Filled with excellent action and a lot of emotion, Solo: A Star Wars Story is going to surprise a lot of people. Despite its troubled production, it’s ended up being incredibly fun and funny, with great characters, performances, and a huge range of Star Wars references to delight fans and non-fans alike.
The film follows the young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), stuck on his homeworld Corellia, desperate to get away and explore the galaxy. Soon he teams up with a smuggler named Beckett (Woody Harrelson) to pull off a heist, which starts a chain reaction of events that lead him to Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the Millennium Falcon and, eventually, to becoming the Han Solo we see in A New Hope.
The key word is “eventually.” The whole film hinges on Ehrenreich’s portrayal of a younger, still-developing version of the legendary character, and I’m happy to report he nails it. The performance balances the wide-eyed wonder of a kid finally exploring the galaxy, Han’s complex internal struggles, and the knowledge that this character will evolve into Harrison Ford’s 1977 portrayal. To do all of that, Ehrenreich presents a version of Han that feels nuanced, measured, and starts a little shaky. Whether that’s on purpose or not, it works because he’s always growing at the same time Han is. There are times Ehrenreich is unrecognizable as Han Solo. Other times, he’s the living embodiment of Harrison Ford. It’s an impressive, slightly choppy performance, but one that wins you over quickly and smooths out over the course of the movie.
The rest of Solo follows that formula, too. Things start quickly, with an action scene of Han being chased on the streets. Then we’re slammed with a lot of information about his upbringing, home planet, love life, and more before being whisked off to the next thing. It’s a bit off-putting, but once the film solidifies and settles in, it’s off to hyperspace.
It helps immeasurably that Solo is about more than just Han. Thankfully, writers Jon and Lawrence Kasdan, as well as director Ron Howard, make sure the film goes deeper than the title character. In addition to Han, every key character is given some kind of crucial emotional grounding. There’s a reason for everyone to be there. For some it’s love, for others it’s freedom, but everyone has really strong, understandable motivations that somehow make them exist beyond what’s on screen. The supporting characters in Solo give the film real heart and stakes, which in turn makes the action sequences more intense and exciting.
Besides Chewbacca, of course, the most important characters to Han’s journey are Beckett, and Qi’ra, played by Emilia Clarke. Qi’ra grew up with Han and though we only see a little of that, their extensive, complex relationship comes through. Beckett, on the other hand, is kind of everything Han wants to be: a worldly, gunslinging smuggler with a crew that respects him. As Han’s tale weaves between both of those characters, they’re practically both a devil and an angel on his shoulder, slowly molding him into the mix of hero and scoundrel that he’ll one day become. As for Chewie, his blossoming friendship with Han is basically the heart of the movie; before Han meets his Wookiee friend, the movie doesn’t feel... right. It’s after the two pair off that the good-natured humor and tone of Star Wars truly begins to permeate the film.
There’s also, of course, Lando. Going into the film, Donald Glover’s take on the iconic Billy Dee Williams character was almost the only thing people wanted to talk about and, thankfully, he doesn’t disappoint. It’s obvious Glover is having a blast as Lando, oozing with confidence and humor. His role isn’t as large as one might hope, but it’s crucial, especially when combined with L3-37, a new droid played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. L3 is an entirely new kind of droid, and one we haven’t seen before in the franchise. She’s self-aware, self-built, very helpful, very blunt, and incredibly hilarious (she has the best jokes in the movie). She’s not only a worthy match with Lando, she changes how fans will think about droids in all of Star Wars as a whole.
The person responsible for bringing all this together is, of course, director Ron Howard. Much has been made about how Howard was a very safe choice after the firing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and that certainly shows in Solo. And the movie absolutely plays things very safe; it’s rarely about more than what’s on screen. There’s very little cross-cutting between different places. The narrative isn’t altogether predictable, but it’s structured so you know a twist is coming, etc. However, by keeping all of those things relatively basic, Howard allows the characters to drive the action and story. And when the characters are this good, it works like a charm.
Technically, the creature and set design in Solo are some of the best we’ve ever seen in Star Wars. Every single frame makes you want to pause and take it all in, thanks in part to cinematographer Bradford Young, who gives Solo a unique and almost sumptuous look to distinguish it from the rest of the franchise. There’s the score by John Powell which, while not instantly recognizable as a classic, makes some bold, exciting new choices. Then, for fans, it’s packed with Star Wars references. And I mean packed. Some are big and obvious, others are small and subtle, but it’s a film that will make anyone who has studied Star Wars happy in one way or the other.
But even the prettiest, best sounding, most heartfelt movie ever wouldn’t be a Star Wars movie without a few other things: huge action, high drama, and big surprises, and Solo has each of those in spades. The action scenes in Solo—the Kessel Run in particular—are edge-of-your-seat exciting, because they have real consequences. It’s obvious why this specific story began to shape Han into the person he would become.
There’s a moment in Solo where Han sits in the Falcon for the first time and the ship jumps to lightspeed. In a tight close-up from the side, we see his face light up with an infectious, palpable glee. For that moment, Han isn’t Han, he’s just a young kid getting to fly in space for the first time. I mention that shot because moments like it are what makes Solo so wonderful. This is a coming-of-age Star Wars movie.
Let me be clear: Solo has flaws. But those flaws pale in comparison to the rest of it. This may not be your favorite Star Wars movie, and it definitely won’t change what you think Star Wars can be. It will, however, remind you of everything you love about it and, hopefully, have you grinning like Han the first time he jumps to hyperspace.
Solo: A Star Wars Story opens May 25.