- Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) movie review: Corporate concerns – and, possibly, behind-the-scenes problems – get in the way of plot and characters in the latest entry in the now Disney-owned Star Wars franchise. Ron Howard directed; Alden Ehrenreich stars as the titular hero.
- Update: Solo: A Star Wars Story received one Oscar nomination: Best Visual Effects.
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) movie review: Latest entry in the now Disney-owned blockbuster franchise feels the Force of corporate pressure
About halfway through Solo: A Star Wars Story, stylish space pirate and card sharp Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) lounges in his beloved Millennium Falcon and speaks into some sort of holographic Dictaphone, regaling it with one of his previous adventures, which he collective calls the “Calrissian Chronicles.” Upon hearing those words, you’ll have to excuse a person for rolling his eyes at Disney’s presumed attempt to plant the seed for a future film series, or maybe an ABC television show about the swashbuckling – or maybe lightsaber-buckling – exploits of a teenage Lando.
And why wouldn’t hardened cynicism and charges of mercenary intent be our response? After Disney spent $4 billion to acquire Lucasfilm, they spent, by some reports, another $250 million on this movie, which is based on random snippets of dialogue spoken over 40 years ago.
When Han bragged in 1977’s Star Wars that the Millennium Falcon “made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs,” were you wondering how he was able to accomplish such an incredible feat? Upon exiting The Empire Strikes Back 38 years ago, were you really dying for more detail on the card game where Han won the Falcon? And did you have any reason to believe that Han Solo was not the character’s birth name?
Part of the magic of the original trilogy (as opposed to the prequels, which swapped out magic for cumbersome talk of trade routes) was not knowing the answer to those questions. We either filled in the blanks with our imagination or remained wholly content in the knowledge that the lives of these characters began before the movies began, and that was not only okay, it made Luke, Han, Leia, Lando, and everyone else more real.
Lessening your expectations
Well, nuts to that: Disney plans on delivering a new Star Wars something or other every year and since the core ennealogy (I learned a new word!) can only yield so much RIO, we get background-filling offshoots like 2016’s rather exciting WWII spy mission update, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back to feel like it was made by actual adults.
Solo is also subtitled A Star Wars Story which, this time, feels like an attempt to lessen our expectations. Indeed, considering the film’s well-chronicled behind-the-scenes troubles, a lessening of expectations would not be out of order. We’ll never truly know why original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired, but you have to give Star Wars overlord Kathleen Kennedy credit for even hiring them.
The impulse to take creative risks with Star Wars outside the primary I-IX is a noble one. But if Lord and Miller were axed, as reports claim, with only weeks left to shoot, why did Kennedy wait so long? What did she expect from the directors of The Lego Movie? And, most importantly in terms of the final product, is the hiring of the workmanlike, risk-averse director Ron Howard a case of overcorrecting?
The Ron Howard touch
Luckily, the Howard we get here is not the one who cut his teeth on Roger Corman’s 1977 B-movie chase comedy Grand Theft Auto. Instead, it’s the one who directed George Lucas’ 1988 fantasy hit Willow and surprised us all with 2013’s exhilarating race car drama Rush.
Witness Solo’s first action scene on the planet Corellia, where runaways are conscripted into mining coaxium, a powerful spaceship fuel whose main purpose is threatening to explode whenever a scene lacks tension. Young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) has stolen a vial of coaxium and, along with girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), is flying about in a stolen landspeeder with plans of using the coaxium to bribe their way off the planet.
As the chase wears on, the landspeeder and its pursuers gliding inches above the roadway, note the cool industrial greys of the grungy mining complex set upon the water. And as Han makes it off Corellia by hastily enlisting in the Imperial Army, leaving Qi’ra behind, we’re taken by urban interiors that feel like authentic, populated areas, not a Pinewood Studios soundstage overrun by extras. Solo is, at its best, a more textural-looking Star Wars film, with credit going to Howard and his ace DP Bradford Young (Arrival).
Not exactly Harrison Ford’s Han Solo
Because this is not a Holy Trinity Star Wars sequel, the stakes refreshingly don’t involve the fate of a galaxy far, far away. Instead, the stakes involve the fate of a galaxy much closer, where in Burbank, California, Disney suits are praying that Ehrenreich will succeed in convincing audiences that he’ll grow up to become Harrison Ford’s version of Han Solo.
That Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!) fails to accomplish this is not entirely the terrific young actor’s fault. The character, as written by franchise veteran Lawrence Kasdan and his son, Jonathan, is not a proto-version of Princess Leia’s eventual BF, one who will change and mature over the course of many presumed sequels. He is rather the same wisecracking rogue, just younger.
