“Solo” is like a concert program. I know walking in where it has to begin, where it has to end, and the pieces that fall in between. What’s in each piece might surprise me. “Solo” does contain some surprises, but the program runs like one we’ve sat through before – we’re familiar with its members, and we know the direction in which its going. It’s spoiled, but still enjoyable when the lights go down.
“Solo” hits its marks, and it lets you know when it hits them. We see Han and Chewie’s first meeting, the card game between Han and Lando, the Kessel Run made in 12 parsecs, and what some of our favorite characters were like at a younger age. “Solo” spends most of its time explaining things that were mentioned in the Original Trilogy; and while its great to have those things brought to light, they shouldn’t feel like the sole focus of the film. There are plenty of visual cues and references that are meant to stimulate our nostalgia, and “Solo” is willing to sacrifice its more original and fresh material for frequent jogs down memory lane.
There’s virtually no artistic license in “Solo,” which is unfortunate after I found myself pleasantly surprised with the direction Rian Johnson took with “The Last Jedi.” “Rogue One” benefitted from having unknown characters and near-total freedom in its plotline. “Solo” plays out more like a biography than a narrative; a series of events that never settles in to a particular plot type or structure. I imagine that the conceptual stages of the film began with a timeline set by Kathleen Kennedy and corporate bosses, with the writers’ jobs left to filling in the gaps between each point. For such limitations, the writing is actually pretty good. There’s just nothing new or shocking about it that makes it memorable.
Alden Ehrenreich is great as Han Solo. The only thing holding him back was that timeline on the whiteboard. We see where Han starts in the beginning, and we know where he must be in the end. Han is cynical and self-serving, although he has reasons to be, and we know that deep down he wants to use his skills for good. This film explains why he is the way he is (or was, rather) and brings more depth to the character. Alden portrays a version of Han that is not yet confident in his abilities and is even a bit unsure about the path he has chosen for himself.
The movie’s ending opens the possibility for a sequel. Han still isn’t the man we’re introduced to in “A New Hope,” and the threat of Crimson Dawn and its (surprising) leader is still very real. Paul Bettany’s villain (who’s name I’ve forgotten in hindsight) seems to have come straight out of a Marvel movie. There’s so much left unexplored with his character, and there’s never a relationship established between him and Han Solo aside from a working one. One could argue that Qi’ra provides the real conflict here, but that’s not fleshed out until the film’s final minutes, and Clarke portrays her character as far too innocent beforehand to be credible in her later actions. Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett is the foil to Han’s character and acts as a kind of mentor to the young flyboy. His lessons are less than subtle, and Han learns from him what it takes to become an outlaw.
Donald Glover nails his performance. He oozes charisma as the multi-cape faceted Lando Calrissian. The relationship between Lando and his loyal feministic robot, L3-37, provides some of the movie’s highpoints. L3’s sense of righteousness gives us some of the most humorous moments and emotional ones, and we feel her frustration in her incompatibility to be with the man she fancies. The friendship between Han and Chewie is what really keeps the film going, and had it kept the innocent sense of discovery that exists in every scene between the two, it might have been more successful.
For undergoing as many trials and tribulations as it did in its production, “Solo” emerges as an entertaining addition to the Star Wars universe. Now that we have seen the arc of Solo’s life and have hopefully learned why working with established characters can be trickier than expected, we can move on to untapped areas and times of the universe for truly original and surprising Star Wars stories.