After Star Wars: The Last Jedi infamously divided audiences late last year, Disney and LucasFilm’s sophomore attempt at a spin-off movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story, seemed poised to once again deliver the kind of digestible Star Wars experience that most viewers can agree on. That would be evidently true at least, had the movie not run into significant production issues, complete with even losing originally planned co-directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller halfway through production. Despite the pedigree of director, Ron Howard, who took over for Lord and Miller, and ultimately finished putting together the movie, there was quite a bit of anxiety around Solo, which was already saddled with the unenviable task of filling in key parts of the backstory behind one of the most beloved characters in Star Wars canon.
The good news however is, much like its title hero, Solo doesn’t care to dwell on the odds, and manages to unexpectedly defy them with a Star Wars spin-off movie that satisfies with what it sets out to do. The movie is well-performed, has plenty of excitement, and will indeed please longtime Star Wars fans with no shortage of fan service. Even so however, Solo didn’t entirely manage to escape its apparent production difficulties, which clearly have it playing defense in the realm of pleasing Star Wars fans, younger audiences and general Disney enthusiasts all at the same time. This necessity sadly robs Solo of its potential grit and teeth, leading to an adventure that satisfies well enough, but also doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression.
Thus, Solo is a competent movie that doesn’t feel truly necessary, nor does it add anything truly meaningful to Star Wars canon. As fun and cool as it is, most fans could have filled in many of the key story points with their own imaginations, and at its worst, the imaginations of fans probably concocted far more fun and elaborate scenarios and challenges than what Han Solo, Chewbacca and the rest of their ragtag crew ultimately face in Solo. If you don’t mind the fact that Solo is ultimately a lot of empty cinematic calories that succeeds at fun escapism and not much else however, then you’ll still enjoy yourself. For what it’s worth, a more straightforward and conservative Star Wars movie may be a necessary antidote for some fans to boot, if they happened to be among those put off by the more controversial Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Solo, naturally, stars Han Solo, in his pre-smuggler and pre-Harrison Ford-era days, now portrayed in his younger incarnation by Alden Ehrenreich. During the timeline of Solo, which takes place shortly after the events of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, during the early rise of the Galactic Empire, Han begins as a ‘scrumrat’ (essentially a street urchin-for-hire), in service to a ruthless gangster (no, not the one you’re thinking of), on the grungy planet, Corellia. Solo is meant to cover how Han goes from being a downtrodden criminal lackey to finding the path of the charismatic Rebellion ally that he ultimately becomes in the original Star Wars trilogy, and it does do that… Sort of.
Ehrenreich, while he’s easily shadowed by Harrison Ford, and doesn’t quite manage to achieve the same level of gritty charm as Ford’s earlier Han Solo incarnation always did, manages to deliver a worthy performance as the younger Han, scrappy and silver-tongued enough to fit the future smuggler’s metaphorical boots, if not perfectly snugly. Despite Ehrenreich’s valiant efforts however, the central journey of Han Solo’s origin is ultimately more shallow than you may have previously believed. Han is already a resourceful, crafty and street-smart guy right from the very start of the movie, so there isn’t really much evolving for him to ultimately do, which is strike one against Solo. This origin story of sorts is still entertaining, but you already know where it’s going, and by the end of the movie, Han doesn’t ultimately change that much, if at all. This is one of the biggest reasons why Solo feels like it disappointingly lacks impact, and too often feels like an inessential spin-off.
Surprisingly, the real heart of the movie is more accurately Chewbacca, who actually does have something of a real character arc in Solo, starting out as a directionless Wookie slave that eventually finds the direction and motivation to become a key fighter against the Empire. Ehrenreich does manage to sell the chemistry with Chewbacca very nicely, and there are certainly shades of Ford’s performance in the Han/Chewbacca interactions, which, if nothing else, at least helps Solo feel like it authentically fits in the Star Wars universe, even if it doesn’t break any actual new ground for it.
The same is also true of Ehrenreich’s and Donald Glover’s interactions, with Glover portraying a younger, even cockier rendition of another fan-favourite Star Wars character, Lando Calrissian, who was immortalized by Billy Dee Williams’ iconic performance in the original Star Wars trilogy. Sadly though, Glover’s younger Lando also falls into the same trap as Ehrenreich’s younger Han, in that he’s pretty much already the cool, classy gambler/smuggler that he always was when Billy Dee portrayed him in the latter two original Star Wars movies. There’s nowhere else for Lando’s character to truly go, and this has Glover once again delivering a fitting and fun Lando turn that perfectly balances paying tribute to Billy Dee without recycling the exact same former performance, yet is also let down by the fact that Solo too often fails to take risks with two of its established lead characters, leaving little reason to invest in Lando here, beyond what we already knew about him from two movies that released decades ago.
