'Solo' is only so-so 

click to enlarge Alden Ehrenreich assumes the mantle of one of cinema’s favorite characters in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Courtesy photo

Alden Ehrenreich assumes the mantle of one of cinema’s favorite characters in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

How did Han Solo meet Chewbacca? How did he meet Lando Calrissian? How did he become captain of the Millennium Falcon? How did he get involved with Jabba the Hutt? How did he get his blaster (because of course he didn't just buy it at the blaster counter at a Corellian Walmart)? Just what is the Kessel Run, anyway, and how did Han fly it in the apparently unheard-of time of "12 parsecs"?

Solo: A Star Wars Story informs us that, astonishingly, all of Han's backstory that we've heard mentioned across the Star Wars movies occurred in the span of a mere few days! And it involves a lot of enormous coincidence and everybody knowing everybody else, even in this big wide galaxy. Why, it's almost as if the Force were strong with Han. Except we already knew that there's no mystical energy field that controls his destiny.

The Force is about the only Star Wars trope that isn't checked off in the box-ticking exercise that is this Star Wars–flavored juice drink* of a movie. (*Contains 10 percent juice.) We get lots of interesting planets, funny droids, giant space monsters menacing passing starships, and a visit to an exotic bar where creatures make alien music and humans drink weird booze. There are shootouts with Imperial stormtroopers, daring last-minute escapes, and the Millennium Falcon being tracked by a mysterious masked figure even though its captain thinks he's too hot-shit for that to happen. And that's all cool. That's great. But it's only backdrop.

It's the story — the actual, you know, meat of the thing — that fails to give us any real reason to show up. The muddled heist plot about Woody Harrelson leading a gang out to steal some incredibly valuable and powerful starship "hyperfuel" gives zero opportunity for us to learn anything about his latest recruit, Han (Alden Ehrenreich), that we didn't already know. Well, OK, no: We discover how Han got the surname Solo (because of course it couldn't just be his actual surname), but that "explanation" is so obvious and the scene so cringe-inducing that you can't believe that the movie attempts to get away with it. (It's hard to accept that Solo was written by Lawrence Kasdan, whose very first screen credit is the brilliantly scripted Empire Strikes Back; he also contributed to The Force Awakens. His son, Jonathan, also gets a screenwriting credit here.) The stakes are so low for Han: We know he can't die; we know he can't divert too much from his scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold persona. Ehrenreich is barely younger than Harrison Ford was when they shot the first Star Wars movie — he's already an adult, and clearly not too far from his meeting with Luke Skywalker and Ben Kenobi on Tatooine — so there's no temporal room for him to change or grow. He's a character on a treadmill.

And maybe even that wouldn't matter if we were just killing time with the Han Solo we know. But Ehrenreich isn't only a little short for Han Solo, he lacks Ford's charisma, as well as his ineffable oddball way of being funny and serious at the same time. Ehrenreich is cute but he's bland. Ford blazed with precarious danger; Ehrenreich's Han is, well, cuddly. That's not right.

I wish Lucasfilm had had the nerve to stick with their original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, whose gonzo sense of humor — they made Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and the Jump Street movies — seemed like the perfect match for Han's personality. The Star Wars movies could use a shaking up, and this movie could have been perfect for that, since it's not only standalone but entirely tangential. Apparently Lord and Miller scared Disney with their comedic take on the character when the studio wanted an action movie. But their new director, Ron Howard, has turned in action sequences that are incoherent — it's almost impossible to tell what's going on in most of them — while also letting the few attempts at humor fizzle. (One big intended laugh is so completely underplayed and the dialogue so muffled that it's completely baffling.)

What's left? There's some tacked-on rebellion stuff that feels like more box-ticking, and female characters (Thandie Newton's, Emilia Clarke's) who are treated appallingly — their existence little more than mere motivation to spur on the men. Donald Glover's Lando is a suave side dish, but mostly Solo is all very pat and tidy and buttoned-down and oh-so familiar. It doesn't feel very outlaw. Han Solo would be disgusted.

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