Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a farmhand, a space wizard and two robots walk into a bar. There they meet a cocky smuggler and his hairy dog-man of a first mate, seeking passage aboard his spacecraft. They only have one question: is it a fast ship? ‘Fast ship? You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?’ smirks the smuggler. ‘It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs’. Being that a parsec is a unit of distance, Han Solo’s boast about his ship’s speed has provoked decades of fan debate. Has Han invented a spectacular-sounding achievement to impress Luke and Obi-Wan enough to enlist his services? Is he slyly testing their knowledge with an obviously phony brag? Did he fly the Falcon through wormholes, thus travelling a shorter distance to the same destination? Should grown adults expend so much mental energy thinking about this kind of stuff?
This is the beauty of the original Star Wars, a film that in every line of dialogue suggests a larger world filled with infinite possibilities. Except now, with the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story, those infinite possibilities have been dramatically reduced. Director Ron Howard and screenwriters Lawrence and Jon Kasdan have produced a movie that isn’t so much a story as it is a filmed Wikipedia entry, a montage of formative moments in the life of a character that was already fully-formed. We leave the film knowing a lot more banal information about Han Solo but we’re not presented with anything that makes us feel differently about him, and in codifying and canonising his origins, the film removes from us the benefit of imagination.
The warning signs come early in the film, when a young Han enlists in the Imperial Navy in a desperate bid to escape his home planet of Corellia. ‘Han what?’ asks the stuffy officer at the desk when taking his new recruit’s name. ‘Who are your people?’ Han replies that he has no people, and thus no last name. Being that he is travelling alone, the officer bestows upon him the surname ‘Solo’ and sends him on his way. The scene is an answer to a question that nobody has ever asked and makes Han Solo’s previously perfect aptonym thuddingly literal. The sense of revelation that a scene like this is intended to inspire — ‘Ah, so that’s how that happened’ — comes at the cost of reotractively making the character lamer. Would the Han Solo we’ve come to know — roguish, rebellious and distrusting of authority — really accept and continue to use a name given to him by a space Nazi? Apparently, he would.
From there, Solo makes the classic mistake of taking all the iconic elements of the character that we know and love — his cynical outlook, his dress sense, his blaster, the Millennium Falcon, his friendship with Chewie, his fraught past with Lando Calrissian — and revealing that he obtained them all in the space of about a week, at which point he seemingly ceased any and all personal development for the rest of his life. By focusing on how Han Solo got his possessions and not the man himself, the film actually makes him more two-dimensional, flattening the character more than it enriches him. Solo connects a lot of dots that fans had either connected for themselves or already decided were best left unconnected, and in some cases — such as a scene that justifies why Han refers to Chewbacca as ‘Chewie’ — actively insults the intelligence of viewers.
As a performer Alden Ehrenreich does a fine job, wisely declining to attempt a full-on Harrison Ford impersonation and instead portraying a version of the character that could one day plausibly evolve into the Han Solo etched into our brains. Donald Glover is similarly winning as a young Lando Calrissian, clearly having a blast as he leans into the more hedonistic aspects of the character. Also on great form is Fleabag creator and star Phoebe Waller Bridge as L3-37, contributing a fun motion-captured performance to the Star Wars franchise’s rich heritage of sassy protocol droids. Woody Harrelson and Emilia Clarke are more nondescript, bringing their own particular brands of charisma to thinly-written characters that simply don’t end up going anywhere. Paul Bettany rounds out the cast as deliciously evil crime lord Dryden Vos, but is unfortunately present for so little of the film that he fails to make a real impact. The cast play off each other well enough, but they’re unable to do much with a script that gives them no real emotional journey and instead treats them as pieces being moved around a heist film-themed chess board.
Taking it on its own merits, it’s hard to call Solo a bad film. It’s overlong to be sure, but it packs in enough fun, kinetic action sequences and a strong enough sense of adventure that you can reliably walk away from the experience having had a good time. As an entry into Star Wars lore, however, Solo very much falls flat. It’s easy to blame the movie’s tortured production and directorial change-ups for its aimlessness, but the concept of offering an origin story for a character that never really needed one was flawed from the start. Solo shines a light on Han Solo’s circumstances without revealing anything new about the character himself, and in delving so shallowly into his past it proves true a lesson that Star Wars fans learned a long time ago: don’t make a prequel unless you’ve got a good reason to.