Tales of a troubled production history used to sink movies before they even had a commercial chance; now, they’re just another part of the marketing toolkit, designed to give a product the illusion of unpredictability, conferring an underdog status on a multimillion-dollar micromanaged enterprise as if to lower expectations and then bask in the triumph of surpassing them. This week’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, an origin yarn about the iconic space pirate made famous by Harrison Ford, arrives with just such a chequered past. Original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were dismissed over creative differences and replaced with Ron Howard, while an acting coach was brought in to jazz up star Alden Ehrenreich’s supposedly lacklustre performance. And yet, what do you know, you can hardly tell in the finished work. The film is cohesive, zippy and confident to a fault, an interlocking piece of an ever-expanding – or should that be contracting – universe where most of the spontaneity has been relegated to the bad press. Missing is the loose, funky feel synonymous with its brash smuggler pilot – or, dare one suggest, the movie that Lord and Miller were trying to make.
When we last saw Han Solo, a grizzled and grouchy Ford in 2015’s The Force Awakens, he was being unceremoniously skewered by his ingrate son and dispatched to the depths of some bottomless space abyss, finally taking that 40-year career millstone down with him. But nothing, not even Ford’s erstwhile charisma, stays dead in the world of franchise extension, so here’s the backstory that no one in particular needed. Ehrenreich is charged with resurrecting the charm and swagger of his predecessor – a doomed scenario for the talented young actor, whose own qualities are suffocated by the mimesis. This is the second standalone story after 2016’s Rogue One and the first Star Wars since last year’s divisive, rebellious The Last Jedi; yet where the latter rightly exhorted the franchise to destroy the past, much to the disconcert of some regressive “fans”, Solo is aggressively on brand, snugly adhering to the corporate plan in the golden age of content.
Things begin pulpy and promising, with Ehrenreich’s gearhead loner boosting a boxy landspeeder and racing through a cluttered seaport on his home world of Corellia, pursued by the goons of local crime boss Lady Proxima, a silvery alien crustacean presiding over an underground lair. Solo and his girlfriend Qi’ra – played by Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke, proving the smuggler had a taste for haughty accents as long as he did space vests – are desperately trying to flee their slum city. But when Qi’ra is captured, Solo escapes by enlisting in the Imperial Army, leading to an off-world battle in mud-soaked trenches, and a chance meeting with a gang of scammers led by the duplicitous Beckett (Woody Harrelson). It’s also here that Solo rescues – in an inevitably touching moment, straight out of Star Wars lore – the Wookiee Chewbacca, who’d been enslaved in a grimy Imperial prison. (The howling Chewie remains one of the true constants that tie these movies together, like the walking carpet that he is.)
And so things get duly checked off in the manner of prequels: we see Solo meet dashing raconteur Lando Calrissian (Atlanta’s Donald Glover) and acquire the space freighter the Millennium Falcon in their infamous card game of Sabacc; we watch as Chewbacca literally rips someone’s arms out of their sockets, and we chuckle at his burgeoning frustration with the Falcon’s hologram chess game. (The cleverest origin wink offers a wry explanation at Lando’s mispronunciation of “Han” in the original trilogy.) It’s all appealingly couched in a scuzzy, fringes-of-the-galaxy vibe, shot atmospherically by Bradford Young and sprinkled with plenty of 1970s flavour: afros, gold-trimmed sets, chintzy robes and jumpsuits that could be from a knockoff like 1978’s Laserblast. Current zeitgeist prince Donald Glover, meanwhile, adds a welcome dash of personality channelling Billy Dee Williams’ cape-favouring, possibly robo-sexual Lando, who gets a great “captain’s log” comedic moment and sparks some genuine chemistry with Ehrenreich when the movie dearly needs it. Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge voices an activist droid seeking to emancipate her kind, and it’s a funny, welcome clatter of unrest amid the hardscrabble life under the Empire’s reign. Robots clank and inventively designed creatures squish and squabble like the Burroughsian backwater of the original’s Mos Eisley; at some point, you half expect Bea Arthur to show up serving drinks.
For all its peripheral charms, Solo also moves at a breakneck stride, with heists and doublecrosses and shootouts, scored to John Powell’s distressingly generic music, that pile on top of each other without much pause for character moments. The film’s finest sequence – Han and Chewie piloting the Millennium Falcon clear of a colossal space squid and into the legendary Kessel Run – manages to get the balance just right, firing on all pistons with fast, funny interplay that elevates both character dynamics and thrilling visual effects. Yet too much of the film gets bogged down in overarching narrative that’s predetermined by an existing text. “Stick to the plan – do not improvise,” Beckett tells Solo at one point, and it’s as though the directive came from Disney’s Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy herself. It’s easy to forget how knockabout and silly George Lucas’s very first Star Wars was by comparison, how light on its feet and seemingly invented-on-the-fly it felt – an energy that remains infectious, despite the crushing weight of the universe and cultural fandom it birthed.
Solo never feels like it’s winging it. There isn’t a moment as throwaway-great as the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Han thumps the faltering circuits of the Falcon to bring them back to life, a moment – like that film’s famous “I love you” / ”I know” exchange – that was improvised on the day. (It’s also a testament to the skill of actors like Ford and Carrie Fisher, capable of transforming B-movie dialogue into pop quotables.) Ironically, Lord and Miller were ousted in large part for their tendency to improvise with the performers, and it’s impossible not to wonder whether they might have conjured that freewheeling spark of energy that’s at best been approximated here. Howard, a reliable workman who seems to be forever directing as though he’s hosting a masterclass, makes sure Solo is tonally coherent, but it needed to be more Bob Falfa, and less Richie Cunningham – the film is a square behind the wheel of a hot rod.
Still, this is the movie for fans who’ve disproportionately mythologised Solo as an avatar of cool for half a century, and the unremarkable comeuppance for every whiny dude that wore a “Han Shot First” T-shirt (you’d better believe there’s a scene for that here, too.) The character’s flippant mystique, once the stuff of legend, is now just another building block on the corporate calendar, unravelled to the public with the episodic banality of a Marvel instalment. A late-period cameo lifted straight from the expanded universe and a sequel-ready send-off suggests that these Star Wars will likewise run to infinity, but to what end? We’ve reached the brand-management phase of the Star Wars cycle, and something that began as a young filmmaker’s exuberant, junky escapism has become a lumbering, inescapable behemoth. To paraphrase Jabba the Hutt: Solo may have been a good smuggler, but now he’s just Bantha fodder.