The forces working against “Solo: A Star Wars Story” seemed insurmountable even for a filmmaking group as rich in resources as the Empire, AKA The Walt Disney Corporation.
For one thing, the movie lost its talented and ambitious initial directing team, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, over “creative differences.” Then there were rumors of a struggling central performance, the hiring of the competent-but-safe Ron Howard as the new director, extensive late re-writes and reshoots, and we didn’t see a trailer for the thing until just a few months ago.
Plus, aren’t “Star Wars” sequels cursed?
But none of those hurdles compares to the scariest thing about a stand-alone Han Solo movie: the challenge of getting the character right.
To illustrate this challenge, I want to share something about Han that I learned recently. I wish I could remember the source of this observation and give proper credit — sorry, anonymous Twitter user — but it really did change how I saw the character.
The observation is that Han Solo is not a womanizer like James Bond. He may be a lot of things — a smooth-talking, scruffy-looking nerf-herder, perhaps — but he’s a monogamous nerf-herder.
Contrast Han with Peter Quill/Star-Lord from “Guardians of the Galaxy” and it becomes clear how the “Han Solo” archetype has been misapplied in the years since Harrison Ford and George Lucas created the iconic space pirate. Peter Quill has sex with an alien woman and then promptly forgets about her while she is still asleep in his spaceship.
Han Solo would never do that.
Throughout “The Empire Strikes Back,” Han pursues Leia, but at the end of “Return of the Jedi,” when he perceives that Leia has chosen Luke over him, he accepts her decision immediately. (“When he gets back, I won't get in the way,” he says.)
Peter Quill only wishes he were Han Solo.
But I’ll admit that when I first saw “Guardians of the Galaxy,” I thought of Peter as a Han Solo “type.” It’s easy to conflate Han’s brand of masculinity with a more toxic variety.
Such is the true danger posed in creating a new story about Han Solo. If it’s that easy to create new characters like Peter Quill in Han Solo’s misapplied image, how would a new movie — and a new actor, Alden Ehrenreich — approach Han himself?
Even loyal “Star Wars” fans seem to disagree about who Han Solo is. Just look at the infamous “Han shot first” debates, which spring from a scene in the original cut of “Star Wars” where Han shoots the alien Greedo in cold blood. Lucas later modified the scene in his “Special Edition” re-release of the film with computerized lasers nonsensically making it seem like Greedo shot at Han but missed — from three feet away — before Han fires back in self-defense and kills Greedo in one shot.
I’ve sometimes seen defenders of the original film argue that Han is cool because he kills people in cold blood, that that makes him really awesome. And that’s a little creepy.
There’s a line of dialogue in the new film that sums up nicely how this creative team positions themselves in the “Who is Han Solo?” question. The first half of the line is in the trailer, delivered by new character Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke):
“I might be the only person who knows what you really are,” she says.
I won’t spoil the punch line as it appears in the actual film — and I will also not claim it’s particularly subtle — but as a mission statement for who this version of the character is, the line proves that the team at Lucasfilm know what exactly what they are doing. It helps that the script was written by original trilogy writer Lawrence Kasdan, along with his son Jonathan.
The Han of the “Star Wars” original trilogy — and the Han in “Solo” — is cocky but not selfish, impulsive but exceptionally skilled. The new film even offers a clever origin story scene for the “Who shot first?” debate that underscores rather than undermines Han as a character.
Alden Ehrenreich does a fine job in the title role, capturing some of Harrison Ford’s mannerisms but in a way that doesn’t feel constrained by mimicry. I’m personally of the belief that re-casting parts is no sacrilege if done well. (In fact, I wish Leia would be recast for “Episode 9,” because I think that would be the most respectful way to send off that character, but I digress.)
The supporting cast delivers a lot of fun: Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian is expectedly perfect, as is Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca — a role he is returning to after “The Last Jedi.”
Clarke’s Qi’ra is the standout of the new characters, and honestly, I want to see the next spin-off movie be about her. While this movie gave me a satisfying and complete prelude to the Han Solo of the original trilogy (an impressive feat), there’s still plenty more for Qi’ra to do in upcoming adventures, and I’m holding on to my lucky dice that Lucasfilm will give them to me in cinematic form rather than some comic book I’ll want to but never read.
Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton and Paul Bettany are also all quite good as other new characters.
I was intrigued by one character — L3-37, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge — and her introduction of droids-rights activism into the “Star Wars” canon. I like the potential of that idea, but I was initially disappointed by the way she comes across as a flat stereotype of an activist with only vague cartoon versions of important real-life arguments.
But the film turns out to care more about her and her views than it let on at first, leading to a fun scene (that I must say, captured some of the anarchic joy reminiscent of the fired Lord and Miller).
Then, for a character whose primary concern is the emancipation of artificial intelligence from human and alien control, what ultimately comes of L3-37 is, I have to say, tragically ironic.
I have to mention the film’s score, which underwhelmed me. I’m eager to give the soundtrack its own listen, but aside from a new theme for Han (written by John Williams for the new film), the score left me with the overall impression of a “Star Wars” jukebox in a lightning storm — hopping from iconic track to iconic track without the individual mark of, say, what Michael Giacchino brought to “Rogue One.”
The best part about “Solo” for me is that it feels like a classic adventure movie. And it feels like “Star Wars,” not like “Star Wars: A Corporate Profit-Driven Story.” I loved the little touches like how the Falcon looks before it gets all characteristically banged up, and how Han and Chewie met.
“Solo” is a “Star Wars” prequel that put a smile on my face that has lasted for days since I saw it. It has surprises, heart, humor and fun action, and it kind of pulls of the impossible.
But that’s to be expected: Never tell Han Solo the odds.
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany
Running time: 2 hours, 15 min
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence