I really thought I’d hate this movie. But spoiler alert: it was pretty great.
I didn’t think Alden Ehrenreich could ever replace Harrison Ford as Han Solo. (He doesn’t, but that doesn’t matter. This movie is good enough on its own that, by the end, I was sold.) And I didn’t think we needed another “Star Wars” spinoff after “Rogue One.” But where “Rogue One” got lost in a haze of excessive worldbuilding and slavish imitation of its forerunners, “Solo” charts a far more entertaining course.
We first meet young Han on the industrial hell-world of Corellia, where he dreams of flight and freedom alongside love interest Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, of “Game of Thrones” fame). After a risky escape—during which Qi’ra is lost in the chaos—and a stint in the Imperial military, Han falls in with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and smuggler Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, a particularly welcome addition to the “Star Wars” universe).
As it so happens, Beckett owes quite a bit of money—and the debtor is Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), leader of the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate. Thus begins a risky quest to drum up the cash, one that introduces Han to Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), a pack of magpie-like intergalactic marauders, a female droid spouting emancipatory slogans, and plenty of others.
Suffice it to say that this is not the “Star Wars” movie I expected—that is, a thickly plotted tale that hurries from place to place and culminates in a bang-up CGI blowout. Strangely enough, that’s probably why I enjoyed it so much. “Solo” is Richard Donner’s “Maverick” in outer space: a rough-and-tumble adventure centered on scoundrels and rogues, a movie that’s never so enamored of its own plotting that it forgets to stop and smell the roses.
What makes “Solo” really shine is its cast of characters—no “Rogue One” cannon fodder here. For starters, Qi’ra is perhaps the most interesting new character out of all recent “Star Wars” films. Whether as a Corellian serf or a member of Dryden Vos’s retinue, she’s a fascinating onscreen presence, mingling a certain naïveté with a subtler, harder-edged cynicism. (And even better, her character arc is not at all predictable.) Beyond that, Lando is great (as any fan of Donald Glover’s work might’ve expected), and Vos himself (in all his scenery-chewing majesty) is undoubtedly one of the saga’s most memorable antagonists.
From a nerd standpoint, longtime aficionados of the Star Wars “Expanded Universe”—that is, the giant morass of books, comics, and video games that filled in the storyline’s gaps prior to Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm—will find much to like here. In particular, “Solo” frequently reminded me of the “Knights of the Old Republic” series (Kathleen Kennedy, if you’re listening, this is a good bet for a future spinoff) in all the best ways. There’s moral ambiguity, constant risk, and an ever-present sense of impending betrayal. (Along those lines, it bears mention that this is a somewhat darker vision of the Star Wars universe: one gets the sense that real sensuality and real criminality are simmering just beneath the surface.)
“Solo” certainly isn’t perfect. A particular plot twist near the end is almost insufferably hokey, the score doesn’t stack up well against John Williams’ immortal compositions or Michael Giacchino’s “Rogue One” soundtrack, and at times the fan service runs a little thick. And yes, in general I do like my Star Wars movies to come with lightsaber duels. But credit where credit is due: in the hands of director Ron Howard, “Solo” manages to be one of the most enjoyable installments in the grand “Star Wars” canon (I don’t know if it was better than “The Last Jedi,” but I do know that I liked it a whole lot more.)
I’m a dork about these things, so take anything I say with a grain of salt. But odds are that you’ll like it too.