There's nothing wrong with Solo: A Star Wars Story, except maybe that it comes across as completely and totally routine. It plays everything safe. Nothing really unexpected happens here. This is a competent, entertaining, well-paced and reasonably plotted space adventure. It is not bold or inventive or subversive or anything else. As so-called Star Wars "anthology movies" go (all two of them), this is a step down from Rogue One in terms of vision and ambition, even if it is inherently more fun. This is comfort food, plain and simple.
The original directors of the film, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, helmed The Lego Movie, which was inventive and subversive. They were fired well into production of Solo under the catch-all Hollywood headline of "creative differences." Franchise torch-bearer Kathleen Kennedy and writer Lawrence Kasdan — among the most grizzled Star Wars veterans still in the game — apparently did not agree with the style of the young whippersnappers. Enter Ron Howard, who came in to replace Lord and Miller. Howard delivers a straightforward Star Wars action-adventure that fits right into this universe. He disappears as a hired pro. Aside from the obligatory cameo by his brother Clint, you wouldn't even know he was there. John Williams is notably absent (aside from lifting key themes from Williams' past compositions, John Powell's score doesn't sound as Williams-esque as Michael Giacchino's work in Rogue One), but this movie otherwise feels like all the rest.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I guess that depends what you want out of your Star Wars. Howard hits all the beats and delivers the expected goods. It's slick and efficient and conventional. But at this point, with the franchise's schedule having meant an annual release from 2015 through 2019, they were bound to hit a wall because of over-saturation. Yes, people can get sick of Star Wars if you continue to feed it to them. The box office disappointment of Solo had all the executives at Disney/Lucasfilm rethinking their strategy. Navel-gazing is a predictable response, and not unwarranted. (At the very least, can we finally dispense with the idea of a Boba Fett stand-alone movie?) But it's not that Solo itself is bad per se; it's that being so conventional may no longer be wise for the franchise.
The real problem, I guess, is that this movie isn't necessary, and it doesn't do much to convince us otherwise. It suffers from prequel-itis, where the screenwriters devise tie-ins to things we are familiar with, but in a way that feels obligatory rather than vital. Sure, I smiled at the fact that we get to see the Kessel Run completed in (approximately) 12 parsecs. But the Kessel Run is also the most obvious thing you could possibly put into a prequel called Solo.
As for Alden Ehrenreich stepping into the title role, he's ... fine. Nothing really wrong with his performance, but nothing especially right about it either. He's Solo-adjacent, but it's hard to accept him as Solo except in the abstract. Why is this? Mostly because he's not Harrison Ford, but also because Han Solo is such an iconic character that has been iterated upon so many times within other characters that this simply becomes the latest iteration that feels like an imitation. Replacing Ford in one of his most famous roles was always going to be a tall order; Ehrenreich does not transcend it.
By contrast, Donald Glover somehow manages to find the music between the notes. He makes for a better Lando than Ehrenreich does Han. I don't know if it's his voice or mannerisms or what exactly, but it feels right, and there's an air of fun to it, whereas with Ehrenreich the performance feels more dutiful. Lando feels like a scoundrel where Han feels weighed down by his mission. There's also an intriguing quality to Lando's relationship with his droid L3 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who sounds so much like Gwendolyn Christie's Captain Phasma that I thought she was cast as an in-joke, but no, I was simply wrong). There's something between them that is more than just an owner and a piece of hardware.
We also get to see how Han and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) meet. This is played for an acceptable level of amusement, as Han is thrown into a jail cell to be murdered/eaten by "the beast" after being charged with deserting the Imperial Army in the middle of a ground combat invasion that has a cinematic visual template borrowed from Saving Private Ryan. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Rewind three years. Solo and his one true love, Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke), are on the run from the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate after a caper gone wrong puts Han in the hot seat. He narrowly escapes by fleeing the planet and joining the Imperial Army. She is captured and becomes his life's sole motivator — to find a way to eventually return and rescue her. His stint with the Imperial Army is purely mercenary — a way to eventually pave his way back home — but instead he finds himself in with a motley crew of thieves-for-hire who have a big heist planned. After Han proves his value with his piloting skills, their leader Beckett (played by Woody Harrelson, which tells you most of what you need to know about the character), reluctantly allows Han to join them in their heist to steal a massive load of the highly volatile and valuable substance coaxium, which is comprised mostly of the highly-prized element MacGuffin.
