From the moment the traditional text that fills in the backstory of this latest Star Wars film appears onscreen, it’s apparent that something’s a bit off.
Unlike Gareth Edwards’ surprisingly enjoyable war movie/heist picture, Rogue One—the first standalone film to deviate from the episodes focusing on the Skywalker clan—Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story suffers greatly from what was probably always going to be an identity crisis.
Howard replaced Solo’s original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, after they’d already shot three-quarters of the script penned by fan favorite Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan. Although both pictures were notoriously troubled productions requiring extensive and expensive reshoots to correct course—an uncredited Tony Gilroy (writer/director of Michael Clayton) supplied a new third act and more for Rogue One without Edwards’ involvement—the finished version of Rogue One differentiated itself immediately by dispensing altogether with Star Wars’ opening title crawl.
Solo, meanwhile, begins with a half-measure. Instead of eschewing the opening text, Howard simply presents it in a different manner. Rather than scrolling up toward infinity, the words that he uses to set up the adventure-filled origin story of intergalactic smuggler and scoundrel Han Solo are blandly displayed without any screen movement at all. But then, what better way to begin a movie that notably lacks forward momentum?
To be honest, it’d be shocking if anyone could pull off a film about a proto-Solo. It’d be interesting to see what kind of gonzo comic tone that Lord and Miller—best known as the creative forces behind The Lego Movie, along with 21 Jump Street and its sequel—were conjuring for their visit to a galaxy far, far away. Alas, the elder Kasdan—writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi—was reportedly not too thrilled with any liberties the improv-friendly duo were taking with his latest script, so he prompted Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy to take the unprecedented step of replacing them late in filming with team player Howard, whose own creative force aligned far more easily with Disney’s business-minded vision of the Force.
If you’re going to take the ill-advised step of dramatizing the early years of Star Wars’ most enigmatic bad boy, the last thing you want to do is play it safe. And yet, that’s exactly what’s been done, both from a story and character standpoint. Perhaps nobody could have filled the boots of 75-year-old Harrison Ford, who first shot this role in 1977. Although 28-year-old Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!) brings a certain amount of swagger to his portrayal, he lacks the hot-headed temperament best embodied by the combination of Ford’s icy stare and his Finger Point of Doom. Amazingly, this signature gesture isn’t deployed even once in this Western-influenced noir that doubles as yet another heist-driven Star Wars movie.
There is, of course, still fan service to be found. But there’s a remarkable amount of subtlety and restraint shown when the film does nod to certain iconic lines of dialogue or Han’s propensity to ditch cargo at the first sign of trouble—always a no-no for successful smugglers. Despite this, it doesn’t seem like Ehrenreich and Ford are playing the same Solo, which robs some sequences of their intended power such as in the first meeting between Han and his longtime friend and co-pilot, Chewbacca. The Wookiee, however, still comes off as his same old self (190 years old!) even though the role made famous by 73-year-old Peter Mayhew has been successfully taken over by 31-year-old Joonas Suotamo, a former Finnish basketball player.
Even better is Donald Glover (the talented actor, producer, writer, director, comedian and Grammy-winning performer behind musical alter-ego Childish Gambino), who effortlessly slips into Billy Dee Williams’ super-fly capes as a spectacularly believable Lando Calrissian, the gambler who’s destined to lose the Millennium Falcon, his prized space cruiser, in a card game to Solo. If only there were a film called Lando.
Instead, Solo is a rather soulless cover version of a character that isn’t even enlivened by the wall-to-wall music that backs his every move. And although legendary Star Wars composer John Williams is credited with finally supplying Han with his own musical theme, it’s mixed too sparsely among the bombastic white noise of a disappointing score from the usually reliable John Powell, who’s previously helped films like How to Train Your Dragon take flight.
But rather than soar, Solo and the Falcon barely get off the ground, never mind into orbit. ◆
Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau, Linda Hunt and Donald Glover. Written by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan, based on characters created by George Lucas. Directed by Ron Howard. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, Seaport, South Bay and in the suburbs.