Solo: A Star Wars Story may be the best Star Wars fan film ever made.
Yes, it is a real Lucasfilm product under the auspices of the Walt Disney Company and its script is co-written by primary Star Wars contributor Lawrence Kasdan, but it has a wish-fulfillment quality to it which you also find in many of the longer and more lavishly produced fan films. On this front, the film is surprisingly appealing once you accept the notion that just about every important event in Han Solo’s (Alden Ehrenreich) life before meeting Luke Skywalker occurred over a two-week period. The compression of events also gives the feeling of a fan film.
Which isn’t to say Solo is bad or fan films are inherently inferior to Lucasfilm product. Rather, the Disney era of Star Wars is a collection of tales told by fans to other fans in a time where the emphasis varies by the dictates of the fan in charge. And like a well-financed fan telling his version of Han met Chewbacca, Solo contains some of that scrappy, innocent energy despite being bankrolled by the second largest entertainment company on the planet. At least, it has that energy after an initial stumble.
If viewed as a fan film, it still asks one big thing of the viewer: accept that Han met Chewie (Joonas Suotamo), Lando (Donald Glover) and saw the Millennium Falcon for the first time in one short period of his life.
Directed by Ron Howard after the departure of original directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, Solo details Han’s life from the mean streets of Corellia to his time in the Imperial Infantry to his initial days as a rogue and smuggler. Some of these details have been known for decades, but the film remixes them with the sensibility of a heist film; though that tone is muted by Howard in order to maintain the Star Wars house style. In fact, the early portion of the film feels intentionally muted. If one wants to feel generous, it give the sense of a galaxy oppressed both by the Empire and the criminal syndicates operating both in its shadow and with occasional collusion. But the muted tone of the first twenty minutes can also be viewed as Howard overcompensating for whatever Miller and Lord intended back toward the Star Wars feel.
But once the particulars of the film’s key heist — the fabled Kessel Run itself — come into view, the movie pops to life with Woody Harrelson, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Emilia Clarke rounding out the crew. The heist film energy Miller and Lord were likely interested in capturing also appears as everyone boards Lando’s pristine Corellian YT-19 freighter, the Millennium Falcon. Indeed, the entire Kessel episode feels the most like Miller and Lords’ 21st Jump Street movies with its chaos, rapid fire comedy and well-placed action; even as Howard plays it more toward action than laughs. Waller-Bridge’s navigation droid L3-37 steals every scene she’s featured in and Chewie has an enigmatic Wookie reunion (teased in the trailers) that leaves one wondering about that story.
In fact, if there is one major criticism of Solo, it is that it is not Kessel Run: A Star Wars Story. The film is at its most confident while depicting this heist and making one feel that this group of characters were the right people to be there with Han. That sure-footedness is so overwhelming, you almost wish the movie left off other details of Han’s backstory — like meeting Chewie or his desertion from the Empire — to give the Kessel Run the prominence it truly deserves.
Nonetheless, the script almost justifies why Han would experience these things in such a short span of time. Looking at the film as whole, it would be tough to unravel the film to remove, say, the Sabaac game against Lando, without losing some its best features: like Harrleson’s aged smuggler Tobias Beckett or Glover’s insanely great performance as Lando. The relationship between Beckett and Han, the film’s surprising emotional core, requires Han to be a recent Imperial deserter and Glover’s Lando smooths over just about every objection one might have to Han flying the Falcon so soon after leaving the Empire.
But again, if the viewer is not agreeable to the film depicting all of these events in a short space of time, the movie will not work for them.
Such a viewer may still enjoy the performance of Paul Bettany, who delivers a fun performance as Dryden Voss. He’s a completely worthy Star Wars villain who offers a new take on the galactic gangster part modeled by Jabba the Hutt. He’s both charming and ruthless as he gives the stakes for Beckett and Han a certain credibility. He may not be the game-changer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) was in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but he is further evidence that Star Wars films can stand without Force-sensitive antagonists.
While no twist in the film is particularly surprising — except the identity of the Voss’s superior in the Crimson Dawn syndicate — it is a fairly charming film with a lot of fannish checkmarks checked and standout turns from Waller-Bridge and Glover. It also introduces Ehrenreich as a likeable if less rougish version of Han. He’s not Harrison Ford, but recreating that performance was never the intent. In fact, the story and its very slight sequel tease offer a reason why the two versions of Han are different. But to elaborate further would constitute a sizeable spoiler. At the same time, Ehrenreich is charming and occasionally goofy as things never quite turn his way.
You may have also noticed the almost complete lack of comment regard Clarke’s Qi’ra. The actor is likeable enough in the film, but the role is whisper thin. Like so many women in Han’s life (besides Leia), she’s a non-starter.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is by no means the best Star Wars, but it also not the worst. It lives and dies on a particular fan sensibility and if you stand outside of it, it will not work for you. Its story will leave you cold as it methodically lays out the highlights of Han’s early life and its twists will be annoyingly obvious. But if you always wanted to see all of Han’s major milestones depicted in a two-hour, big budget fan film, Solo definitely delivers.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is in theaters now.