As for the all-new personalities that are introduced in Solo, they’re also backed by some great performances, with Woody Harrelson and Emilia Clarke being the big standouts as Han’s mentor, Tobias Beckett and Han’s love interest, Qi’ra, respectively. Beckett does have another crew when he’s first introduced, but they’re barely worth mentioning, since they have disappointingly little screentime, and barely any actual stake in the storyline. Harrelson’s Beckett is at least the one point where Solo isn’t afraid to delve into true moral ambiguity though, creating an intriguing character that is inspiring and unreliable at the same time. It feels like Beckett got all of the interesting traits that Han should have had in the movie, had Solo not ended up becoming petrified of both pissing off Star Wars fans, and/or making the younger Han too unlikable for everyone else. Beckett actually has the grit and teeth that the younger Han’s character should have had in Solo, and that’s frustrating when Beckett never seems to truly rub off on Han in any meaningful way.
Qi’ra, meanwhile, is another of Solo’s better characters, particularly with how Emilia Clarke also manages to inject some interesting shades of grey into her on-screen personality, namely by being connected to main antagonist, Dryden Vos, played by a frustratingly under-utilized Paul Bettany. Qi’ra, like Han, grew up on the mean streets of Cordellia, and that gives her a survivors’ strength that ends up providing a marginally more palpable effect on Han’s ‘evolution’ into the hero we know from the original Star Wars trilogy. Once again though, these turns that Clarke’s character takes should have been turns explored with Han himself. As with Beckett, Qi’ra ends up upstaging Solo’s own titular subject too often, making the kind of character impact that sometimes makes you wonder if she should have been the focus of this movie, rather than Han. Alas, you couldn’t sell such a prospect to most Star Wars fans though, so instead we’re left with a strong cast to headline Solo, yet one that also disappointingly feels a bit wasted by the bland writing, even if their characters are still fun to watch on a surface level.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi played very fast and loose with established Star Wars canon last year, for better or for worse, but if that is indeed a problem, it’s a let-down to see how much Solo’s storyline actually has the opposite issue. Again, if you were put off by the drastic upheaval of canonical chaos in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, maybe Solo will feel more digestible and comfortable for you, but it’s also impossible to deny that Solo is a huge missed opportunity in terms of its plot, which seemingly hits all of the most predictable beats that it possibly could have. Solo does manage a good twist here and there, especially towards its conclusion, but for too much of the storyline, the boilerplate writing and workmanlike adherence to Star Wars fans’ recurring expectations leads to a movie that too often feels like it’s just going through the motions, and doesn’t have the sense of passion, surprise and spark that this kind of spin-off so desperately needs.
On the other hand, there’s nothing really wrong with the storyline in Solo, which is reasonably put-together, if also very forgettable. Chances are though, if you predicted scenarios for several of Han’s quips and references in the original Star Wars movies, the way these expected moments unfold in Solo is either the exact same as how you imagined them, or at worst, noticeably less inspired. You do see key elements of Han’s backstory in Solo, such as how he met Chewbacca, and how he mastered that ever-interesting Kessel Run in twelve parsecs (yes, a ‘parsec’ is still illogically treated as measuring speed in the Star Wars universe, not distance like it does in the real world), but these scenarios are often significantly less interesting or shocking than you would hope for.
These key backstory moments can be fun in Solo, sure, but they never quite surprise or ‘pop’ the way that they should. Instead, they function, they briefly amuse, and then Solo moves on with a shrug, when it should be taxing its imagination to make us re-think what we thought we knew about some of the best and most beloved characters in Star Wars history. Instead, Solo wimps out, and just reinforces what we already know, with Disney and LucasFilm seemingly afraid to incur the wrath of Star Wars fans yet again. Fan service is well and good, but it’s also true that fans don’t always know best, unpopular as that truth may be. Thus, it’s really hard for Solo to sell a plucky, devil-may-care anti-hero when the movie itself seemingly has no courage of its own.
