By Noah Howard
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” is two and a half hours of the Mos Eisley cantina scene from “A New Hope.” The screen abounds with elaborate costumes caked in grit and mud, juxtaposed against vivid blaster fire and corrupt opulence. Sleaze drips from every pore. Creatures grunt, brawl, and walk about with a hunched shuffle. “Solo” is messy, to be sure; sometimes it isn’t clear who’s important, what’s going on or who shot first. But it’s also deeply immersive, transporting the audience to a galaxy far, far away and delivering a rollicking good time.
The film’s plot ticks off all the necessary fan service boxes. We’re quickly introduced to the classic characters of the Solo-verse, Chewbacca and Lando, along with an ensemble of other criminals and nobodies that fit smoothly into this corner of “Star Wars.” Some make their exits perhaps a bit too quickly, but this charming cast of characters elevates a mediocre script and will undoubtedly sell millions of beloved toys. Among the new additions, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is a standout as a droid activist for equal organic-synthetic rights. Though it’s a legitimate moral issue, “Solo” decides never delves into its nuances. This is probably for the better; a universe centered around binary conceptions of “Light Sides” and “Dark Sides” isn’t equipped to tackle philosophical greys. Like the other characters, L3-37 is endearing, but not distractingly complex.
While the members of the supporting cast deliver universally solid performances, Alden Ehrenreich’s rendition of Han Solo is sure to be controversial. Though there are glimmers of Harrison Ford’s classic character, Ehrenreich doesn’t have the same raw charisma or stubborn sarcasm of his predecessor. Though the objective was clearly to create a Solo that is younger, cockier and less experienced, Ehrenreich is much more reserved than Ford. Although Ehrenreich’s Solo is still easy to root for, he seems like a separate personage.
The same cannot be said for Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian, who hits every note as perfectly as the SF Philharmonic. From his first moment onscreen his loyalty to Billy Dee Williams’s stylish rogue is utterly uncanny, from his subtle drawls to the way he walks. In a movie with frequent highlights, Glover’s performance is, predictably, one of the best.
The fun-loving cast springs into action during an impressive number of spectacular set-pieces. These spin classic heist-esque action (think well-oiled robberies a la “Ocean’s Eleven”) into Star Wars style. It should be noted, however, that the appropriately-dubbed maxim of villains having inaccurate “stormtrooper aim” is more laughably extreme here than anywhere else in the Star Wars universe. On one occasion, our protagonists are assailed by dozens of henchmen, some with machine guns, who fail to even graze Han as he stands still in the wide open. “Solo” introduces beautiful splashes of color and panache throughout its action that feels consistent with its narcissistically overconfident main character; Han deals with Lovecraftian monstrosities, vibrant interstellar obstacles and Mad-Max-ian raiders with charm, humour, and swagger.
“Solo,” however, is ultimately the product of a patchwork. After a downright hellish development, Ron Howard had to swoop in as a new director-ex-machina to save the film from critical destruction. As such, there are parts of “Solo” that, like the second Death Star, feel incomplete. The plot (what little of it there is to be found) jumps wildly from objective to objective between different acts, the two plot twists are downright pathetic (one is predictable, the other is interesting but feels studio-mandated to set up a future film) and the script can’t seem to commit to how it wants to explore its characters, leading to massive missed potential.
Nevertheless, also like the second Death Star, “Solo” is, surprisingly, fully operational. During the thrilling extended action of the second act I recalled feelings of seeing the X-Wing assault at the end of “A New Hope” for the first time. It was raw, unadulterated fun, with plucky characters, great costumes, great effects and contagious energy. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” may not be a great movie, but it is fantastic Star Wars.