Warning: This review alludes to minor spoilers, though not really, not if you know anything about Star Wars.
When Ron Howard is summoned to the film crimes court in The Hague, the charge against him, heard by a jury of Last Jedi fans, will be that he took the safe course to Kessel. His Star Wars movie, the prosecution will say, is a redundant, predictable conflation of backstory beats, long canonised in whatever passes for fans’ imaginations, talked about for the better part of the last 40 years, and assembled here in the right order, with any new information strictly notes in the margin. Solo, m’learned friends will argue, has a mechanical heart, a clipboard approach to plotting, a risk-free methodology, a – well, you get the idea.
The prosecution’s case may be devastating, perhaps too strong for Ron Howard to beat the rap, but those rushing to condemn Solo for being a movie plotted by committee, written by computer, and directed with the imprimatur of corporate timidity, lest the brand value of these iconic characters be tarnished in any way, might consider the movie that would have been had Phil Lord and Christopher Miller remained at the helm. This is the defence case and it’s the best space money can buy.
As everybody from here to Tatooine knows, Howard was a late replacement for the Lego Movie directors. He is alleged to have re-shot 70 to 80% of the movie (effectively remaking it, pre-release), enough to earn a solo, pun intended, director’s credit. Yet there’s still the residual trace of Lord and Miller’s work; a loose quality to some scenes, the stink of improvisation. And it’s in these moments that Solo, swaggering with undue confidence, flirts with parody.
Wince as droid L3 makes a veiled reference to stimulating her cyber clitoris, squirm as Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra alludes to Lando Calrissian’s monster cock, with the implicit racial stereotyping that involves (George Lucas would be proud), sweat when the soundtrack to the Empire’s recruitment film appears to be a few bars from John Williams’ imperial march. This is the impress of whatever Lord and Miller footage remains in the picture.
Theirs would have been a version that went further comedically, was more irreverent, and in keeping with their preferred style of humour, coarser, cruder. But this surely, would have been a Star Wars movie that played like the very worst moments in The Last Jedi. One can see the makings of a disaster – a movie that would not have taken itself or its audience seriously. Under the circumstances, Kathleen Kennedy’s force choking of Lord and Miller looks like a mercy killing, preventing ruination greater than George Lucas’s plan to have Han raised by Wookiees in Revenge of the Sith.
We know Lord and Miller’s treatment must’ve been very off brand indeed, for there’s no stronger adverse reaction, or indeed, affirmation of conformity, than Ron Howard. The safe pair of hands has made the safest movie you’ve ever seen. But safe isn’t poor and, bar a few slow moments from uneven pacing, isn’t boring. Howard, to his credit, has engineered some exciting and dynamic set pieces, and his direction has brought out a warm and faithful dynamic between the three principal characters, namely Han, Chewie and Donald Glover’s silky smooth Lando. The characters we know are faithfully recreated, without impersonating the actors who played them. The story may be slight but it’s propulsive enough and enjoyable enough to be a fine Star Wars movie in its own right – a far cry from the sterile prequels it invokes in a sop to younger fans.
The biggest regret is not that Howard plays it safe, but that he and writers Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan resolutely fail to imbue the new characters with as much life and personality as the old. The trouble with prequels is that all the attention is on legacy characters. Seldom is the new supporting cast more than enablers of plot and motivation for the principal cast members. Most of the new characters introduced here fail to make a great deal of impact. Their job is to set up situations that may, if Solo’s a big enough hit, pay off later. Emilia Clarke’s character may be the best of the rest, but she’s also the latest in a long line of nice middle-class English actresses (Daisy Ridley, Felicity Jones) who are curiously bland when dropped into a galaxy far far away.
Thankfully, Alden Ehrenreich is likeable in the title role, and evocative of Harrison Ford’s cherished original (and shoots first – Lawrence Kasdan taking the opportunity to overwrite Lucas’s overwrite of the character’s signature ruthlessness). The movie ends with an irresistible, lip curling call to adventure – a date that Ehrenreich’s charm makes an attractive prospect. Now Disney better get on with it before we all change our minds.