Solo originally began as a seemingly more light-hearted movie, to be overseen by The LEGO Movie co-directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. When Lord and Miller ended up clashing with LucasFilm and failing to jive with Solo’s main actors however, they were ultimately booted from the production halfway through shooting, and replaced by more agreeable director, Ron Howard. This makes Solo an interesting product of two directing teams, much like Warner Bros.’ and DC’s Justice League movie was last year, albeit inverted in this case, since Justice League’s director change lightened up much of the movie’s final product, while Solo’s director swap seems to have made an attempt to darken it. Indeed, the scenes that Howard had the most control over seem to stick out as being quite literally darker, not just metaphorically, but also literally, with Solo sporting one of the most dulled colour palettes in Star Wars history during many of these sequences.
The sequences that Lord and Miller seemed to have the biggest hand in meanwhile feel a bit more mischievous in nature, though it still seems clear that Howard has toned down sequences that were blatantly meant to be improvisational and humourous. Solo thankfully mostly avoids the feeling of being confused in tone, but at the cost of making its direction sometimes feel as bland as its script. Some scenes manage to be exciting, particularly the bulk of action scenes, though others feel like they were put together with the simple objective of being competent, rather than truly exceptional. There’s not too many moments in the direction, cinematography or anything related that really leave much of a lasting impact on the viewer, with Solo once again fumbling the ball when it comes to standing out from other Star Wars movies. It does enough to fit comfortably in the Star Wars universe, like I said, but this movie deserved so much more of a unique identity, and it just doesn’t have it, instead usually settling for the low-hanging fruits of recognizable style, when it should be going all out on roguish fun.
John Powell primarily composes the musical score for Solo, with some themes adapted from the timeless original Star Wars movie compositions by John Williams. It can be fun to hear some of the familiar Han Solo and Star Wars orchestral flourishes to inject at least a bit of that recognizable Star Wars energy into a few of the more exciting scenes, especially those that are explicitly meant to call back to implied moments that Han mentioned in passing during the original Star Wars movies. The rest of the soundtrack however, like many other elements of Solo, doesn’t stand out as much as it should. Again, there’s nothing really wrong with the music, but it’s also some of the least memorable music in Star Wars movie history, with Powell also seemingly not sure how to really connect with the material beyond what’s reliably expected of the soundtrack to perform.
The rest of the audio design is most of what you’d expect from any given Star Wars movie, with familiar audio flourishes like blaster fire and the engines of the Millennium Falcon all alive and well in Solo. Another evident touch by replacement director, Howard however is that some of the intensity in close-quarters action scenes is highly cranked up, almost in an effort to emulate the more intimate and intense scale of previous Star Wars spin-off movie, Rogue One. Maybe Lord and Miller leaned too much into the cartoon-ish side of Star Wars action, but even the sound mixing in Solo feels like it sometimes misses the point of what’s supposed to make Star Wars fun. There are a handful of moments where some of Lord and Miller’s semi-conducted chaos appears to be intact in the audio, and it can be pretty amusing, but these bits also feel randomly intercut between other moments that Howard clearly designed to sound more intense and scary. Perhaps the audio is the one area where it’s very evident that two different directing teams worked on Solo, with very different visions. Honestly, Solo might have been better off with the lighter tone here as well, since that at least would have been more distinct, even if the audio we do get in Solo still won’t struggle to engage you.
As I mentioned, Solo’s colour palette isn’t the best, since it sometimes feels more dark and dull-looking than it really should be. This really does feel like a dis-service to the Star Wars universe, since the Star Wars franchise in general has constantly been celebrated for its bright, eye-catching presentation, even during especially dark and dramatic movies like Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Solo appearing darker and more washed-out, by contrast, definitely doesn’t do it any favours when it already blatantly fails to stand apart from other Star Wars movies, even if the action scenes still at least manage to be appropriately flashy and well-choreographed. The all-important Kessel Run is easily the most impressive moment of the action in Solo, even if a lot of it is naturally done with CGI, though this doesn’t even mark the climax, which disappointingly leaves the movie running on fumes by the time its proper climactic turn unfolds. Still, even during the blandest moments in Solo, at least the creature design remains fantastic, continuing to do one of the cornerstones of Star Wars production design proud with some more highly imaginative new species introductions.
