Ron Howard should not have directed this Star Wars Story. A rollicking mix-em-up of heist flick, war film, western and Indiana Jones-style adventure (in this case: Temple of Doom), Solo handsomely runs our titular hero (portrayed believably enough by Alden Ehrenreich) through one episode of fan service after another, setting up big action set pieces to make sure that everything you know about Han Solo from Episodes 4-6 finds its genesis here. Han gives himself a last name, meets Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), is gifted the blaster that he’d later use to murder Greedo in cold blood, meets Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando, makes the Kessel Run in less (give or take) than 12 parsecs, first crosses paths with the burgeoning rebellion and ultimately sets out to meet Jabba the Hutt on Tatooine, all within the course of what probably amounts to a couple days. It’s pretty graceless—and borderline nonsensical—if you think about it too hard, as if screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and son Jonathan were bloodlessly ticking off boxes on their contracts, remembering every once in a while to have Han refer to an accomplice as “buddy.” Han calls everyone buddy.
What more should we expect? A new entry in Star Wars canon is too much of a spectacle to cover anything less than the cornerstones of these characters we’ve grown to love, and Solo accordingly matches its scale to the expectations of such a franchise event. Which is perhaps where Chris Miller and Phil Lord may have strayed from studio mandate, leading to them ultimately leaving the film: Ron Howard can handle big films, can toe the line, while Lord and Miller may have been aiming at something too entirely different, too open to improvisation and character intimacy, to give Kathleen Kennedy and co. (probably including the Kasdans, whose script is workmanlike at best) what they wanted. Which is of course speculation, but Solo’s sense of scale, while impressive, seems to dominate all other aspects of the film. A relatively small, scrappy, self-contained story about Han Solo in the years before meeting Luke Skywalker has no place in Disney’s new canon.
Howard covers a lot of ground with the kind of hyper-efficiency we can expect from a visual storyteller with his experience. Han—whose age is indeterminate, supposedly anywhere between 16 and 27, which doesn’t do anyone any favors as far as offering a semblance of context—lives in indentured servitude on the planet of Corellia, which is, like all Star Wars planets, seemingly made up entirely of one city or environment, in this case interchangeable industrial dystopia. Galactic power constantly shifting between crime syndicates, the Empire has risen to exploit the decentralized factions and consolidate its influence—meaning Solo must take place after Revenge of the Sith but before Rogue One? The film never clarifies, which is strange given that it struggles so hard throughout the rest of the film to time Han’s journey within a very specific place in Star Wars lore, the result being the sense that Solo is both trying too much and not enough.
In a daring attempt to escape his crap life alongside his girlfriend and fellow urchin Q’ira (Emilia Clarke), Han makes it past Imperial border security, but Q’ira isn’t so lucky. Vowing to return to Corellia one day to save her, Han joins the Imperial army under the assumption that he can both hide and earn a ship he can use to then desert the Empire. Two years later, still a grunt in the neverending war strangling the galaxy, Han meets Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton) and Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau), the four-armed Ardennian who gives Han the boost of confidence he needs to pursue his dream of being the best pilot ever. Not that Han needs a boost in confidence: Much of his adventures simply seem to occur, Han ably lucking his way through every danger, conveniently knowing the Wookiee language when he needs to, or having impressive aim with a blaster because that’s what the situation demands. Which would be welcome were the tone of the film not so at odds with itself, Bradford Young’s stunning cinematography, washed out and grimly stark, befitting a much bleaker film, while the maverick cad Han Solo, as chuckled together by Ehrenreich, appears to be swaggering through something so much looser.
Han and Q’ira inevitably reunite, even though she is now holding a weird role at the top of Dryden Vos’s (Paul Bettany, appropriately unhinged) vicious crime organization, Crimson Dawn, and Han, along with Beckett and Chewie, owe Vos a lot of coaxium, the ultra-rare, ultra-expensive starship fuel. Cue the obligatory “Kessel Run,” which involves convincing Lando to let them use the Millennium Falcon, replete with L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who is—for a droid—very “woke.” On Kessel, L3 incites a droid riot, freeing her fellow machines from bondage. When L3 falls victim to her own progressivism, Lando merges her dying CPU with the Millennium Falcon in order to give the ship her prodigious navigational “brain.” The droid who was once a firebrand for droid rights ends up slave to Han and Chewie for the rest of their lives.
The film also implies that Lando and L3 have a much-too-close, even physical, relationship, which makes Lando ultimately losing his friend and droid lover to Han and Chewie, subjugated for the rest of her “life” to them, one of many threads the film never bothers to tie up. Because, instead, we have a desert planet sporadically populated by silent, vaguely exotic black people to get to so Han can save them. Solo could be guilty of tokenism—it is—were everyone in the film not a token, a shallow representation of these beloved characters that doesn’t really add anything new or imaginative to the universe besides what we already know well to be true. When Q’ira tells Han that he’s the “good guy,” we get why she’s saying it, but Han’s still going to go on to murder plenty of humans/aliens and otherwise selfishly cruise the starscape, probably doing a bunch of lowkey heinous stuff before he falls in with the Rebellion in A New Hope.
Regardless, Solo is a good time at the movies, even if Howard should not have helmed it. He’s never been much of an action director, but his limitations are painful here, every fight and shootout as coherent as a car chase conceived by Olivier Megaton. While Howard thrives in scale, he lacks imagination for what he could do with this lived-in property, and the Kasdans’ script follows suit. Instead of exploring what a western or a heist film could be in the Star Wars universe, he rips two identical shots directly from Sergio Leone and transforms what could have been an iconic scene—Han winning the Millennium Falcon from Lando in a card game—into an exercise in not trusting your audience to be remotely intelligent. Which may be Solo’s saving grace: It’s a pretty great blockbuster if you don’t think about it much.
Director: Ron Howard
Writers; Lawrence Kasdan, Jonathan Kasdan
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau, Joonas Suotamo
Release Date: May 25, 2018
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.