'Solo' Holds its Own

The “Star Wars Story” anthology has become a bit of a “Monkey’s Paw” scenario for me personally when it comes to the evolution of the “Star Wars” franchise.

As I watch the long running film series’ primary saga unfolding across “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” degenerate into aimlessly plotted grandstanding, rather than tell a new and engaging tale carried by the fresh blood of the franchise, these smaller experimental side stories have managed to swoop in and steal the thunder from the main trilogy by being everything that I’ve wanted to see out of “Star Wars” in the form of stories that I never wanted to be told.

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I hate that “Rogue One” had to tie into the Death Star’s reveal in a way that directly linked it to the opening of “A New Hope,” but its modernized portrayal of warfare in a retro science fantasy setting and willingness to end the tale on a tragically bittersweet note celebrating the necessity of heroism has secured its position as my favorite film of the franchise that isn’t “The Empire Strikes Back” by a wide margin. For similar circumstances, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” more or less lines up with that very assessment.

I’ve made no effort to hide that I feel the decision to green light an origin story for Han Solo is one of the most creatively bankrupt decisions that Disney could have possibly done with this license. The most interesting aspect of Han Solo’s life is the story of how he went from a smuggler of moderate criminal reputation to a New Republic war hero and rebel general meaning that any story you choose to tell involving who he is and where he came from can only be average and inconsequential at best or maddeningly trite and contradictory at worst. Surely enough, from a story perspective, that’s almost exactly what “Solo” delivers.

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Alden Ehrenreich plays a substantially younger hot shot Han Solo out to find his place and prove his worth in a galaxy divided into oppressive Imperial regime and lawless chaos warred over by interstellar cartels and criminal organizations. Since he plays a version of the character fairly removed from the iconography of a younger Harrison Ford, he manages to impressively hold his own in a standard coming-of-age hero’s journey narrative that is almost at odds with Han’s development, were it not for the highlighted harshness of the lessons he learned from the journey.

His various companions, save for a surprisingly three dimensional Chewbacca, all round out standard archetypes saved primarily by the impressive work put in by acclaimed character actors like Woody Harrelson whose screen presence can never be ignored and Emilia Clarke, who manages to play the twist surrounding her character just well enough to make its revelation palatable by the end despite being able to see it coming from a mile away.

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With the sole exception of Donald Glover’s take on Lando Calrissian, who is so hypnotic to watch it’s almost criminal to see him wasted in a two-hour production rather than a regular series of some sort, the film is at its absolute weakest when it desperately attempts to hammer in its status as a prequel rather than be its own thing. A few utterly brilliant moments between Han and Lando carried by the chemistry of their very talented actors notwithstanding, every time “Solo” saw fit to acutely remind me that I was watching a Han Solo origin story, I could only roll my eyes. When destiny’s plans for the character and his identity fall to the wayside however, it reveals a superior “Star Wars” movie that I have been championing to see made for most of my life.

If getting to see a proper cinematic depiction of life in a galaxy far, far away beyond the most iconic moments of the war effort was what made “Rogue One” compelling, than it’s easily the grandest selling point of “Solo.” While demystifying a character’s back story by depicting his coming-of-age narrative would be considered a cop out under any other context, the young Solo’s perspective becomes the perfect lens through which we get to see so much more of the “Star Wars” setting than ever before depicted in film.

Imperial propaganda takes on a “Starship Troopers-esque” edge of satire when played in the background of backwater crime infested planets that the government clearly doesn’t care about, the cutthroat nature of the criminal underworld is finally laid about in way that illuminates back alley dealings in the other films in new context, and sheerly from a storytelling perspective, the movie’s ability to use its western motifs to go from intense war action a la “Saving Private Ryan,” along with gripping heist elements is a consistent thrill ride.

Whatever LucasArts had to pay for Ron Howard to clean up the messy production that had been unfolding up to this point was clearly worth the price of admission, as the occasional bout of awkward improvisation left in offers a terrifying glimpse of what the movie may have become had he not replaced his predecessors in the director’s chair. The flaws inherent to this movie feeling inconsequential along with the final product ultimately coming together as little more than a moderately fun popcorn blockbuster creates an air of disposability that simply can’t be overlooked.

Despite “Solo’s” story having very little to add however, its storytelling really does make all the difference. That level of fine craftsmanship proves so pleasantly diverting that I can only hope that the filmmakers of the main series are taking notes.

3 out of 5

Graduating from Texas A&M University—Commerce with a bachelor's degree in News and Editorial Journalism, Jordan Wright has lived most of his adult life professionally critiquing films, from major blockbusters to indie dramas, and has no intentions of stopping.