Spoiler-free review: Han Solo's first adventure feels like a fun side story, but lacks the depth and epic feel of the Skywalker tales.
Solo: A Star Wars Story feels a lot like Disney's Aladdin. Both are about a smug young man with humble beginnings but big dreams. Both men fight to get the girl. Both get access to sweet rides like a magic carpet or the Millennium Falcon. And both maintain a happy-go-lucky attitude amid tough circumstances.
But where Disney was free to create a whole new world with Aladdin, director Ron Howard's Solo is beholden to the same galaxy far, far away we've seen in nine other Star Wars movies (and counting) while still creating its own niche inside of this universe. On top of that, the much publicized dismissal of original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller after six months of filming in favor of Howard led some fans to wonder if this Star Wars tale would feel like Happy Days or Arrested Development.
Thankfully, though much of Han's later life is already told in other films, Solo positions itself at a point along the Star Wars timeline that hasn't been fleshed out much by either the movies or the TV shows. That gives the admittedly simple story a chance to surprise audiences regardless of how well-versed they are in the space opera.
Much of this Star Wars movie takes place away from the ongoing war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance, but the Empire's grip on the galaxy is apparent. You won't see Emperor Palpatine or Darth Vader. But you will see highly patrolled immigration borders separating families, human slavery, propaganda-style advertisements encouraging enlistment in the Imperial Armed Forces and those same forces fighting to indoctrinate unclaimed planets under their rule. Visually, this gritty criminal underworld gets a suitably drab look. Entire communities living under the Empire's rule look desolate.
The movie's driving conflict isn't about either warring side, but over the heist of coaxium, an expensive, explosive fuel worth a ton of money. The hunt for the fuel isn't the most compelling story, but like an accessible Disney film, it's an easy one. The film quickly sets up the idea that the characters need money to pay off their debtors, and hope that by doing so they can buy a ship with the remaining funds and fly away from tyranny.
Showing off and introducing this new "street rat" side of the Star Wars universe takes time though, making the first half feel rather slow. But about halfway through, as Han boards the Millennium Falcon for the first time and meets more of the film's characters, the movie picks up the pace and action. Frenetic battles happen and new CGI creatures make their debut along with plenty of practical special effects to balance them out.
Alden Ehrenreich's younger Han Solo hints at Harrison Ford through clothing and posturing, but the character otherwise hungers to define himself as the pilot he'll eventually become. He's full of moxie, spending more time telling people he's an amazing pilot than proving it. All his bravado and arrogance make for some good laughs, but it's also clear the guy isn't a prodigy yet.
Unlike Han Solo, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) already embody the personas we know, though they're a few decades younger. Glover's Lando is smooth as ever, oozing charisma and already owning plenty of capes when we meet him. Similarly, Chewbacca is just as ferocious yet loyal, while getting some screen time dedicated to his personal motivations.
Solo's connection to new character Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) is established quickly, and Game of Thrones fans can look forward to seeing her in intense action moments as she drives much of the narrative forward.
Despite the film's focus on Solo, Qi'ra and other new female characters get their own chance to shine, much like Rey (Daisy Ridley), Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) have in more recent Star Wars films. Thandie Newton brings the same fiery yet compassionate attitude seen in HBO's Westworld to Val. And audiences will absolutely love feminist droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who hilariously spouts timely political commentary.
Woody Harrelson's Tobias Beckett and Paul Bettany's Dryden Vos also play big parts in the story, the latter surprisingly so considering his role was added during the film's reshoots.
Solo is ultimately Star Wars at its simplest. When you strip out the Jedi and the Force (which wouldn't make sense for Han to encounter this early), you have an origin story of new and old Star Wars characters. It's funny, explores a new corner of the Star Wars universe and is an all-around good time.
But it lacks that feeling of epic-ness you may be used to from a Star Wars movie. This one isn't as complex as The Last Jedi, devastating like The Empire Strikes Back nor is it as fresh as Rogue One. This film is all about stealing fuel to get paid, and the fate of the galaxy is not at risk by these events. But with this movie being essentially a spinoff of the Skywalker family's story, perhaps that comparison isn't quite as fair?
And yes, like with Disney's Marvel films and last year's The Last Jedi, there are moments in this film I am crazy-excited to spoiler-chat once the public gets to see the movie.
If you absolutely must rank the film, as some of my colleagues like to debate to death, you can safely put it somewhere in the middle of your list.
Solo: A Star Wars Story: Here's everything more we know about the latest Star Wars film, including when you can see it, who else stars and what you can expect when it opens.
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