Solo: A Star Wars story shouldn’t be as good as it is. By all accounts, Solo: A Star Wars story should be rubbish. It should fall flat with fans. But it isn’t and it won’t.
It’s a film with a troubled development; original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were booted off the project late in production to be replaced by Ron Howard, who apparently ordered a lot of reshoots.
It’s also a film that has rubbed a lot of fans up the wrong way since it was announced; many have pondered whether Han Solo, unquestionably one of the most popular characters in the Star Wars universe even needed an origin story, and the idea of anyone other than Harrison Ford playing the roguish space smuggler struck still more as bordering on sacrilegious.
And yet, against these odds, Solo: A Star Wars Story has turned out to be fantastic. It’s certainly good enough to warrant another film exploring the history of its titular character further and, at the very least, it should prompt executives over at the Fox Network to seriously consider rebooting Firefly.
Joss Whedon’s space western, incidentally, is a decent starting point for Solo; unlike the tentpole Star Wars films (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi), Solo is bereft of honourable characters and high-stakes in which the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance. No, this is a story in which the moral yardstick is a self-admitted rascal and, while he has a moral streak of sorts, its shade is quite definitely grey.
The film’s story begins on Corellia, a planet-sized slum in which children are pressed into slavery by gangsters in return for food and shelter. The audience is spared any footage of Han as a kid – Lucasfilm has clearly learnt a valuable lesson from The Phantom Menace – and they catch up with him as a 20-something urchin whose only desire is to get the money together to buy a ship and get off the planet with his lover Qi’ra.
Events transpire to grant Han his freedom while leaving Qi’ra captive and then we catch up with Solo three years later, working as an Imperial grunt. He was booted out of the Empire’s flight academy – for insubordination, you’ll be shocked to hear – and soon he meets a criminal named Tobias Beckett who, after initially wanting nothing to do with him, starts to see Solo as an asset for a job he has planned. In Beckett’s view, the fact that Solo has recently teamed up with a Wookie named Chewbacca doesn’t hurt either. Shenanigans ensue.
The movie bounces from one action set-piece to another at a pretty fast pace, but the screenplay never feels like a thin line to hang high-octane scenes off. Between a sci-fi train robbery, an infiltration mission on a mine and one of the most nail-bitingly tense space chases in a Star Wars film, the script finds time to lay the groundwork for characters the audience knows and loves (including Solo’s twin bromance with Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon), while introducing a couple of new faces.
As Solo, Alden Ehrenreich is superb, combining the cocksure swagger of Harrison Ford’s performance with just the right amount of bluff bravado and hints of morality. Emilia Clarke (Game Of Thrones) is note-perfect as Qi’ra, ably charting her arch from wide-eyed orphan to formidable power player. Woody Harrelson plays Tobias as a charming rogue, but one you’re never entirely sure about, while Paul Bettany is deliciously terrifying as the film’s main villain Dryden Vos.
The breakout performance here, though, is Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian; funny, nonchalant and ever so suave, the actor finds new beats for an iconic character, who really wasn’t exactly placed centre-stage in the first trilogy. Like Solo, audiences will likely leave the film wanting to know more about this character’s past.
If Solo: A Star Wars Story has a weakness – and it does – it’s that none of the story’s revelations are likely to surprise anyone. Some plot twists are forgone conclusions, given what fans know about the characters and others are telegraphed by newcomers from a mile away. The only real major surprise in the script involves a scene that wanders into spoiler territory, so I won’t reveal it here.
Given its problematic production and weighty fan expectations, though, Solo: A Star Wars Story is something of a triumph. It’s so good in fact, that it would be a real pity if this is the only film Lucasfilm produces that explores this section of Star Wars lore. We’ll just have to wait for the box office take; after all, the last sequel Hollywood makes is the one that fails to make money. In the meantime, fans can take heart that Han Solo’s origin story, as befits the character, is a superb swashbuckling yarn.