Solo chronicles the adventures of a young ruffian named Han (Alden Ehrenreich) who fans of Star Wars lore know will one day grow up to be the beloved rogue made famous by Harrison Ford. Han lives day to day on the slum planet of Corellia where he dreams to get out from under the oppressive rule of Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt), become a pilot, and tour the galaxy with his love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). While making their escape, the two are separated and only Han is able to flee vowing to return for Qi’ra one day.
Enlistment presents itself as a quick way to simultaneously hide from pursuers and refine his flight skills, so Han joins up with the Imperial navy. It’s soon after that the young naïve dreamer finds himself not piloting Star Destroyers, but rather up to his chin in mud on some far-off planet in the Empire’s infantry fighting in the name of “liberation.” Fed up with his predicament, Han seeks out a new path by latching onto Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) a shady man who leads a life of crime. As Han follows in Beckett’s footsteps, he meets some of the iconic members of the Star Wars universe, and creates friendships that will end up lasting a lifetime.
What works in Solo are its lead and the thrills. Ehrenreich is in the completely unenviable position of filling some extremely large brown calf-high boots, and performs admirably. His version of Han is wisely not an impersonation, but rather an embodiment of the spirit and soul of the character. He’s got swagger, bravado, confidence, and charisma in a combination that will likely feel familiar to even the most passionate fans, like seeing an old friend you have nothing but warm feelings for. Because Ehrenreich is in nearly every scene of the film, his performance is critical for Solo to work, and he pulls it off.
Director Ron Howard, who took over from Chris Miller and Phil Lord (The Lego Move, 21 Jump Street) deep into production, proves he still has an eye for constructing captivating action sequences, especially ones set in space (see Apollo 13). It’s all but assumed, if not expected, that Han Solo will eventually get in the driver’s seat of one of the world’s most famous star ships, the Millennium Falcon. When this inevitable moment occurs, it’s gleeful. While the chase sequences are strong (and there are a whole lot of them) the space escape, which fans know as the Kessel Run, is particularly entertaining thanks to pacing, lighting, characters, and a smattering of a familiar musical score.
While Solo delivers on fan service through a worthy portrayal of a famous cinematic hero, it could be accused on overdelivering in terms of backstory and inner-universe connectivity. Han Solo could arguably be labeled a legendary character in the history of film. The formula of a legend has many ingredients but one of the important is mystique. Solo, in trying to honor its namesake, strips the hero a bit too much of his mystery. Screenwriters Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan clearly know this scoundrel back to front (the latter wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), but seeing every detail receive a mound of verbal and visual exposition feels unnecessary rather quickly. Fans will get answers to questions they never asked (did you ever really need to know how Han got his infamous blaster?) and while they don’t take away from the character, it comes very close to being reductive.
The elements of pacing and tone will likely come under some scrutiny. This is due to a few factors: 1) the shift in directors midway through films undoubtedly caused from some genre course correction as the reigns went from improvisational humorists to a more traditional, seasoned filmmaker. The seams aren’t jarring (see Justice League as an example of when it goes horribly wrong), but they are there. 2) Solo wants to be big and small at the same. It’s refreshing that the stakes aren’t at the world domination/destruction level which allows the film to be a bit more grounded and personal. At the same time, Howard wants the grandeur of the Star Wars film and thus bounces all over the galaxy. The result is a movie that is far lighter in tone than any previous entries in the franchise and also a little bloated in terms of scope and narrative.
Solo will likely satisfy the expectations of most audiences members who appreciate good science fiction. Diehard fans might question why make a standalone film focused on young Han, but Howard and company’s simple response to that would clearly be, “to have fun” and Solo definitely delivers on that premise.
Final Grade: B+
Updated on 2018-05-29: The 4DX Experience
After seeing Solo: A Star Wars Story in standard format, I took in a second viewing at a 4DX-enabled theater. For those unaware, these are theaters that have been outfitted with special seating and other sensory elements that have been programmed to react in synchronization with the events of the movie you are watching. For example, when Han Solo gets thrown into some water, a slight bump protrudes from the seat into your back along with a misting spray hitting your face. When the Millennium Falcon does a barrel roll, the seat moves to help simulate the feeling of flying through space.
Viewing Solo: A Star Wars Story in 4DX unquestionably enhances the engagement and entertainment factors of watching the movie, something that might not be true for all features. While some of the movements and reactions take a little getting used to (Han gets beat up a lot which results in the seats being jostled about quite a bit), the battles and chases are incredibly fun with the added whooshing of air jets for laser blasts whizzing by and gyroscopic motions to make you literally feel like you’re along for the ride in the cockpit.
There are specific movies that are better (or worse) in certain established enhanced formats (3D, IMAX, and now 4DX), so there should be a compelling reason to pay for the upgraded tickets. For Solo: A Star Wars Story, 4DX is definitely the way to go given how much thought went into the programming and thus how well it bolsters the experience. Perhaps not recommended for anyone who is prone to motion sickness, but for everyone else, it’ll be a well-worth-it treat.
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures