After all the hoo-ha surrounding its production, the fact Solo: A Star Wars Story is neither a disaster or the year’s stunning surprise – as can occasionally happen with films coming from a troubled-birth – smacks of anti-climax. Not only did Solo have a change of director, with Ron Howard (Apollo 13) replacing the more comedic Phil Lord and Chris Miller (21 Jump Street), but the film also found itself plagued with reshoots, as well as startling reports that Alden Ehrenreich, our eponymous Han Solo, took acting lessons to pull himself through shooting. Entertainment websites have been stuffed with clickbaity horror stories for the past year, but after all this anticipation, at the end of it all, the end product is, well, fine. It serves its function as filler-distraction competently while also not reaching the heights of the kind of joyous entertainment that it shows brief glimpses of. Solo therefore comes off as quite a hard film to review; it’s more interesting in what it attempts to do than what it actually achieves.
The easiest and first comparison is with the other offerings of the re-booted Star Wars franchise; in fact, it’s probably true that most of the controversy came as the result of confusion over what the film meant ‘for the franchise’. As well as overcoming its own issues, it had to ‘redeem’ a franchise ‘in crisis’ after the relative commercial disappointment of The Last Jedi (how relative depends on your perspective – it made $1.3 billion). More than any film in recent times, the media circus preceding Solo didn’t make it feel like a stand-alone project at all, but rather a conduit at the service of a wider brand.
The film revels in this role, however, and the rapidity of references to other Star Wars films come so thick and fast that at times it can feel like a trivia quiz. Doing the Kessel Run in under twelve parsecs is a major plot point. Almost immediately after being informed of Chewbacca’s name, we are told ‘you’re gonna need a nickname’, with ‘Chewie’ being used ubiquitously thereafter, as if ‘Chewie’ needed an explanation to begin with. The last line of the film practically sets the stage for a particular exchange between Lando Calrissian and Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back that isn’t even particularly famous or iconic.
Even going to see a film about Han Solo in itself demands some level of franchise buy-in. Recognisable faces pepper this movie: Woody Harrelson is here in the identifiably gruff role that he drudges up whenever he’s cast in a film over a certain budget; Emilia Clarke almost manages to get through the entire film without having to reprise her Daenerys Targaryen role, until of course her character takes an inevitable turn; even Donald Glover (better known to some as Childish Gambino) is here as a charismatic Lando Calrissian. The thing is though, we aren’t here to see any of them. A lot of the reason we’re here has to do with the way our buried childhood memories give us a slight emotional twinge whenever Han Solo stands motionless delivering quippy one-liners: shooting off ‘look, kid…’, the acidic delivery of ‘wise guy’ to Obi Wan, as well as those all-too-rare moments when his surly disposition glacially opens up into a smile.
So how does this new Han Solo square up? Ehrenreich seems to grasp that, far from Clive James’ one-time assertion that ‘there’s always been an actor called Harrison Ford’, there are actually subtle deviations in his tough-guy schtick from role to role. The problem is that, with Ehrenreich, we get every Harrison Ford at once: Solo is meshed with the more light hearted Indiana Jones; we drop into full-on Rick Deckard from Blade Runner during some of the film’s darker moments; and at one point his face is contorted in such a way that it almost waxes of Ford’s character in Air Force One – I wouldn’t have been shocked to see him spit at Gary Oldman to ‘get off my plane’ in tribute.
If Solo is about anything, it’s about the idea of the rogue. Almost every character in this film has shades of Han Solo in them, in some way overtly charismatic, or consciously rebellious. Even our cynic-in-residence Woody Harrelson gets his own one-liners occasionally, quipping that a group of adversaries were ‘nicely negotiated’ when walking into a room filled with nothing but their corpses. How well this flamboyance comes off varies pretty sharply, and some of the wacky lines feel a bit strained: ‘[I want to retire] somewhere warm, but not too warm, you know?’. This is the real problem Ehrenreich faces – Harrison Ford had the benefit of being opposite to the more straight-edged Mark Hamill and Carry Fisher. The rogue exists because he (and in Hollywood its usually a he) stands in contrast to the squares. With every character more roguish than the last, we’re left with a bidding war of wackiness, in which Han Solo himself emerges, awkwardly, somewhere in the middle.