Solo: A Star Wars Story Review – Equal Parts Enjoyable And Underwhelming [Spoiler-Free]

The first big miss among the new Star Wars movies.

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Who would’ve thought that the biggest problem with Solo: A Star Wars Story would have absolutely nothing to do with Alden Ehrenreich? Ehrenreich, who passionate Star Wars fans across the globe, scoffed at — “urgh, this loser is nothing compared to the embodiment of charisma that is Harrison Freaking Ford AKA The REAL Han Solo.” Ehrenreich, who caused film Twitter to lose their collective shit when news broke that Lucasfilm hired an acting coach to help him out on set. Guilty as charged. Ehrenreich was destined for failure and this movie together with him. Well, who would’ve thought that we would all end up being, so, so wrong… about Ehrenreich, at least.

To be fair, the production of Solo faced a major uphill battle right from the very beginning. For starters, nobody wanted this movie to begin with, including, nay, especially hardcore fans. Yours truly included. We’ve got an expansive, ever-growing Star Wars canon consisting of various unique and intriguing stories and Disney decides to make a young(er) Han Solo movie? Need I remind you that Han was young when we met him in The Mos Eisley cantina all those years ago, in A New Hope. Disney could’ve greenlit an Ashoka Tano movie or a Knights of the Old Republic movie, but instead, we get a movie about Han Solo, played by not-Harrison Ford. This wreaked of Mickey Mouse sniffing cocaine, skinny dipping in a swimming pool full of cash.

Then there was the whole drama surrounding the directors. We still have not gotten the full expose, but rumour has it that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 Jumpstreet) were fired at the eleventh hour because of creative differences and not knowing how to fold their socks. You can’t make shit like this up. Insert Hollywood veteran and friend of Star Wars creator George Lucas, Ron Howard (Cinderella Man, Apollo 13) to save the day. Not to worry, even some of the all-time classics like Jaws and Back to the Future went through production hell. Besides, Star Wars itself is no rookie when it comes to sucky productions. My second (or third, I can’t really decide) favourite Star Wars film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, had its entire ending rewritten and reshot at the very last minute.

And on that front, I have to commend everyone involved in the making of Solo. This may not be a great movie, but at least, it doesn’t feel like two different directors and 923 studio executives helmed it. Let’s not even mention THAT movie. That said, you don’t win a gold medal for successfully completing a marathon after you injured your ankle at the halfway mark.

The biggest problem with Solo is that it lacks that Star Wars MAGIC. Even The Last Jediwhich is an unconventional Star Wars movie as it gets, feels like Star Wars. This movie feels ordinary. And I’m not talking about the lack of Force usage or lightsaber duels. I for one love different stories within the Star Wars universe. The galaxy doesn’t just revolve around Jedi and evil men in masks. I hail Rogue One for being a grounded and gritty war film that highlight how integral the rebel soldiers are to bringing down the Empire.

I wish there was more of that here. Not necessarily war (this was never billed as a war film), but a fresh perspective. I wanted to understand Han Solo more, to see what he sees. To be afraid as I ventured through the underbellies of the Star Wars universe. To experience dingy cantinas with their unregulated alcohol, jam-packed with mobsters and hookers. To get entangled with the mafia and scurry for my life. I got some of that, just not nearly enough.

Solo does start off that way. We first meet him on Corellia, forced into a life of crime by an underworld slaver. But he plans to escape, together with his girlfriend/fellow thief Qi’Ra to where exactly, they do not know but “anywhere is better than here, right?” Han is a wide-eyed, optimistic dreamer. He wants to one day be known as the best pilot in the galaxy. They devise a plan and through sheer wit and improvisation, they outsmart the slaver and her minions… well almost. Han makes it out, Qi’Ra doesn’t. This part of the movie, is very, very interesting.

The set up is great. It’s when we get to the actual meat of the story that it starts to fizzle out. Han is desperate to get back to Qi’Ra, but first he must make enough money to buy a ship and so he joins a den of thieves. There are two heists in the movie. One somewhere at the start of the second act and another right at the end. Both of these set pieces are nothing short of spectacular (but more on that later). Everything in between and after is as predictable as it can get. Father-son screenwriters, Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan attempt twists within twists, but even that falls flat. I don’t know if the problem lies with the writing itself or Ron Howard’s translation of the writing to screen.

