Solo: A Star Wars Story Review: Heavy On The References

Watching the original Star Wars trilogy, viewers couldn’t help but feel like there was a larger galaxy living just off-screen. The things you didn’t see–battles, characters, and places only mentioned, never shown–sparked the imaginations of millions. As Star Wars spin-offs, prequels, novels, comics, shows, and games have illuminated more and more corners of that far-away galaxy over the decades, the results have been mixed. Over-explaining things that were only hinted at before can take the mystery away. Solo: A Star Wars Story is no exception to that, but there’s good news too: All the references, callbacks, and over-explanations are accompanied by a really fun, solid, and good-looking Star Wars movie.

Solo tells the story of famed space scoundrel Han Solo–and I mean the whole story. It feels like Solo explains or shows every aspect of Han Solo’s life that was ever referenced in any previous Star Wars film. This movie covers how Han met Chewie, how he met Lando, how he won the Millennium Falcon, how he completed the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, where he got his iconic blaster, and even how he got his name. If that sounds like a lot of origin to cram into one movie, it’s because it is. Did everything we know about Han’s backstory really need to take place in a single movie? It makes Solo feel at times like a greatest hits collection of events from the character’s life.

That stuff is all fan service, through and through. And it’s ever-present throughout the movie. But Solo: A Star Wars Story works because fan service and references to other Star Wars movies aren’t the only thing propping it up. Unlike Rogue One, Solo isn’t completely subordinate to the movies that came before it. Solo has the substance of an actual movie underneath the fan service, with stakes and intrigue and characters who matter.

Undeniably the biggest question going into Solo is whether Alden Ehrenreich, a relatively unknown force, will prove in any way capable of filling Harrison Ford’s knee-high leather space boots. The reality may be that no one could have. Ehrenreich winds up being a solid balance between a charming presence in his own right, and a decent impression of young Ford himself. It’s not a perfect fit, but if you can manage to stop comparing them in your head, it gets much easier to become engrossed in the film. By the end, he may well win you over.

It helps that he’s surrounded by a likable cast of additional rogues, scoundrels, and ne’er-do-wells. Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra starts the movie as a damsel, but grows into a very different, much more interesting character by the end. Like Princess Leia herself, Qi’ra proves every bit Han Solo’s match, in love and otherwise. Meanwhile Donald Glover is so powerfully alluring as Lando Calrissian that fans who called for a standalone Lando movie will feel totally validated. Even more than Ehrenreich, Glover nails the balance between Billy D. Williams tribute act and the new actor’s own undeniable aura.

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Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett is a scoundrel unto himself, lovable in the way Han Solo is, but with the darker edge of a character who’s deeper into that life than the more bright-eyed Han in this movie. The delightfully evil crime lord Dryden Vos is played by Paul Bettany, fresh off still in-theaters Infinity War, who brings real gleeful menace to the role. The droid L3, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, winds up being both the comic relief and an emotional keystone. Her jokes early in the movie about “equal rights” for robots initially come off as crass–on the writers’ part, not the character’s, as L3 is always earnest, even when she’s unknowingly the butt of the joke. But the movie redeems her storyline when it pays those jokes off in spectacular fashion.

Chewbacca himself, now played by the towering Joonas Suotamo, is as comforting a presence as ever. Chewie even faces some compelling dilemmas that make him feel like more of a character than usual. In fact, Thandie Newton (of Westworld fame) as the ice cool criminal Val is the only character who’s criminally underused, to the point that it’s actually kind of a problem. She gets about as much screen time as Rio Durant, a throwaway CG alien who for some reason is voiced by Jon Favreau. You get the sense that these two (Newton in particular) might have had more to do in an earlier version of Solo‘s infamously troubled production.

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Rio being the notable exception, most of Solo looks impressively practical, even more so than other recent Star Wars films (the main movies’ cartoonish Maz Kanata comes to mind as an example of what Solo mostly avoids). Even more than that, Solo‘s visual design is simply outstanding. Solo takes us to rich, dense, believable environments ranging from grimy city underbellies to smoky cantinas, and even a warzone scene that’s more believable than all the battles in Rogue One combined.

These places are phenomenally detailed, filled with retro-inspired technology and design, matching the look of the original trilogy while adding stylish furs and, in Lando’s case, fabulously flamboyant capes and blouses. Solo is easily the best-looking Star Wars movie ever, effortlessly achieving that essential Star Wars aesthetic while augmenting with its own visual flair wherever possible.

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Solo may not have been the Star Wars story every fan wanted. Did we really need to see the Sabacc game that won Han the Millennium Falcon, or find out exactly what the Kessel Run is? Definitely not, but it all turned out surprisingly fun, especially if you don’t mind the excessive amounts of fan service. And even that isn’t all bad–fans will laugh when Donald Glover’s Lando mispronounces “Han” just like Billy D. Williams did in the originals, and there are some really juicy surprises and Easter eggs that connect Solo to the larger Star Wars universe in delightfully unexpected ways.

Solo wasn’t an essential story to tell, and some of this might have been better left to the imagination. It’s valid for some fans to wish Disney would devote resources to telling fresher tales that don’t rely so heavily on nostalgia and existing plots and characters. With who knows how many more Star Wars releases planned from now until the end of time, we’ll no doubt get those at some point. But Solo: A Star Wars Story is what we have right now, and if it’s simply an enjoyably well-crafted side story, well, is that really so bad?

The Good The Bad
Exceptional cast, particularly Donald Glover as Lando Too much fan service
Alden Ehrenreich is charming as Han Solo Crams in too many aspects of Han Solo’s backstory
Tells its own story not subordinate to previous films

Thandie Newton is criminally underused

Environments and costumes look phenomenal
Gritty practical effects
Some fun fan service, Easter eggs, and surprises

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