Solo: A Star Wars Story movie review: These new Star Wars films feel like carefully and rather cynically constructed confections
3 stars: Despite its troubled history, this Star Wars prequel is entertaining enough, says Paul Whitington
Is Han Solo divisible from Harrison Ford? Disney must certainly be hoping so, because this entire $250million prequel has been built around an adventure in which Ford does not appear. The film has been described as a space western, in which Alden Ehrenreich plays a young and impetuous Solo, who has not yet found the swagger and cynicism that would make him everyone's favourite Star Wars character. The rapidly expanding rebooted franchise was always going to have to find room for him, but this standalone spin-off has not evolved smoothly.
Solo's original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, were fired eight months into the shoot by Lucasfilm, who brought in Ron Howard to steady the ship. A safe pair of hands if ever there was one, Howard has managed to create order from chaos, but the finished film bares the traces of early confusion and, despite strong moments, out-stays its welcome.
It's thoroughly watchable for the most part. When we first meet Han, he's thieving to stay alive on a grimy planet oppressed by a very nasty-looking extraterrestrial called Lady Proxima. Unbeknownst to her, Han has pinched a phial of Coaxium, a hugely valuable super-fuel he reckons will buy him and his girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) passage off that dreadful planet. He escapes, she doesn't, and Han becomes obsessed with making his way back to rescue her.
Meanwhile, he has an adventure or two, joining the imperial army for purely mercenary reasons and ending up in the middle of a mud-soaked space battle that looks worryingly like the Somme. As his comrades fall around him, Han escapes by following a dodgy-looking captain called Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who turns out not to be a soldier at all but the leader of a group of daring space bandits who are about to take on a very big job.
In the film's most moving and amusing scene, Solo meets Chewbacca in a muddy pit and, after persuading the starving Wookiee not to eat him, forges what will become a famous alliance. Han also encounters Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the vain and dashing intergalactic smuggler whose spaceship he covets. The Millennium Falcon will change hands a couple of times in smoky card games before it finds its true owner, but Solo gets many chances in this adventure to prove how good a pilot he is.
There are some nice performances on display here: Glover's preening Lando is a very amusing creation, Paul Bettany has great fun playing the Dryden Vos, a sociopathic crime boss with impeccable manners, and Ehrenreich manages to make the role of Han Solo his own - for this film at least. He doesn't make the mistake of turning his performance into an outright impersonation, but there are enough winks and grins and mannerisms to make moviegoers smile in recognition.
Veteran Star Wars fans, a cranky bunch at the best of times, were up in arms about this film the moment they heard it was going to be made. Han Solo is as sacrosanct as Luke or Leia, possibly even more so, since it was Harrison Ford's wry and sneering characterisation that rescued the original trilogy from ossified space opera pomposity. This was a character whose legacy was not to be messed with.
What would they think of this film? Overall, they ought to be happy, because Solo is pretty faithful to the psychology and persona of the original character, and careful to explain why Han became who he became.
The writing and pacing in all these Star Wars reboots is probably better, less stiff and grandiose, than in George Lucas's originals. What they lack is the freshness, the vivacity, the edgy creativity that Lucas so fearlessly brought to A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back: these new films, for all their merits, feel like carefully and rather cynically constructed confections. Ron Howard has ensured that Solo is no embarrassment to the franchise, but the chases and hair's breadth escapes become a little tiresome in a less coherent second half.
Solo (12A, 135mins) - 3 stars
Also out this week: Movie reviews: On Chesil Beach, The Breadwinner, Edie, Show Dogs
Films coming soon...
My Friend Dahmer (Ross Lynch, Anne Heche, Dallas Roberts, Alex Wolff); Book Club (Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda); Ismael's Ghost (Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Mathieu Amalric); That Summer (Lee Radziwill, Edith Bouvier Beale).