Well, of course the heist goes bad. Beckett's team is ambushed by rival pirates who also want the
unobtanium coaxium, and they sustain heavy losses, including the death of Beckett's beloved partner in crime, Val (played by Thandie Newton in one of those throwaway roles that feels more significant because of the actor playing her). This puts the team in a deep hole because the coaxium was actually to be delivered to Crimson Dawn, and non-delivery means you're dead, because, you know, gangsters bring with them gangster cliches.
The head of Crimson Dawn and the Big Bad of the movie is Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). He's a bland disappointment as villains go. Bettany supplies the requisite evil posturing and billionaire-murderer eccentricity, but there's nothing memorable about him as a foil for our heroes. He's more of a means to an end, which typifies Solo. The real conflict, more internalized, has more to do with Qi'ra, who in the years of Han's absence has moved up in the world to be Vos' companion/consigliere, and whose true motives take time to be completely revealed. In the meantime, she and Han team up with their old relationship put on hold. This material is ... fine.
In order to get out from under Vos' debt, the crew must now find another source of coaxium, which provides the engine to drive the plot forward through the rest of the movie, including Han's first meeting and card game with Lando (which ends with him not winning the Millennium Falcon in a bet, but Lando agrees to let him use it anyway); the aforementioned Kessel Run which includes sparking a droid uprising on a slave-labor mining colony; and some space-faring fun in the violent Maw Cluster, where the Falcon — which starts this adventure in mint condition (and does not have its signature gap in the front) — gets pretty well mauled while trying to escape a massive space creature while simultaneously being sucked into a vortex. Also, we learn the rival Cloud-Rider pirates that derailed Beckett's heist still need the coaxium for themselves and have more noble reasons for wanting it. So, ultimately, this is once again about Han and his choice to stand for something other than himself.
All of these beats are tied together with a script that plays fairly effortlessly and glides right along. It's a job of consummate professionalism. But it is not a job of inspiration. I describe these plot points mostly out of obligation to a certain amount of detail, not because they are particularly meaningful. But this is of course the problem with prequels: They are dutiful back-fillers of character histories we've already been told about or imagined well enough on our own.
The plot's key betrayals are telegraphed. Especially with Beckett, who gives Han a version of the classic "don't trust anyone" speech early in the movie, which inevitably means he will be the one to double-cross Han and remind him that he said not to trust anyone. As payback, Han gets to settle the "Han shoots first" meta-debate in a moment that is unmistakable, but doesn't insist too much upon itself.
Probably the most unexpected thing to happen in Solo is the head-scratching WTF moment where we learn Qi'ra is actually working for Darth Maul, last seen being sliced in half at the end of The Phantom Menace at the climax of a good action scene that followed absolutely zero character development — but now apparently running Crimson Dawn. Considering this takes place somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 years after Phantom Menace, I'm at a loss. I learn there are TV episodes or comics — unseen by me — that explain how Maul survived falling bisected into a chasm, but that doesn't explain why he's in this movie (except maybe to generate discussions like this one), which teases a larger plot that I can't imagine will ever materialize or matter. (There was never likely to be a Solo 2 even before this one disappointed at the box office, so what was this ostensibly setting up?)
I enjoyed Solo while it was happening, but there are no lasting impressions to take away from it, because there are none the movie even cares to provide. In my Rogue One review, I wrote: "It's possible that future stand-alone films may have their own tones, serving only themselves. That's part of the statement being made here. Star Wars is a universe, but a Star Wars movie is whatever its particular goals are." In the case of Solo, one could say the goals are simply to serve up the same Star Wars aesthetic that has been the formula for more than 40 years, in the interest of providing cinematic familiarity. The goal was apparently so paramount it meant the original directors working against the idea had to be fired.