The key to watching any of these “Star Wars Stories”—Rogue One a couple years ago, and now Solo, the tale about how Han Solo started on his journey to become the guy we eventually meet in Episode IV—is that it’s all about the story hitting their marks.
For Rogue One, there’s really just one mark, and it happens at the very end, but there are still a few reference points into the galaxy we know and love along the way that make it interesting without leaning into the nostalgia to an embarrassing degree. And I acknowledge that some may disagree that it succeeds.
But Solo dives into the deep end of reference points that steer us in the direction of thinking about the original trilogy, even though this darker, more action-heavy film doesn’t bare much resemblance to the world Han occupied with Luke and Leia later in his life.
Here’s the thing: leaning into the past (or in this case the future) isn’t inherently a terrible idea if the story being told actually adds something to our deeper understanding of the recognizable characters of Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). Does it sweeten our interest in Han’s motivations to know that he was given the last name “Solo” by an immigration officer, like he was new citizen entering the United States via Ellis Island, and the guy taking names didn’t feel like dealing with his hard-to-pronounce Polish or German name? (For the record, I’d argue it does.)
Still, it can’t be enough that director Ron Howard (brought in for massive reshoots after the original directors were fired) and writers Jonathan & Lawrence Kasdan simply play connect-the-dots with Han Solo’s known reference points to his past.
For example, we all heard Han make the claim that the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs in the original Star Wars, and now we actually get to see that happen in Solo. We also know that the Falcon originally belonged to Lando, who lost it in a card game. And we sort of see that moment as well.
So I’ll ask again, does seeing these moments play out on the screen—rather than just being talked about—deepen our understanding of any of these characters? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Laying witness to not just the moment when Han and Chewbacca meet is cool if not especially telling, but Solo actually takes the time to find the moments where their mutual admiration for each other’s abilities turns into genuine friendship.
The sections of the film that work the best are Han’s interactions with new characters (to us, if not him), and that’s pretty much always been the case in the Star Wars films. Han is arguably the most interesting character in the entire series, even if he is the least connected to the Jedi or the Empire. In nearly every way, he’s the audience, keeping a comfortable emotional distance from all that is going on around him, but still being pulled into the conflict and drama because he’s a good guy at his core.
So when we see Han on his home planet with his potential love interest Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke from “Game of Thrones”), we feel his dismay when they are separated and his anguish when he vows to return to find her. But it turns out she has no plans of sitting around waiting for a rescue, and Qi’ra joins a powerful criminal organization led by Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). So when she’s reunited with Han years later, the balance of power and trustworthiness have shifted a great deal.
I liked the idea that Han decides the best way to get home is to enlist in the Empire’s flight academy, but due to insubordination, he’s kicked back down to being a foot soldier as the Empire powered its way across the galaxy taking over one planet at a time. Eager to desert, he falls in with a group of bandits, including leader Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), and alien pilot Rio Durant (Jon Favreau), who are hired by Vos to steel large quantities of fuel rods from the Empire. The details of the heist aren’t as important as the incredibly realized visuals of the sequence that seem like it was taken right out of Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train.
And the mission is not without its casualties.
By the time we get to Han and Lando’s first meeting, a great deal has happened in the story already, so the moment feels a bit anticlimactic. But Ehrenreich and especially Glover are both startlingly fun to watch. Neither is attempting to sound or look too much like the characters’ original actors, but there are little traits in Glover’s voice or the way he lets his various capes flow behind him when he walks that are so familiar.
People complaining about Ehrenreich not looking like Harrison Ford can feel free to bite it sideways. Trust me when I say that you’d be far more upset if he did. What he does capture is the free-spirited, optimistic spirit of a young man who is on the verge of being hurt quite personally by people he trusts. He’s still tough and a great pilot, but he hasn’t lived a great deal up to this story, and that’s where the change into the more familiar Solo begins.
Naturally, there are name drops for the deep-cut Star Wars fans, but I was looking for moments that felt accessible to the non-die hards out there—or even those who know very little about it—and there are quite a lot of them, I’m happy to report. The only performance in the film that didn’t work for me was Bettany’s Vos, who seems a little too mustache-twirling for my tastes. Even when he acts like he’s on your side, you’d be an idiot to believe that he is. Everyone else is quite good, bringing something new to the game while never letting us forget what universe we’re playing in.
I recently heard a wise man say that the biggest thing Star Wars fans forget is how few of the films are truly great or truly bad. Most of them, he theorized, exist in the large grey area in between great and not so, which still leaves a lot of room for awesome moments within many of the existing ten films, most of which aren’t as good as The Empire Strikes Back. And that’s okay.
Solo rest squarely in middle, if I were ranking the Star Wars movies—which I would never do. It has fantastic action set pieces, furthers our understanding (to a point) of the characters we know, and even leaves open the possibility for future young Han Solo adventures, which I’m not opposed to. It’s not as substantive as Rogue One, but it has its value in the bigger picture story being told.