Disney's "Solo: A Star Wars Story" Is A Welcome Dose Of Light Fun

Production hitches and box office receipts do not a motion picture make. No one knows this better than seasoned “Solo: A Star Wars Story” director Ron Howard, whose racing drama “Rush” – unequivocally his best film of the past twenty years – remains one of his lowest grossing. In the case of “Solo,” Howard unenviably stepped into the middle of a 250 million dollar production following the abrupt, controversial firing of filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“The Lego Movie”) four months into filming. Naturally the move has been an albatross around the pic’s neck, made heavier by subpar early financial returns.

Few directors could come out the other side of such an ordeal intact as a human being, let alone in possession of a breezy, refreshingly low-stakes “Star Wars” movie. Howard’s done it, wing-shredding turbulence be damned.

28-year-old Alden Ehrenreich (“Hail, Caesar!”) stars as Han Solo, the actor only seven years younger than the 35-year-old Harrison Ford that originated the character. This meager age difference combined with Ehrenreich’s fetching performance – one that’s decidedly not an impression of Ford – directs that we disconnect from George Lucas’ original trilogy and take the project at face value. Unburdened by the inordinate bleakness of Gareth Edwards’ “Rogue One” and the brooding of Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi,” “Solo” can’t help but feel vital in its lightness. And it’s Ehrenreich effortlessly piloting the ship.

The story is better experienced than explained; suffice it to say there’s much heisting and planet-hopping, all built on the blocks of how Han Solo became the sarcastic sourpuss audiences first met in 1977. Ehrenreich’s take is necessarily more playful, more youthful, matched by similarly green versions of characters we’ve known for decades. We see how our protagonist met both Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo stepping in for Peter Mayhew) and fellow space scoundrel Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover doing his best Billy Dee Williams), along with Han’s introduction to the ship that will inevitably be his: the Millennium Falcon.

There’s little drama in any of these moments, but they do hit the right notes of refracted nostalgia; feel-good breadcrumbs far superior to the non-stop pop culture banalities of Steven Spielberg’s recent, dreadful “Ready Player One.” Lest anyone question the necessity of finding out the perfectly mundane backstory of Han’s surname, no “Star Wars” film has been strictly necessary since at least “Return Of The Jedi” – except “Solo” is the first to embrace that station.

Woody Harrelson is typically delightful as Tobias Beckett, the professional thief who teaches our hero the ways of space piracy. Meanwhile Thandie Newton and Phoebe Waller-Bridge shine in limited roles as Beckett’s (human) squeeze and a feisty droid, respectively.

Less impressive: Emilia Clarke (“Terminator Genisys”) as Han’s former flame-turned-criminal Qi’ra, forced into servitude under Crimson Dawn gang boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Clarke has been much celebrated for her starring role on HBO’s “Game Of Thrones” but continues to flounder in big screen blockbusters. Her Qi’ra never finds the balance of warmth and cruelty inherent in the character, the actor splitting the difference to shrug-worthy effect.

But the screenplay doesn’t rely too heavily on any one character. Lawrence Kasdan (writing his fourth “Star Wars” picture) and son Jonathan Kasdan are uncommonly tuned into the perils of spin-offs and have come up with something much more “Frasier” than “The Michael Richards Show.” Unconcerned with anything but replicating the serial feel of George Lucas’ original movie, their freewheeling script allows the film to feel like a ride instead of an obligation. Howard gets it too, happily unburdened by the expectation of mind-blowing revelations and the deaths of classic characters.

The movie simply gets to be; the first of Disney’s “Star Wars” films afforded the luxury of simply exploring this galaxy far, far away.

From witnessing Han’s famous Kessel Run (aided by some fabulous low light photography from cinematographer Bradford Young) to glimpsing new corners of droid-dom, “Solo” is the kind of glossy, undemanding romp the franchise has been aching for. Too long has the Skywalker saga shouldered impossible, life-changing expectations. Bring on the escapism.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: May 25, 2018
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Lucasfilm
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Lawrence Kasdan, Jonathan Kasdan
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action/violence)