As for the 3D and IMAX quality, I got to experience both, as my Solo screening was the fully-loaded IMAX 3D cut. Disappointingly though, neither of these upgrades seem to add much to the experience. The 3D presentation is acceptable, but it definitely is one of the weaker 3D jobs among Disney’s new run of Star Wars movies, adding a bit of heightened immersion during the wide shots, flight-driven moments and space showcases, and not much else. If you’d rather just watch Solo flat in 2D, you’re really not missing anything by skipping the 3D glasses in this case. As for the IMAX presentation, again, it’s acceptable, but not really exemplary in any way. A few of the wider shots do nicely take advantage of the enhanced IMAX screen, but Solo’s smaller scale leaves it dwarfed by the IMAX cuts of Disney’s former three Star Wars movies of the past several years, with only the Kessel Run and a couple of other highlight moments effectively benefiting from the added IMAX theatre scale. If you could care less, you may want to save your money and skip the 3D and/or IMAX upgrades for Solo, since it’s still a good-looking Star Wars movie, but the ones that Disney provided beforehand definitely looked a lot more impressive in premium formats.
Solo manages to do its job, which is still fairly commendable after all of the production hiccups it suffered, but it’s really disappointing that it doesn’t accomplish much more than the bare minimum of expectations for a Star Wars spin-off movie. Solo is certainly fun in the moment, and Star Wars fans in particular will probably enjoy it if their expectations aren’t astronomical, but it’s also frustratingly forgettable and too often predictable. For all of its defying of its production issues, Solo nonetheless feels like it doesn’t truly need to exist, and that’s a problem that Disney still hasn’t managed to fully fix with their initial run of Star Wars spin-off movies, after Rogue One also didn’t manage to provide too much of note to overall Star Wars canon back in 2016. It’s still borderline miraculous that Solo managed to deliver a competent final product less than half a year after Star Wars: The Last Jedi hit theatres, defiantly refusing to abandon its late May release window despite its production woes, but maybe Disney should have bitten the bullet and pushed the movie back to the usual December window, if there was any chance of adding more real character, shock and/or style to Solo.
Alas, that didn’t happen. This leaves Solo delivering to Star Wars fans what they’d approximately expect from an origin movie about a younger Han Solo, but nothing beyond that. If that’s good enough for you, then I can heartily recommend Solo as a basic, but reasonably entertaining Star Wars offshoot, even if it is a missed opportunity that deserved to make more of a narrative splash than it ultimately does. It’s undeniably weird that Disney approved so many challenges and upheavals of canon in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, only to then turn around and seemingly cower before the Star Wars fanbase with Solo, a movie that seems actively terrified of offending the Star Wars faithful, to a fault. For whatever frustrations that Star Wars: The Last Jedi presented, it was at least also a movie that elicited strong and worthy emotional reactions from the audience, and was well worth dissecting, discussing and formulating a decisive opinion on. Solo, meanwhile, just feels like it’s taking up space in the Star Wars movie catalogue, and not accomplishing much else. It really deserved better.
Disney has implied that, while there are no concrete plans for a dedicated Solo sequel at this point, Ehrenreich’s younger Han is planned to show up again in future Star Wars projects in some capacity, likely in some other spin-off movie down the line. I do hope that this new, younger incarnation of the character is allowed to explore a story that’s truly worthy of Han Solo’s legacy in the future, because Solo feels too fleeting and toothless to fully do the character justice in a starring role. Solo does manage to avoid being offensive or truly sub-par, mind you, but I find myself wishing that it instead dared to challenge audiences more. It’s tough to feel that satisfied with the prospect of learning more about Han Solo when an entire movie says that he was never anything less than the hero we came to love. In that case, why even waste the energy arguing that Han would pre-emptively shoot Greedo first in the original Star Wars movie? If Solo is any indication, Han came pre-packaged as a Rebellion savour, so his criminal dealings might as well be an inconsequential footnote in Star Wars lore.
Which brings me back to the question; Why does Solo exist? Yes, it’s not hurting anyone, but I’m not sure why it bothered to show up either, if that’s all it had to say.
- Ehrenreich and Glover nicely headline a strong cast
- Some reasonably enjoyable action scenes, especially the Kessel Run
- A couple of more inspired plot twists later in the movie
- The overall story is ultimately too bland and rote to truly make an impact
- Direction and visual suite too often lack enthusiasm
- Completely fails to stand out or provide any compelling addition to Star Wars canon