‘I’ ON CULTURE
Ron Howard’s new movie Solo is the least Star Wars-like of any of the films in the series. While showing the early life of one of the film’s great heroes, it avoids going into space much of the time. Instead, it is a good, old-fashioned Western, where the hero chases the bad guys for a prize and seeks the love a girl. If it weren’t for the occasional scenes that clearly refer back to Star Wars, you would not even think it was part of the series.
Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is a not very successful thief on the miserable planet Corellia. He attempts escape after stealing something valuable with girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). He gets out; she does not. We next see him on a miserable planet as part of the Empire’s army, where he joins up with Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his wife Val (Thandi Newton) for a major crime attempt, teaming up with a Wookie named Chewbacca along the way. There is some great action, showing how effective Howard can be as a director.
Soon after, Han, Chewie and Beckett meet up with crazy crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), whose top assistant turns out to be Qi’ra. Han needs a ship, and Qi’ra leads him to, who else? Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). Get the idea? Calrissian also has a droid named L3-37 (voice of Phoebe Waller-Bridge) who is “woke,” a fighter for droid rights.
There is a lot of action, far more than in most Star Wars movies, but very little of it is in space. We do, as part of the nostalgia fun, get a chance to see Han and Chewie in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, but except for one extended sequence, they are essentially planet bound. No one ever mentions “the force,” and until the very end, there is just about no actual connection with any of the characters or events in the rest of the Star Wars universe, and even then it is indirect.
The good acting and relative complexity of characters helps a lot. Clarke is very good as Qi’ra, who clearly has her own agenda, which is not the same as Han’s. She handles the actions scenes as deftly as the “mother of dragons” (a Game of Thrones reference) should. Glover is truly charismatic, and deft at both comedy and drama. Both characters deserve their own movies. Harrelson is really good; somehow he has grown into one of our best character actors. He is exceptional when interacting with Newton, and actually becomes the center of the film for more time than would normally be the case. Bettany is over the top as the crime boss and clearly enjoyed chewing up the scenery. The commentary from Waller-Bridge manages to be both contemporary and hysterically funny. Beginning a rebellion as a distraction from a major heist is a new and really fun element.
Ehrenreich is a good leading man. The problem is, unfortunately, that he is not Harrison Ford. Ford not only had charisma and great swagger, he was Han Solo for 40 years. Although Ehrenreich works hard to bring in a few of his mannerisms and great lines, he is not able to erase the memory of the man most of us think of as Han Solo. Forcing the meetings with his original companions just reminds us that we are dealing with a substitute, no matter how good an actor he is.
The action sequences are excellent. There are several heists, each different, and Howard keeps us on the edge of our seats throughout. The editing is fabulous, moving between control rooms, speeding trains, mine shafts, political rebellions, aerial dogfights and more.
This is a good movie. It is not what you would expect from this series. There are a few fights with light saber-styled weapons, but they generally last seconds. But there is a lot of action, and a chance to relax and enjoy meetings of characters we have already seen together in action. And, yes, there is plenty of fun. The film doesn’t have the sparkle we are used to in the series. No big space maneuvers, not much in the way of armies (there are groups of gang enforcers instead). But we had a good time. This is a movie worth seeing.