Longer ago, in a galaxy even farther away…
That’s where the new “Solo” starts, as it takes us back before the first “Star Wars” (Episode IV, if you want to get all geeky and canonical about it). Luke and Leia? Probably still just a gleam in their Vader’s eye.
Meanwhile our buddy Han is a smart-mouthed teenager. He hasn’t even met Chewbacca or Lando Calrissian yet. He’s definitely a long way from getting his hands on a Millennium Falcon and he certainly hasn’t made the Kessel Run – in fourteen parsecs or anything else.
But all that’s going to change soon, for him – and, over the next two hours, for us, as we get to watch Han Solo become, well, Han Solo.
“Solo” is very definitely a fan-friendly film. Co-written by Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote three previous episodes, including “The Empire Strikes Back”), and directed by Ron Howard (who began his adult movie career in George Lucas’ “American Graffiti”) it has a solid grounding in the series, and a respect for the people who made and love it.
Yet like “Rogue One,” because it exists slightly outside of the saga, it’s able to do some things differently, not only re-introducing us to old friends but introducing us to new ones. A supercilious villain, a heroic droid, a sarcastic alien, and a couple of ragged rogues — all will make their debuts here. Not all of them will survive to the end, either, and the film’s freedom to provide those sorts of unexpected exits helps keep things fresh.
The story begins with a young Solo and girlfriend Qi’ra — Alden Ehrenreich and Emilia Clarke – barely surviving as desperate orphans on a devastated planet, where they’re in thrall to a Fagin-like crime boss (a sort of giant caterpillar, as voiced by Linda Hunt).
They manage to escape but fate keeps them apart, and desperation drives Han to, of all things, join the Empire’s army. But don’t worry. He’ll soon be the gambling, smuggling, rebellious iconoclast we all know and love – and working hard to pull off the big score he needs to go back and rescue his one true love.
But Qi’ra may not need rescuing. And Han is going to need more than one plan.
Smart, independent and morally complex, Qi’ra is just one of the strong and complicated women who fill this movie, including L3-37 — a droid with a feminine voice program and a fondness for liberation politics — and Thandie Newton as a swashbuckling thief.
Other additions include Woody Harrelson as Newton’s partner in space piracy, and Paul Bettany as a silky villain. Not all of them bring a lot to the party – Rio, a smart-mouthed little creature voiced by Jon Favreau, feels like a steal from Rocket and “Guardians of the Galaxy” – but the fact that none of them necessarily need to be around for sequels adds to the drama.
Trickier, of course, is the casting of new actors as younger versions of our old favorites. But Ehrenreich – perfectly, dependably square in recent movies like “Rules Don’t Apply” and “Hail, Caesar!” – manages just the right amount of cocky charm and boastful bravery here, as well as the kind of disappointed romanticism we know will eventually curdle into cynicism.
Meanwhile, in his third “Star Wars” film, Joonas Suotano continues to give new life to Chewbacca, and Donald Glover continues his recent career winning streak as a younger Lando. Reliable in nothing but his vanity, Lando’s a scoundrel, but a handsome one, and it’s fun to see his skirmishes with Han, each trying to gain the upper hand.
Sometimes Howard’s direction rushes things a bit; the beginning, particularly Solo’s induction into the army, go by in a blur. Howard’s a dependable filmmaker (and one of the things you can depend on is, he’ll always give his brother Clint an acting job) but he’s not a particularly flashy stylist. His movies are lean, focused, workmanlike.
In a way, though, that’s a bit of a pleasant change, too. Some of the recent “Star Wars” have tended to stuff the screen with overelaborate battles and gargantuan settings; it’s given special-effects technicians lots of work, but sometimes obscured the story. Howard’s instinct to pare things down actually heightens the stakes, while his natural feeling for group dynamics – he’s often at his best in films about teams like “Apollo 13,” “Parenthood” and “The Paper” – helps illuminate the characters’ interactions.
Of course fans will never stop speculating on what this film would have been like if the original directors – Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, creators of the brilliantly snarky “The Lego Movie” – hadn’t been replaced after “creative differences” arose. And as soon as the film opens on May 25th, the real believers will start combing through it for in-jokes, Easter eggs and cross-references (including a clever nod to the more-than-40-years-old “Han shot first” brouhaha).
Me, I’ll just be looking forward to what comes next. Although nothing’s been officially announced yet, the ending – while not Marvel-style abrupt – leaves enough loose threads that the filmmakers could easily spend two more films tying them together. I hope they do.
To misquote Han himself — I’ve got a good feeling about this.