Movie Review: ‘Solo’ services ‘Star Wars’ fans but pales to ‘Rogue One’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Solo: A Star Wars Story' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas brilliantly made audiences wait with bated breath and glorious anticipation between “Star Wars” chapters.

The original trilogy held off three years in between (1977, 1980, 1983), as did the prequel trilogy (1999, 2002, 2005). However, since Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion and brought the franchise roaring back with “The Force Awakens” (2015), we now get a “Star Wars” every single year — in this case five months after “The Last Jedi” — which kind of spoils the magic.

And so arrives the 10th installment “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” giving Han Solo an origin story that’s serviceable for die-hards, underwhelming for casual fans and obvious to all that it falls short of the high bar set by “Rogue One.” That film succeeded because it was a killer one-off between Roman Numeral episodes; “Solo” leaves an open ending to launch its own “franchise within a franchise,” a frustrating move for a series that’s already teetering on over-saturation.

The plot follows young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) on the planet Corellia as he tries to win the heart of Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). After an unexpected event, he joins the flight academy for the Imperial navy where he meets his mentor Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). Together, they’re ordered by evil Crimson Dawn leader Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) to steal a shipment of coaxium in the famous feat teased in the original film: a “Kessel Run in less than 20 parsecs.”

The Kessel Run is just one of many clever fanboy nods, including a scene that settles the age-old debate over whether “Han shot first” and a gasp-inducing cameo by a character from “Star Wars” past. Likewise, it’s fun seeing the origin of how Han met his best bud Chewbacca and obtained the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian, impressively played with spot-on casting by “Childish Gambino” himself, Donald Glover, who looks a lot like Billy Dee Williams.

Glover is so suave in his poker-playing scenes that we wish we saw more of him in the movie. Hot off F/X’s “Atlanta” and his “This is America” music video, “Solo” misses a huge opportunity by giving Glover so little to do. He daresay had more screentime as the NASA computer whizkid in “The Martian” (2015), a minor supporting part compared to what Lando deserves.

Rounding out the supporting cast are Emilia Clarke (“Game of Thrones”), who shows some juicy moral ambiguity as a potential femme fatale; Woody Harrelson (“Three Billboards”), who is convincing as the jaded mentor who sticks his neck out for no one; Paul Bettany (“Margin Call”), who makes quite the sinister nemesis; and Joonas Suotamo (“The Last Jedi”), whose Chewie obviously looks the most like the original character thanks to a replica Wookie suit.

While Suotamo disappears into the role of a young Chewie, leading man Alden Ehrenreich doesn’t look or act enough like Harrison Ford. That’s not to say he lacks talent; he stole the show in the Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar” (2016) with the hilarious exchange: “Would that it were so simple.” You could say the same for casting an iconic character, as Ehrenreich more closely resembles Chris Pratt’s goofy grin in “Guardians of the Galaxy” than Ford’s macho cool.

It takes a while for us to get used to Ehrenreich as our beloved hero, but even if “Solo” lacks the presence of Ford, it does feature the screenwriter who gave him so many great zingers. Lawrence Kasdan (“The Empire Strikes Back,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) co-writes this time with son Jonathan —  “No, I am your father!” — crafting an action-packed script with mixed results.

Act One is sluggish out of the gate as Solo squares off with a bizarre, puppetlike reptile that is far less loving than “The Shape of Water” (2017), while his surroundings resemble a dark, hazy, industrial “Blade Runner” (1982) more than the space western of Lucas lore. We finally bite into the story as Han meets Chewie in an underground fight. It’s the best-written scene, evolving from battling to bonding, as enemies become friends with resourceful teamwork.

As the script reaches Act Two, we’re given plenty of fast-paced action, including a train crash (i.e. “Snowpiercer” meets “River Kwai”). Just don’t be surprised if you begin to zone out amid the chaos, especially as the Falcon evades a giant space monster through hyperspace. Lando’s arrival injects some much needed soul, mining emotion from his co-pilot droid, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who actually convinces us of genuine feelings between a robot and a human.

By the time we reach Act Three, there are a few twists that are sure to wow younger viewers but might be predictable for longtime moviegoers. This is particularly the case as Kasdan recycles the “don’t trust anyone” twist from the third Indiana Jones. The very moment that this reveal happens, you’ll think it sounds familiar, because it is. His name was Walter Donovan.

Granted, the script’s blemishes aren’t all the writers’ fault. Preproduction was reportedly plagued by reshoots after co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“The Lego Movie”) were booted in the middle of production. They were replaced by the steady Ron Howard (“Apollo 13”), who has built a reputation as a reliable, accessible filmmaker, but whose lack of visual and narrative risk-taking won’t elevate a project like this that craves something edgy.

We can only wonder what Lord and Miller would have done and why Disney axed them. As a result, the film often feels generic and uninspired, settling for paint-by-number choices rather than daring ideas. For instance, Han’s shift into light speed doesn’t suck us back into our seats with a thrilling jolt; instead, we get a simple pan from the windshield over to Han and Chewie.

Alas, at least Howard offers some epic helicopter shots of Han and Chewie on the beaches, captured beautifully by cinematographer Bradford Young (“Arrival”). In these rare moments, we’re transported back to our childlike wonder for Lucas’ world, especially as composer John Powell echoes John Williams’ score. Still, by the time the end credits read “Directed by Ron Howard,” the experience feels anti-climatic, sending us out with a shrug rather than applause.

Surely, die-hard fans can never get enough, automatically hailing each installment as a winner regardless of what’s put on screen. For the rest of us who enjoy (but don’t worship) “Star Wars,” we’ve got to call a spade a spade. So if “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back” are 4-star classics, “The Force Awakens” was a 3 1/2-star revival and “The Last Jedi” was a solid but flawed 3-star sequel. I’ve gotta give “Solo” a cut below with 2 1/2 stars. It’s a C+ effort at best.

Either way, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is bound to win the weekend box office; let’s just not overhype its success. “Star Wars 10” will gross its money based on a loyal fan base built up over decades of beloved past installments, not on its own merits. It’s too scared to fly solo.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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