When Disney purchased LucasFilm – and with it, the Star Wars universe – from George Lucas, it was clear their plans didn’t just include a new trilogy (it did), but franchise building and expansion through spin-offs, prequels, TV shows (animated so far, live-action in the near future), novels, and comic books. It was, however briefly, an exciting time for longtime Star Wars fans, but Disney, guided by the corporate conservatism that puts a premium on low-risk, high-reward decision making over originality, creativity, and imagination, led first to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a wholly unnecessary, semi-satisfying prequel that explored the how, if not the why, a small group of rebels stole the Death Star’s plans from the fearsome Empire, and now, after the high-profile departure of co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie) and their almost immediate replacement by Oscar winning, hit-hunting Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13), Solo: A Star Wars Story, the Han Solo post-Revenge of the Sith and pre-A New Hope origin story we didn’t know we wanted or needed. Spoiler alert: Need or want aside, Solo: A Star Wars Story delivers everything we’ve come to love about the Star Wars universe: action, character, humor, and spectacle.

Solo: A Star Wars Story jumps right into the action, literally as a teen Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), an orphan living on the mean, crime-ridden streets and underground tunnels of Corellia, a planet important to the Galactic Empire only for its ship-building and its supply of young men and women for the Emperor’s wars of conquest and expansion. While Han, like his future friend and brother-in-law, Luke Skywalker, dreams of leaving Corellia permanently behind with his partner in crime and romance, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones). But to get off-planet, they need what passes for money in the Empire (credits, actually). Solo’s most recent seems to offer the best chance for them to get off-world, but circumstances – not to mention the heavy hand(s) of co-screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back) and his son, Jonathan Kasdan – dictate otherwise. Solo ends up as a grunt in the Imperial Army, not a pilot in the Imperial Navy (he’s too strong-willed, valuing his freedom and individuality, to give himself over completely to the Empire’s indoctrination).

That’s not the last o Qi’ra, of course. They have unfinished personal and romantic business, of course. Solo and Qi’ra cross paths unexpectedly when Solo, newly allied with a heist crew led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), the Obi-Wan to Solo’s newbie Luke in the ways of the criminal underworld (“Trust no one,” Beckett repeatedly warns the open-hearted, naïve Solo), finds himself, along with Tobias’ crew, in debt to a ruthless crime boss, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). That life-or-death debt spins Solo: A Star Wars Story into the second major heist in two hours. Where the first heist takes place on a snow-covered planet and an elevated train – expertly choreographed and executed by everyone involved, including, of course, the Star Wars series unsung MVPs, the visual effects army that repeatedly deliver near seamless, spectacle-heavy visuals – the second unfolds on a mining planet. By then, Solo and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) have become an inseparable team, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the cape-loving gambler and future rebel leader, and Lando’s rebellious, right-hand robotic companion, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), have joined the action.

Story wise, Lawrence and Jonathan Kasden’s script takes a relatively safe, modestly consequential approach to filling in Solo’s background. The Solo we meet at the beginning of Solo: A Star Wars Story gains a few life experiences, including a major, life-changing disappointment that apparently contributes to the cynical, selfish, anti-romantic worldview he develops before he meets Luke and Obi-Wan on Tatooine a decade later, but the stakes start low and rise only to the level of slightly significant by the end. That’s intentional, of course. Solo: A Star Wars Story smartly resists any mention of the Skywalkers, Darth Vader, or the Force (a first for the series). Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), the original trilogy’s Big Bad, only makes a brief appearance in a military recruiting video (“Join the Empire, see the galaxy.”). Calrissian functions primarily as comic relief (those capes), gambling aficionado, and the onetime owner of Solo’s prized possession, the Millennium Falcon (seen here in much better, cleaner days).

The knocks again Howard – that he’s only as good as the material he’s directing, that he doesn’t elevate the material he’s directing, that he’s a director without a discernible personality, visual style, or interest in developing a visual style to call his own – serve him exceptionally well here. After the Lord and Miller debacle, Solo: A Star Wars Story needed a steady, competent hand on the tiller and that’s exactly what Howard provided (he reshot or shot roughly 70% of the film). Howard’s decades-long experience especially shines during the set pieces. Along with cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival) and production designer Neil Lamont (both delivering career-best contributions), Howard delivers texture-rich images (some suitable for framing or pausing when the Blu-Ray hits virtual store shelves) along with free-flowing, easy-to-follow compositions, coherent editing, and solidly crafted scenes.

As Calrissian, the multi-talented Glover delivers an unsurprisingly charismatic performance that pays homage to Billy Dee Williams cocky, egocentric gambler without turning into imitation or mimicry. Ehrenreich also avoids the same pitfalls. Ehrenreich integrates bits and pieces of Harrison Ford’s iconic performance as Solo, a strut here, a finger point there, into a performance that both feels like a new take, a new interpretation on a fan favorite while also existing on a continuum that starts with Ehrenreich and ultimately ends with Ford. The other cast members obviously don’t have to deal with the same burdens or issues Glover and Ehrenreich do. Their characters are one-offs, specifically created for Solo: A Star Wars Story, free of the expectations and comparisons that Glover and Ehrenreich’s performances will face. Of course, there’s plenty of room for a second and possibly third entry in the Young Solo Chronicles. As always, Han’s future depends on whether Star Wars fans embrace or reject Solo: A Star Wars Story.

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