Solo: A Star Wars Story

Image: Walt Disney Pictures

By Jarrod Jones. I couldn’t have been the only person who was a parsec away from writing this movie off, could I? Who among us was able to dodge those sketchier-than-Mos-Eisley reports of disharmony on the set of Solo: A Star Wars Story in the lead-up to its conspicuous early-summer release? The jettisoning of directors, the rumors of acting coaches, the hail mary toss to journeyman filmmaker (and Lucasfilm pal) Ron Howard? This flick looked more worse off than Anakin Skywalker did after taking his chances against the high ground.

And yet. While the film spends too much time threading itself into the larger Lucasian tapestry — and let’s not mention how cocky it gets about the prospects of its own sequel — Solo: A Star Wars Story turns out to be a perfectly competent summer trifle, a Star Wars movie that pays the requisite amount of lip service to this wonderfully imperfect franchise before it goes off and does its own thing.

Freedom, that’s what befits famed scoundrel Han Solo. But when we first meet Han (a not-quite-but-almost-there Alden Ehrenreich) he’s but a scruffy-lookin’ scumrat looking to break out of the squalor of Corellia with his lady fair, Qi’ra (the modestly distracting Mother of Dragons herself, Emilia Clarke). Han’s hung up on his best girl, she who is stolen away by the dreaded Empire early on and whom occupies the young man’s every thought in the three years that follow. The tough sell is in these early sequences, which rifle through enough expository dialogue to make a protocol droid blush. (Were they ever capable of such things.)

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Image: Walt Disney Pictures

It’s when Han ventures into his first foray as a criminal that the movie picks up steam. That’s where Chewbacca rears his ferocious mane, of course (Joonas Suotamo is a fine successor to Peter Mayhew). And while ol’ Chewie scarcely functions more as a team mascot in most Star Wars movies, in Solo the Wookie receives character beats that add color to his future relationship with Han in films like Empire Strikes Back and, perhaps more tragically, The Force Awakens. The movie makes damn sure Han and Chewie are besties before the credits roll, and Solo is a better movie because of it. (Also, we get to hear Han garble out a bit of Kashyyyk-speak, which is absolutely adorable.)

What’s fascinating about this particular Star Wars Story is that it’s pretty brazen about punctuating how uninteresting Han is without a crew of colorful characters surrounding him at all times. Han’s dependence on people is what moves the story forward, even if it betrays the cynic we came to love in A New Hope. (Apparently, Han still has too much to lose.) But that dependence means every player serves a function in this film without an ounce of bloat (and saves Mr. Ehrenreich from the burden of carrying this movie on his own shoulders.) Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Jon Favreau are kick-ass standouts. (Respect to Waller-Bridge’s performance as a droid who demands — and then seizes — equal rights.) Woody Harrelson livens things up as Beckett, a roguish mercenary who serves as a role model of sorts to Han, and provides our hero with his iconic blaster just as things start getting fun.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Image: Walt Disney Pictures

And speaking of fun, Donald Glover’s turn as Lando Calrissian is just as marvelous as you’ve heard. Glover doesn’t so much chew scenery here as swallow it whole; his charisma is such to make you want the film break the flow just to follow him wherever he goes. While I’m sure there were plenty of people hankering to see Han Solo con the Millennium Falcon from Lando in a game of chance — projected onto an IMAX screen, natch — these perfunctory moments demand chemistry, and Glover & Ehrenreich are happy to oblige. There’s a spark when Glover’s onscreen. He adds much-needed spice to what is otherwise a pretty droll affair.

But that’s all it needed to be. Solo isn’t here to alter perceptions about the Star Wars franchise, nor is it here to perturb annoying die-hards scanning for the faintest readings of creative or progressive subversion. It’s fun, it’s breezy, it’s forgettable. What’s ironic is playing it this safe might be Solo‘s greatest failing. (In fact, it’s so soft on ambition that its one daring plot-twist towards the end of the movie comes out of nowhere and feels pretty damn lame.)

I can’t help but wonder what kind of energy Phil Lord and Chris Miller, both responsible for making the bafflingly watchable Lego Movie, might have brought to the film. But there’s a billion-dollar franchise to maintain and, for now at least, that means staying inside a box that grows increasingly smaller as the years go on. (Let’s pour one out for the ambitions of Rian Johnson.) Considering what it took for Solo to arrive as uncontaminated by bad vibes as it did is a miracle unto itself. I suppose that’s why you never tell him the odds.

Directed by Ron Howard.

Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, and Simon Emanuel.

Written by Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan.

Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, and Paul Bettany.

Rated PG-13 for some Wookie-related violence.

7 out of 10