If you’ve ever wondered why Han Solo ended up with a surname that is also an adjective, or how his Wookiee pal got his nickname, have I got a movie for you. Well, not exactly a movie.
Solo, which was written by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan and directed (with an asterisk I’ll get to later) by Ron Howard, isn’t a stand-alone film so much as a corporate directive made flesh, a quarterly earnings report in a vest and black leather boots. In an era where fans speak the lingo of intellectual property as fluently as CEOs, the idea of building a rickety addition to the Star Wars mothership seemed like at least a defensible idea. Why not take those world-expanding asides from the original movies and turn them into full-fledged stories? What is the Kessel Run, anyway, and how exactly does one do it in 12 parsecs? But Solo isn’t a movie for the fans so much as at them, harnessing its makers’ considerable skill and experience to gratify the urge for the familiar, with no pretense or aspiration of doing anything else.
In theory, the spinoff “Star Wars Stories” were a way for the universe to enlarge not just its canonical history but the kinds of stories it contained: Rogue One and Solo would be more diverse in both cast and tone, a dark-edged “war movie” and a freewheeling adventure. But the first was taken away from its original director in postproduction to bring it more in line with the world audiences already knew, and on the second, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie) were fired in the middle of shooting and replaced by Ron Howard, an old hand whose main virtue seemed to be that he knows how to deliver what is asked. According to the Wall Street Journal, some 70 percent of Solo is Howard’s work, enough that Lord and Miller didn’t push to share credit. (They remain as executive producers.) But the movie really feels like it was directed by no one, so devoid is it of personality or purpose.
Solo isn’t the worst Star Wars movie—your record is safe, The Phantom Menace—just the one with the least compelling reason to exist. But being unmemorable doesn’t mean it’s unlikable. There’s too much collective charisma for that, from Alden Ehrenreich’s wavy-haired Han to Donald Glover’s sex-bomb Lando Calrissian, with Woody Harrelson and Thandie Newton as galaxy-hopping outlaws, Emilia Clarke as a galaxy-seducing femme fatale, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the voice of a sarcastic droid. (Paul Bettany, as the ostensible heavy, mostly seems like he’s clocking time between Infinity Wars.) Cinematographer Bradford Young lends the movie a dark and distinctive look, although his compositions feel hemmed in by the series’ overall stylistic parameters, and Pietro Scalia’s editing gives the action sequences a pleasing snap that makes you wish the combination of Howard’s Rush and Apollo 13 played as well on screen as it does on paper.
Glover, affecting a sonorous voice and permanently arched eyebrow, is too intent on playing an embryonic version of The Empire Strikes Back for his Lando to take on a life of its own. He’s like a motion-capture replacement for Billy Dee Williams. But Ehrenreich isn’t doing shtick, even if it’s not always clear what he’s doing instead. The movie starts Han off as a lovable rogue, stealing speeders on Corellia in an attempt to earn him and Clarke’s Qi’ra enough for a chance at a better off-world life. But when their escape doesn’t go as planned, he enlists in the military so he can learn how to fly. (One of the few references that’s not treble-underlined is the music that plays under a recruitment video for the Imperial Army, a major-key version of John Williams’ iconic march.) What’s that? Han Solo, the perpetual loner, was once a lowly grunt? This should be g—CAPTION: THREE YEARS LATER.
The audience for Full Metal Solo is undoubtedly more select than the one for Han ’n’ Chewie in Space, and leaping over Han’s tour of duty does provide Solo with one of its few unexpected gags. But it’s emblematic of the movie’s total aversion to risk that the experience seems to leave little mark on Han at all, except perhaps in turning him from someone who kind of hates the Empire to someone who really hates the Empire. The obvious way to reverse-engineer a character arc for the disillusioned Han we first meet in Star Wars would be to start him as a rosy idealist, one who gradually loses the faith he’ll eventually need to regain. But turning back the clock until your protagonist is a dewy-eyed babe didn’t work so well for The Phantom Menace, so the Han we meet in Solo is not much different than the one we’ve known before—missing his blaster and his ship (although both show up in due time) but still a mild scoundrel with a million-dollar smirk and a soft spot for women in distress. Instead Howard and the Kasdans chew up screen time explaining incidental details and laying the groundwork for future movies.
It’s the last bit that really grates and takes Solo from forgettably modest to mildly infuriating. It’s galling for a movie that costs so much and takes up so much cultural space to try to do so little, but it’s a familiar disappointment, like the dull ache of a tooth that only bothers you when you bite down on it wrong. But to get to the end of Solo and learn you’ve been watching what amounts to a two-hour TV pilot, well, that goes down rough. The Last Jedi took chances, and Rian Johnson’s willingness to interrogate the franchise’s history rather than just add onto it was a gamble that paid off handsomely. Solo’s playing for pennies, and even when it finally wins a hand, you feel cheated.