Is it still possible to get worked up about a Star Wars movie? Three of them have been released in just the last two and a half years, and now—on the 41st anniversary of the very first film's debut—comes Solo: A Star Wars Story. I don't think many people are likely to see this picture as a cultural event, or were even hankering for it to be made. It's basically an old-school Saturday-serial b-movie—which of course is exactly the sort of picture that inspired the whole Star Wars project.
It's a pretty good b-movie, too. The story is silly, but it's fun, and so are the effects, especially the ones used to create the several new creatures we see, who are replete with nose hoses and eyeball stalks and all manner of other exotic whatnot. There's also a really big caterpillar thingy called Lady Proxima, who's much less gracious than her name might suggest; and lots of galactic action too, naturally.
The movie's chief pleasure is its solid cast. Alden Ehrenreich, the star, suggests a younger Harrison Ford—the indelible Han Solo of the first three Star Wars movies—without embarrassing himself by trying too hard. This is a considerable achievement. Ehrenreich looks nothing like Ford, but he does manage to project a bit of the man's engaging sarcasm and gift for smooth gab, and he contributes his own style of cool, too. Donald Glover gives a standout performance as the shady gambler Lando Calrissian, taking over the role as if Billy Dee Williams had never played it. (One wonders what Billy Dee might have made of this Lando's ambiguously affectionate relationship with a sassy robot copilot called L3-37, played by a mo-capped Phoebe Waller-Bridge.) And Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke—raven-haired here—is charismatically seductive as Han's love interest Qi-ra, a mystery woman whose secrets will obviously play an important part in sure-to-come future installments of the story.
The script, by Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) and his son Jonathan, dutifully checks off a number of required boxes: Where is Han from? (The gloomy planet of Corellia.) Where did he get his zoomy spaceship, the Millennium Falcon? (He won it from Lando in a barroom card game we now get to witness.) And how did he meet his shaggy copilot Chewbacca? (It's a long story.) What's missing from the film—but not actually missed—are Jedis, lightsabers, and any mention of The Force or glimpses of R2-D2 or C-3PO (although Anthony Daniels, who played C-3PO for years, does turn up in a very brief cameo in another role).
The movie is built around a MacGuffin called coaxium—a kind of spaceship fuel that's in passionate demand by all kinds of disreputable people. In order to lay hands on a large amount of this valuable stuff, Han—at an early point when he's still an aspiring pilot longing for a spaceship of his own—hooks up with a smuggler named Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his partner Val (Thandie Newton, regrettably under-used). They have been employed by a crime lord named Dryden (Paul Bettany, eccentrically togged out in mutant Armani) to hijack a train filled with coaxium as it barrels through a vast, snowy mountain range. The resulting action sequence is long and quite impressive—a tribute to the skills of the usual army of FX technicians, and to director Ron Howard, too.
As is fairly well-known by now, Solo had a "troubled production." Original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie) were five months into filming when they were summarily dismissed (for the traditional "artistic differences"). In what must have been a certain amount of desperation, Lucasfilm quickly called in director Ron Howard, whose ties to Star Wars overlord George Lucas reach back to American Graffiti. Howard reportedly re-shot a lot of the movie, and the result could have been a stylistic mess. But it isn't. The production design is uniformly fine throughout, the action is unusually coherent for this sort of too-many-cooks blockbuster, and, most important, the story flows. When the inevitable sequel-tease arrives at the end, you might actually find yourself wondering what could happen next. As you know, we'll all eventually find out.