The vulnerability of the anti-hero is a layered cliché that’s been around since a long time ago, but has been rarely seen in a galaxy far far away. The Star Wars prequel trilogy and the first two entries in the more recent sequel trilogy – The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi – have been obsessed with Jedis and the various Empires of sorts, forgetting that in the playground most of us wanted to be the cool guy with his spaceship with the funny name. But now we have Solo: A Star Wars Story.
For a time, the chances of getting a Han Solo movie seemed as possible as bulls-eying a womp rat, which is unlikely as they’re no bigger than two metres. (Will we ever see the moment that the Star Wars universe went metric?). In the meantime, much in the way that George Lucas invented his own Flash Gordon when he couldn’t get the rights, others invented their own Han Solos: Malcolm in Firefly, or Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Starlord. But here we are over 40 years later, and has it been worth the wait?
Popular expectations were low, due to The Last Jedi being for some too postmodern and subversive, indicating that new Star Wars owners Disney don’t quite know what fans and indeed non-fans really want from the franchise. So does this prequel ruin the mystique of the lone space gunman who all fans know shot first?
Solo is essentially a character piece as we follow a young Han – his last name having an unexpected origin rather than just a simple surname – in a place he doesn’t want to be, armed with his charm and less-refined quick-thinking, getting into and out of trouble. Alden Ehrenreich is no Harrison Ford, but he is Han Solo; not a beat-for-beat impression, but if you imagine a younger scoundrel smuggler finding his feet it works, and the actor is given good material to flex his solo muscle.
For a start, from the get-go, we are in a past we don’t know; unlike The Force Awakens or Rogue One, the scene isn’t set with familiar forces for good or evil. It’s admirable to not hint at what’s to come, with only a few obscure name drops for the true fans and the final moments play up to what we know is coming.
Solo’s first encounter with his furry future sidekick Chewbacca is both funny and unexpected; throughout the film their awkward friendship is given more and more depth, as they both are revealed to have similar tragedies in their lives. There is also a wonderful unease in the peril faced by our heroes, as Han gets into bad company, echoing the cantina and Jabba’s palace scenes of the original trilogy – not in an aesthetic sense, but rather a criminal claustrophobia, as Han gets literally deeper into a world he will later except as his own.
In the original Star Wars trilogy, the only proper hints of Han’s past was his relationship with the charismatic suave Lando Calrissian, here brought to life with smooth confidence by Donald Glover. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett – not so much a father figure for Han, but at least a mentor – shows us what Han could become, and the dark potential of being out for just yourself. The choice that Han makes near the end of the film doesn’t exactly foreshadow his reluctant heroism seen when we first met him back in 1977, but it does display where his shoot-first attitude started from.
Director Ron Howard successfully manages to not only turn a fun heist movie in space into an intimate character piece, but also adds new iconic imagery to the series, including Paul Bettany’s show-stealing perfectly arch villain Dryden Vos, as well as a host of strong female characters, including Qi’Ra (Emilia Clarke), Val Beckett (Thandie Newton) and the very novel robotic role of L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge).
The only real disappointment is the ending, which can’t seem to decide what it is. The last-minute surprises and plot twists seem to imply that there was more of this tale to tell, while our heroes appear to be heading off on a direct path into A New Hope (much like Rogue One did a few years ago). Back in 2005, Revenge Of The Sith put a lot of effort in the final reel suddenly forcing all the characters into place, ready for their positions for the next (already produced) episode. Fortunately, Solo’s final moments aren’t quite this clunky.
Most people had a bad feeling about Solo, but I think the force is strong with this one, and it adds a new hope to Disney’s telling of the Star Wars story.