Predictability alone isn’t the issue. You can get away with being a paint by numbers movie if we’re emotionally invested in the story and characters. But Solo doesn’t explore its plethora of colourful characters in depth, nor does it have any form of escalating conflict. The villain, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) is evil for the sake of being evil. Is he always angry because he has multiple scars on his face? I guess I would be pissed too. The large majority of this film is just an all smiles surface level space adventure, without the gravitas of say The Guardians of the Galaxy. Heck, even an over the top comedy like that has emotionally moving moments.

There isn’t a single moment in Solo that moved me, not a single moment that made me gasp, not a single moment that had me on the edge of my seats. I get it, Han Solo is an optimistic guy — never tell him the odds. But I should have felt something by the end of the movie. There should’ve been some form of character growth. Solo also suffers from severe pacing issues. Large chunks of the second act just dragged and dragged and dragged.

I could’ve forgiven the lack of emotional depth, if the heists themselves are fun and smart. The most gleeful heist films like Oceans Eleven, Jackie Brown or hey, even Fast Five always involve some sort of planning, scheming and ruse. And throughout it, we root for these guys with a big smile on our face, despite them being criminals because we want to see the whole thing play out. We want to see the revelation of the trick and we want to see the look on the face of the fool who didn’t see it coming. If we’re the fools, all the better. But there’s none of that in Solo. 

But despite all of that, Solo isn’t a bad movie. And it boils down to two areas. One, the action sequences in this movie are GREAT, especially the train heist. It is James Bond-esque and beyond spectacular. The entire set piece is wonderfully choreographed, as we see characters jump from carriage to carriage trying to steal a particular chemical. Think of the opening scene in Fast & Furious (that’s the fourth one), except hundreds of feet in the air, with more people. It’s beautifully envisioned by Ron Howard and captured to perfection by cinematographer Bradford Young.

Speaking of Bradford Young, a short aside. If you’re familiar with Bradford Young’s work in Arrival and Selma, you know this guy is a genius. So please, for the love of all things pure, do yourself a favour and NOT watch this movie in 3D. The press screening in Malaysia was held in IMAX 3D, and right from the opening scene, it was painfully obvious that Solo isn’t meant to be consumed that way. The underbellies of a galaxy far far away are dark and the 3D glasses make it even darker. 3D also makes the short war scene that takes place, murky and terribly ugly, not to mention we don’t get a proper sense of scope. Bradford Young’s delightful cinematography deserves to be savoured. For my Malaysian readers, I recommend MBO Big Screen in Starling Mall. Okay, I’m done with my aside.

What was I talking about?

Right, the action set pieces. There’s another one where the entire ragtag gang are in the Mellinium Falcon and omg I can’t spoil anything but it’s bloody amazing. The problem is, most of it the action sequences are weightless because there hasn’t been escalating drama or tension prior to that. Our heroes are running from underdeveloped villains to underdeveloped end goals. You’re not worried for anybody’s safety and therefore not clenching your fists tightly, sweating balls. Nonetheless, the set pieces themselves will leave you salivating for more.

The other area that succeeds is the acting. Alden Ehrenreich may not have Harrison Ford’s X-Factor, but he’s still overflowing with charisma and a damned good actor. I buy him as Han Solo 100%. I was initially concerned that Ehrenreich was going to do a Harrison Ford impersonation, but he doesn’t. He knows he cannot be Harrison Ford, no one can, and so he takes Han Solo’s swagger and bravado and makes it his own. It works. And if it wasn’t obvious from the trailers, Donald Glover is great Lando Calrissian. Every sentence he speaks, every movement, even the way he looks at someone, has Lando’s DNA all over it.

Emilia Clarke is another one I was worried about. We all know she’s great as the Mother of Dragons in Game of Thrones, but aside from that, she hasn’t always been convincing, particularly in her role as Sarah Connor in Terminator: Genisys. Here, she brings her A game, showing the right amount of vulnerability and vigour. By the end of it, it was her journey I found myself most interested in. And Woody Harrelson? Well, you can’t go wrong with Woody. But it isn’t just the individual performances that worked, but also the impeccable chemistry between each of them.

I guess the next question is, where does it stand among the rest of the Star Wars movies. For that, you’ll have to wait and read the ranking article, which will be out sometime next week. But for now, I’ll leave you with this: Solo is pretty much as we (or I) expected to be, nestled somewhere in between ‘kinda good’ and ‘terribly forgettable’.

PS: There aren’t any lightsaber battles/massacres here. I don’t consider that a spoiler, but a note, so you don’t go in there holding your breath in anticipation.