I admit that from its announcement, I didn’t see much point to this film. The curse of the prequel trilogy was a need to fill in the vague elements of backstory, often forgetting that the original film worked by creating a sense of a deeper history and a bigger galaxy than we actually saw. So a Young Han Solo movie didn’t interest me — it would inevitably be a stringing together elements like winning the Millenium Falcon, completing the Kessel Run in X number of incorrect units, meeting Chewbacca, etc and we’d all expect to go ‘ooh’ when something like that happened.
I once went on a Beatles Tour of Liverpool with a friend who loved the Beatles. It was a weird experience as Liverpool is a city I know quite well. The tour guide treated every stop with a kind of chirpy reverence as if each semi-detached house or park gate was a holy relic. People took excited photographs and I felt really odd. It took me awhile to get over the cynical detachment and enjoy the tour for what it was: something fun.
Oddly, Solo does indulge itself in exactly that way even down to a pause-for-weighty-significance when Solo gets his blaster. It’s no spoiler to say that Solo will play cards with Lando for the Falcon, that he will meet Chewbacca, and that the film is peppered with references to almost every trait and famous line and significant object you can think of for the character of Han Solo.
But I say “oddly”.
The odd part is that this really didn’t become annoying. Instead, Solo manages to be fun, clever and exciting. Not the best Star Wars film but certainly far from the worse and an enjoyable space-opera/heist-movie/western in its own right. Yes, it has a lot of that tour-around-Solo’s-youth elements but it knows it has to be fun and exciting and carry some emotional oomph in places.
Cleverly it picks up elements and themes from other Star Wars films that have taken a secondary role to the main thrust of the dark-v-light side of the force and the saga of the Skywalker family. The Jedi and the Sith don’t get a mention (the Sith get a visual reference near the end with a fun surprise) and the nearest we get to a Skywalker is a reference to Tatooine.
Instead, we get to see life under the Empire from the perspective of its criminal underclass and network of gangsters. Life under the Empire is one of war and criminality often working hand-in-hand. Han has been living for years as a part of the gang of child thieves on a shipbuilding world and as a young man is ready to escape. The first part of the film follows him off the planet and (briefly) into military service with the Empire before he falls in with a different group of criminals. Here the main story takes hold as quest to steal starship fuel entangles Han into a series of events that involve a sinister criminal conspiracy and a rival gang of mauraders led by the mysterious Enfys Nest.
The cast is excellent. Alden Ehrenreich as Solo isn’t the strongest actor in the group but he is more than good enough and it’s a tough job to follow Harrison Ford. He manages to give the character enough street smarts and attitude to feel like Han Solo but also enough naivety and vulnerability to be more than a impression. Donald Glover as Lando is dripping in charisma. Woody Harrelson and Paul Bettany play cynical criminality in quite different but effective ways. Thandie Newton is under utilised. Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Lando’s revolutionary robot pilot steals most of the scenes she is in from the rest of the cast. Emelia Clarke manages to plausibly convey both a hardened cynicism about the world she is in with an equivalent vulnerability to Solo as a character.
Lots of big, great looking set pieces. Some space battles and utter space nonsense that is gloriously stupidly fun. Some genuine suprises and twists. Betrayals, counter-betrayals, stand-offs and robot uprisings.
Take it for what it is and have fun.