You remember the end of A New Hope, right? Han Solo arrives at the Death Star at the last possible moment, blasting Darth Vader’s ship, which allows Luke to complete his mission. It is arguably the emotional high point of the film, where the plucky innocent and the weary scoundrel unite with a common purpose. Solo: A Star Wars Story is like that scene, except it lasts for two and a half hours. Despite its frequent action and character reversals, it is an oddly static film, with roguish heroism as its primary constant. The actors all do fine work – in particular, Alden Ehrenreich is convincing as Han – yet they work in favor of a film with few surprises and zero risks. It might be the first inessential Star Wars film.
When we meet Han, he is a young man stuck on a dirty planet. He works for the slumlord Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt), stealing what he can to keep her temper at bay. Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan wrote the script together, and they introduce Han’s love interest early. Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) has a plan to escape with Han, except they are separated. Years pass, and Qi’ra is still the only thing on Han’s mind. He hooks up with a crew of thieves, led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), and they hatch a daring scheme to steal hyperfuel, the rarest and most valuable commodity in the galaxy. From there, Solo is a series of heist scenes, with all of the characters never quite knowing who to trust. Oh, and along the way, Han also meets his lifelong friends Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando (Donald Glover).
Solo was plagued by a tortured production history, with Ron Howard replacing the original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. It’s impossible to know what the Lord/Miller version would be like, but I can say Solo feels like a Ron Howard movie because it is thoroughly, frustratingly competent. He is a journeyman director, handling the material like a consummate professional. There is nothing wrong with that approach – JJ Abrams is like that, and so was Empire’s director Irvin Kershner – except Howard’s risk-averse, by-the-numbers style rarely manages to engage the imagination.
There is no broad canvas like we saw in the latest Star Wars films, including Rogue One. In fact, many scenes are claustrophobic, like an early battle where the characters cannot see three feet ahead of them. There are flashes of brilliance, including a creature that is downright Lovecraftian in size and shape, but those are infrequent. Howard films the action, including space battles, so they are in tight quarters and a touch too frenzied. A daring train heist, set alongside wintry cliffs, never quite the develops the spatial coherence that is necessary for feeling suspense. The aftermath of these scenes often involve some sense of tragedy, but the emotional response barely registers.
Aside from the Lord/Miller departure, another behind-the-scenes story was how producer Kathleen Kennedy hired an acting coach for Alden Ehrenreich. Acting coaches are common to tentpole Hollywood entertainments, but the implication was that Ehrenreich is no Harrison Ford. Indeed, he is not, but it is to his credit that he does not try to be. His character waivers in confidence, with a mix of doubt and overcompensation, so he makes for a convincing underdog. More importantly, this Solo has strong chemistry with both Chewbacca and Lando. These scenes are the highlight to Solo – Glover nails Lando’s swagger – and we see flashes of Ford’s charisma sneak into Ehrenreich’s line readings. There is a crucial early moment, one where Solo establishes his rapport with Chewie, and Ehrenreich completely nails the gruff frustration that we know and love.
Solo has decidedly lower stakes than any previous Star Wars film. There is no battle for the fate of the galaxy, and no melodrama like the Skywalker saga (admittedly, this smaller canvas leaves enough material for Solo sequels). The trouble is that Solo did not use its lower stakes as an opportunity for depth. This film was a perfect opportunity for genuine character development, and they squander it. There are some neat flourishes, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge playing a radicalized droid fighting for robot liberation, except that single note loses its novelty quickly. For a group of characters who worry about who they can trust, there are hardly any surprises when the inevitable betrayals arrive.
Say what you will about the prequels, at least they provided an arc for Anakin Skywalker, who started as kind-hearted slave and ended up a powerful, hateful monster. Solo: A Star Wars Story never attempts something like that. Qi’ra reminds Han – and the audience – that he is secretly “the good guy.” This is a depressing revelation because we do not need such assurances. It would have been fun, even daring, to show Han as more of a scoundrel. But every time Solo tilts in that direction, they pull away, afraid they will alienate us from a character whose defining trait is self-preservation. This is a film that prefers the version of Han Solo where Greedo shoots first.