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Movie Review: ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ Succeeds When it Commits to Its Icons Fully or Creates Something Wholly New

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

Director: Ron Howard

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Lasers and Space Derring-Do

Release Date: May 25, 2018

Nobody can play Han Solo as iconically as Harrison Ford, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Now that we actually have Alden Ehrenreich’s version to dissect, we can render a more practical verdict about just how successful he is or isn’t. And while indeed young Solo has nothing on classic Solo, the task is not necessarily as impossible as originally advertised, which we know because we do not have to look far to find someone else pulling off that goal, as Donald Glover’s take on Lando Calrissian manages to be just as iconic as, if not more so (time will tell, ultimately), Billy Dee Williams’ version.

To be fair, Glover probably has the easier task, insofar as it is the less restricted one. While Ford is one of the major players in four Star Wars films, Williams only has about 15 minutes of screen time across two episodes. Ergo, Glover has plenty more freedom to fill in the blanks and create new blanks never hinted at previously, while Ehrenreich is locked into coloring necessary backstory, like earning the life debt that Chewie owes him and making the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs. But the biggest difference is in the quality of preparation. Glover feels like someone who has been auditioning to play Lando his whole life, while Ehrenreich feels like someone who has been training to be an actor, and maybe more specifically a movie star, but not so specifically Han Solo in particular. That specificity and passion is almost certainly necessary to pull off the job of simultaneously paying homage to a famous character and making it one’s own. Maybe there are some folks out there who have been playing Han Solo in front of the mirror their whole lives, but Ehrenreich is probably not one of them. He gets the job done, but he does not take it to the next level.

Solo does not rely entirely on checking off a bunch of backstory checkpoints. Like any well-bred Star Wars movie, it is populated with a menagerie of diverse characters. As far as the new faces go, most prominent are Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra, Han’s childhood friend and partner-in-crime, and Woody Harrelson as Tobias Beckett, Han’s smuggling mentor. They are appropriately cast, but they feel like could be any Emilia Clarke or Woody Harrelson character, as opposed to the roles of a lifetime that add new definition to what a Star War can be. Same goes for crime lord Dryden Vos, who can be easily and unfussily added to Paul Bettany’s murderers’ row of villain roles.

But not-so-quietly revolutionary is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s motion-capture performance as L3-37, Lando’s feisty, herky-jerky droid companion. Waller-Bridge’s success comes from a starting point totally opposite of Glover’s, as she had never seen a Star Wars film before auditioning. Consequently, her performance is not beholden to any droids that have preceded her. She takes full advantage of the individuality inherent to a set of beings that seem to have plenty of free will despite also being conditioned by their programming. Her relationship with Lando suggests an open-minded (pansexual even) imagination that might as well be explored in a cinematic universe as vast as this one. And therein lies a template for keeping fresh the perhaps infinite number of future Star Wars: anchor them in a deepened spin on the familiar while introducing a high-risk, wholly fresh concoction.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is Recommended If You Like: Community’s Star Wars homages, Watching poker when you have no idea what the rules are, Human-cyborg relations

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Parsecs

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