With Solo: A Star Wars Story, director Ron Howard has ditched the heavy-handed, space soap opera approach of recent installments for an old fashioned Saturday matinee spectacle. For filmmakers such as The Last Jedi‘s Rian Johnson, who was four years old when Star Wars: A New Hope opened in cinemas in 1977, tapping into nostalgia is chic and zeitgeisty: part of the contemporary sensibility. Given Howard actually made movies the younger gen filmmakers get nostalgic for (including Cocoon, Willow and Night Shift) it is perhaps unsurprising that his venture into the galaxy far, far away feels more genuine in spirit, and less like an exercise machine-tooled to evoke memories and pre-existing sentiment.
The protagonist Han Solo – a rascally pilot originally played by Harrison Ford, imitated here by Alden Ehrenreich – cannot get a redemptive arc in his spin-off film, the latest Star Wars splurge from Disney after the Big Mouse purchased the golden light sabre from George Lucas for $4 billion. With Solo’s future sealed in previous films, we know his redemption (or quasi-redemption; the character never really betrays his bad attitude) arrives later. This lack of a ‘comes good in the end’ sweetener gives Howard’s film a compelling amorality, which is atypical of the expected Hollywood trajectory.
The screenwriters, father and son duo Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan (the latter co-wrote Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens) place high stakes card games at framing points in the narrative. The behaviour of the characters is informed by interactions around the table. There are bluffs, double bluffs, displays of bravado and chutzpah; there are winners and losers, and people playing a longer game. Confrontations peak with Sergio Leone style showdowns, in the sense they become, in terms of a moral compass, questions of which person or creature is the least worst: the nicest mean guy, or the meanest nice guy.
Midnight blue colour grading gives way to ultra-modern industrial chic for the first chase sequence, the texture so metallic water and concrete are almost the same shade of grey.
Introductory moments unfold in blue-lit slums and back alleys, where Solo encounters a Dark Crystal-esque, worm-like creature rising from the ground like a hideous root. Midnight blue colour grading gives way to ultra-modern industrial chic for the first chase sequence, the texture so metallic that water and concrete are almost the same shade of grey. Howard and crack cinematographer Bradford Young (who shot Arrival and Selma) switch to a dusty, sepia-toned look, evoking a paradoxical feeling similar to the sensation created by the Black & Chrome cut of Mad Max: Fury Road – of a time capsule for a future that hasn’t happened.
When the rudderless, wisecracking protagonist enlists to fight for imperial forces he arrives in a trench warfare setting, where the film begins to look muddy. This aesthetic cleverly preempts where Solo lands: literally in mud, thrown into a pit where he must face ‘the beast’. This initially seems like yet another recycled experience from the Star Wars grab bag (there’s several in this film, from dogfights to escaping planet-sized monsters) but becomes the introduction of a significant character. An early train-set action scene adds contemporary bling to a thrillingly old fashioned situation: it’s The General meets the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade meets Snowpiercer.
Films about human beings bonding with aliens often take the form of childhood bedtime tales, the weight of an adult world lifted by a benevolent otherworldly force: Hogarth and the Iron Giant, or Pete and his dragon, or Elliott and E.T. It is faithful to the infantilising spirit of Star Wars that, in Solo, the core kiddy friendship prospers between two adults: the protagonist and his crowd-favourite bestie Chewbacca, who we learn is 190 years old.
In Ehrenreich’s performance, and the iconic character he inhabits, the trick to playing the lovable scoundrel is the “lovable” part – otherwise you’re just playing a jerk. Ehrenreich comes dangerously close to channeling all of Harrison Ford’s brio and none of his heart. It’s far from a failed performance, but it’s almost chillingly smug. The actor encourages renewed appreciation of his predecessor’s version: the humane way Ford interpreted raffishness. His face told us he cared, but the dialogue told us he didn’t. Bringing to the screen what doesn’t exist on the page is what charm is made of.
Solo is vintage Star Wars: a highly entertaining, audience-respecting, full throttle ride through hyperspace.
A snarky, intemperate, ideologically empowered droid (voiced by British actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is a kooky comedic presence – a scrap of metal left over, perhaps, from Solo’s original directors: Chris Miller and Phil Lord. The pair, whose fine body of work includes Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie, were reportedly fired because they steered the film too close to outright comedy. The divergence taken by Howard is, at seems, as far from the beaten track as the Big Mouse gatekeepers will allow.
We’ll never know if Miller and Lord’s exit resulted in a better or worse film. We do know that, despite a chubby running time and a structure that is nothing if not derivative (cheerfully so) Solo is vintage Star Wars: a highly entertaining, audience-respecting, full throttle ride through hyperspace. Unlike The Last Jedi, it contains no moments when one questions the sanity of the writers, or why, with so many resources and so much talent at their fingertips, they resorted to egregious twists built on flaky or even non-existent logic.
Howard’s style is more picture book than comic book; note how few shots exist in Solo of a single face in close-up. It’s obvious that this is a Star Wars movie: the most earnest and rewarding, in fact, in three and a half decades, since Return of the Jedi arrived with its disgustingly cute Ewoks in 1984. But there are times when the film feels, in its sense of scale and visual elegance, more like a spiritual sequel to the under-rated 2012 space epic John Carter, another movie imbued with old-timey zest.