Given that limitation, Ehrenreich has the right amount of cocksure, Western gunslinger swagger, and the ability to huff and point at whoever is annoying him. And when Han smiles as the Falcon goes into hyperdrive for the first time, damn it if we’re not smiling too.
Answering questions you never thought to ask
Ehrenreich’s main job is to answer your questions about Han’s origins, the ones you never thought to ask, while before us unfolds a moderately tasty heist picture.
Three years after his escape from Corellia, Han serves as a grunt in the Imperial Army, dreaming of being a pilot and reuniting with Qi’ra. In the trenches, he befriends eventual mentor Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, doing what he does) and his main squeeze, Val (Thandie Newton, wasted). Together they go AWOL and try to steal a load of coaxium from an elevated train running through a vertiginous mountain pass. It’s an absolutely crackerjack sequence that represents, alas, the highlight of the picture.
When that plan goes south, the group finds itself in the doghouse with “big shot gangster” Dryden Vos, who is played by Paul Bettany after about an hour skimming The Oily Villain Handbook. But Han, of course, has an idea, one that builds to a rather loud and confusing trip into a vortex or a maelstrom or some sort of large, intergalactic space hole.
Solo: A Star Wars Story isn’t a bad film, but it’s weighed down by its pressing desire to not be disappointing. One senses that just completing production was the primary accomplishment to the exclusion of those virtues that made Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back so transporting, such as charm and the childlike delight in bearing witness to a timeless myth.
The relationships suffer greatly, especially the one between Han Solo and Qi’ra. It’s too thinly drawn and Ehrenreich and Clarke have neither the charisma nor the spunk to sell what they’ve been given. Donald Glover cuts a dashing figure but his character feels underused, as if no one was entirely sure what to do with him besides lose a game of cards.
Ultimately, the best relationship is between Han and Chewbacca. Because Chewy can only speak in growls, we add meaning to his angry, plaintive or joyful wails and, unlike the rest of a film so intent on filling in every blank, our conception of what this unlikely pair are expressing to each other is way more emotionally resonant than whatever Howard and Co. could create.
What Solo might have been
But the most intriguing, if not revolutionary, relationship is never fully explored. I’m willing to bet credits to coaxium that Lord and Miller were responsible for the forward-thinking suggestion that Lando was romantically involved with his droid, L3-37. Solo’s oddest exchange involves L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) discussing with Qi’ra, in terms that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Amy Schumer comedy, the possibility of getting more serious with Lando if only she was into him that way.
Although L3-37’s feminism-inspired pleas for robot equality is a joke that never lands, this one scene is the film’s most telling, for it gives us a glimpse of the bonkers little Star Wars riff this could have been, then decided not to be.
For this last-minute lack of gall, we should blame The Force: The force of corporate pressure, the force of fan-servicing, and the force of the anti-creative interests that took a film that should have reached for the stars and, instead, brought it down to earth.
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) movie cast & crew
Director: Ron Howard.
Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan & Jonathan Kasdan.
Based on the characters created by George Lucas.
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Bettany, Ian Kenny, John Tui, Warwick Davis, Clint Howard, Anthony Daniels.
Voice Cast: Jon Favreau, Linda Hunt.
Cinematography: Bradford Young.
Film Editing: Pietro Scalia.
Music: John Powell.
Production Design: Neil Lamont.
Producers: Simon Emanuel, Kathleen Kennedy, and Allison Shearmur.
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
Running Time: 135 min.
Country: United States.
“Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) Movie Review” endnotes
Box office disappointment
According to figures found at boxofficemojo.com, Solo: A Star Wars Story turned out to be a box office disappointment of sorts, grossing $213.8 million in the domestic market and $179.1 million internationally, for a worldwide total of $392.9 million.
As per reports, Solo: A Star Wars Story’s budget was a whopping $275 million, not including marketing and distribution costs.
For comparison’s sake: Budgeted at a reported $200 million (plus marketing and distribution expenses), Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) collected $532.2 million in the U.S. and Canada, in addition to $523.9 million internationally, for a grand total of $1.056 billion.
Solo: A Star Wars Story movie credits via the British Film Institute (BFI) website.
Chewbacca and Alden Ehrenreich Solo: A Star Wars Story movie images: Lucasfilm | Walt Disney Pictures.
“Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) Movie Review: Corporate Considerations” last updated in February 2023.