennium Falcon who, along with his pal "Chewie" (his affectionate title for the wookie Chewbacca), get reluctantly entangled in Luke Skywalker's journey to destroy the Death Star and the evil Darth Vader back in the original Episode IV (1977) film. Han would go on to fall in love with a Princess, and have a son who would become the franchise's most recent super-villain nemesis, Kylo Ren. But what led up to Han Solo and Chewbacca coming to arrive in that cantina on Mos Eisley where they originally were hired by Obi-Wan Kenobi and a young Luke? What exactly is Han's history with friend/nemesis Lando Calrissian? What is a "parsec" and why does Han brag about completing the Kessel Run in less than 12 of them? And how exactly did Solo come to know that darned wookie anyways?
(Minor plot spoilers to follow, and then for some more juicier, spoiler-y gossip, check out this article's final paragraph).
If you've been clamoring for the answers to questions like this over the past four decades, then you are teed up and ready to love "Solo: A Star Wars Story." You also were probably happy to hear George Lucas explain away the mystery of the Force in the prequel films (midichlorians much?). Why do we feel the need to fill-in and understand all of life's mysteries? Does the throw-away line from Episode IV - "This is the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs?" - really deserve a 30-minute action sequence in an origin film, nearly 41 years after the line was uttered?
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with wanting to know every small detail of your beloved Star Wars Universe...heck, the original toy line encouraged such thought by creating an action-figure for even the most obscure, background aliens that appeared in each of the original films (it was either encouraging attention to detail, or attempting to make more money, who's to say?). But sometimes the more you know about something, the less special it becomes. And after seeing "Solo: A Star Wars Story" finally hit the big-screen, you can't help but ask yourself: Did this satisfy my geeky cravings? Do I really know any more about any of these characters than I did before?
The first, and most unavoidably glaring problem the film has is that Han Solo is not played by Harrison Ford. How could he be? Ford is now 75, but the young, hot-shot Solo will forever be tied-to and fused with Harrison Ford the actor. Young Alden Ehrenreich ("Hail, Caesar!") picks up the mantle for this new film and to his credit, does a serviceable impression. We accept him as Solo, we even appreciate the little "Ford-isms" and mannerisms he manages to weave into his performance. But we never quite get over the feeling that something is just...missing. He isn't really Han because he really isn't Harrison.
In a galaxy being violently oppressed by the evil Empire, we first find young Solo fast-talking and flying his way out of perilous situations, as one might expect. It should come as no surprise that Solo was a charismatic ladies' man, but it appears that he has also always been just a one-woman gal, since he is partnered up and dare we say "in love with" the adventurous Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke, Khaleesi herself from HBO's "Game of Thrones"). When they are split up, Han vows to return to rescue her, but first he needs to find his own ship. He meets Chewbacca (played for the first time by Joonas Suotamo) and follows a space-pirate Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who becomes somewhat of a mentor to him. He also comes across young Lando (Donald Glover), who apparently hasn't changed much between this time period and his eventual Billy Dee Williams years to come. Since there has to be an antagonist, we get Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), the first of several thug-gangsters Han will have dealings with throughout his space-smuggling career.
Donald Glover's take on Lando might be the film's most enjoyable role, as he nails the character's spirit, look and even voice. But it's just too bad that Lando is such a one-note character, given nothing really to do except things that we might expect young Lando to do. Why not flesh these characters out a bit instead of the blatant fan-service?
There is action and humor, but there is also no sense of depth or consequence. One inherent problem with making an origin story is that you know the main characters are going to make it through whatever comes their way...they have to, or they wouldn't have been in the previous films. And the characters that we are meeting for the first time? Many of them might as well put on their red Star Trek uniforms and march to the front lines to meet their fates (yes, I just managed to make a "Star Trek" reference inside of a "Star Wars" review). We also know that there must have been no clear vision as to what they wanted to do or where they wanted to take these characters beyond this film, since we know that the original directing duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller ("The LEGO Movie") were replaced during production by director Ron Howard due to - allegedly - differing ideas with Disney as to the overall tone that "Solo" should have. This confusion of leadership shows on-screen. The relentless pace of the first half of the film also seems to be driven by desperation, as if the filmmakers know that they have to keep their base entertained with explosions and chases, lest they notice the thin premise they're presenting us with.
The good news is that "Solo: A Star Wars Story" feels like it belongs in the Star Wars Universe (despite the lack of the iconic logo and music at the very beginning). It expands on things that we already knew about some of our favorite characters, and gives us more time to spend with them. What it doesn't do, is expand the mythology in any way, and unlike the far better "Rogue One," it lacks the confidence to tell a different kind of story, the likes of which we wouldn't be expecting. And that's ultimately why "Solo" struggles: It's exactly what you would expect it to be. On the other hand, it's not nearly as bad as it could have been.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy. Run Time: 2 hours and 15minutes.
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany, Thandie Newton, Warwick Davis.
Directed by Ron Howard ("Inferno," "Rush," "The Da Vinci Code," "Cinderella Man," "Apollo 13," "Backdraft," "Willow," "Cocoon").
SPOILER PORTION: If you're reading this paragraph, you may not mind the film being spoiled, but we will still save the best surprises and twists for you in the theater. That being said, "Solo: A Star Wars Story" contains a MAJOR plot development that will have fans up in a frenzy as they leave the theaters. Is that character at the end of the film the character that we think it is? The answer: Yes. If you stay through the end credits, there is no additional "stinger" scene, but the credits themselves reveal the character as who we know him to be, because it shows his name and the actor who played him. What does this mean for the upcoming Star Wars films? How can this be possible, and doesn't that change nearly everything that we know, including what we know of the original Star Wars trilogy? Can't wait to read fan analysis and predictions of this mega-scene!