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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story is good, but should have been great

Solo's a solid addition to the Star Wars canon, but unlikely to top any fan favourite lists

In this image released by Lucasfilm, Alden Ehrenreich and Joonas Suotamo appear in a scene from "Solo: A Star Wars Story," which will premiere at the Cannes Film festival in southern France. AP
In this image released by Lucasfilm, Alden Ehrenreich and Joonas Suotamo appear in a scene from "Solo: A Star Wars Story," which will premiere at the Cannes Film festival in southern France. AP

It should be stated at the outset that Ron Howard took a brave step by taking the reins of this latest spin-off from the Star Wars universe midway through production, when the original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie) were dispensed with, owing to the ubiquitous creative differences.

Any director taking over a struggling project is taking a risk. When that project is Star Wars, and you immediately become the most watched director in the galaxy, by your industry and devoted fans alike, the risk is greater. When that Star Wars film is also the origin story of perhaps the most popular human character of the original trilogy, the loveable rogue Han Solo, the pressure must be immeasurable.

By and large, Howard delivers, although he does so in a typically Ron Howardesque manner, with a solid movie that is eminently watchable, but very much in the realms of “good” rather than “great”.

Solo is surprisingly understated for a Star Wars film. There is the odd explosive action sequence, but at its heart this is a film about relationships. Solo’s relationship with his mentor Beckett (Harrelson), his burgeoning bromance with his new buddy Chewbacca, and his undying love for teen crush Qi’ra (Clarke).

That’s not in itself a bad thing, but there are points when the movie doesn’t quite seem sure whether it’s an intimate study of human interactions or a rollicking space epic – the two elements never quite gel.

Nevertheless, there are some fine performances. Ehrenreich does a magnificent job of stepping into Harrison Ford’s shoes. He delivers a younger, less world-weary version of Ford’s cantankerous old anti-hero, but successfully mimics his predecessor’s mannerisms and affectations enough to believe he could develop into the character we know and love.

Donald Glover’s interpretation of Lando Calrissian is also a huge success, playing the hard-gambling dandy with a charm that makes him a rogue even more loveable than Solo.

Of the new characters, Harrelson’s battle-hardened criminal Beckett is a worthy addition to the canon, and a believable source of much of Solo’s later life philosophy. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s droid, L3, on the other hand, could have stayed at home. The idea of a sentient droid that wants to lead the emancipation of its mechanical colleagues is, at the outset, a good one, but the joke is camped up and overdone and quickly begins to irk, not to Jar Jar Binks levels, but it jars nonetheless.

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The film should also be commended for its willingness to step out of familiar Star Wars territory and be its own movie. Of course, key Star Wars tropes are there – the spaceship, the Millenium Falcon, for one. But here there’s no planet-sized weapon to destroy – a plot line that was becoming somewhat overused – and, probably more so than any other film in the franchise, Solo could easily be viewed by someone with no previous knowledge of the movies with no loss of understanding.

The downside here is that, in the absence of a traditional Star Wars masked, Force-wielding villain, there’s a certain lack of focus. Paul Bettany’s Dryden Vos, while ostensibly the baddie, is essentially a criminal like everyone else, just higher up the food chain. We’re left with a kind of Ocean’s Eleven in space, rather than a chapter of epic Star Wars mythology.

The script, meanwhile, feels rushed in places, strangely since Lawrence Kasdan, screen writer of series high point The Empire Strikes Back, is back providing the lines . We see some of the key moments in Solo’s back story that we’ve heard about in previous films, but there’s something of a box-ticking feel to their delivery. Kessel Run in 12 parsecs? Check. Win the Millennium Falcon in a card game? Check. There are a couple of glaring plot holes too, not least around the feelgood ending that really did jar and kept me complaining for most of the drive home after the movie.

In fairness, when it comes to Star Wars, there is a tendency to judge by a higher standard, reasonably enough since that’s exactly what the franchise’s obsessive fans will be doing this weekend.

For all the criticisms, this is a decent, enjoyable film. It’s far superior to any of the prequels and, of the main trilogy and the Disney-era films, is probably a better movie than Return of the Jedi or The Force Awakens.

But, given Disney’s resources and possibly the most fascinating character in the Star Wars universe to play with, you can’t help wishing Howard had delivered a little more.

Chris Newbould

Solo: A Star Wars Story is in UAE cinemas from midnight tonight