'Solo: A Star Wars Story': Film Review

An energetic crew helps counter persistent engine trouble.

Alden Ehrenreich engagingly conveys young Harrison Ford in this throwback origins story directed by Ron Howard.

It’s no accident the posters for Solo: A Star Wars Story convey a retro, '70s-tinged vibe.

Especially when following in the turbo-charged footsteps of last winter’s The Last Jedi and other recent Star Wars epics, this origins story represents a return to the saga’s more humble, original space Western roots — one that places a premium on character development over kinetic, adrenaline-fueled action sequences.

That emphasis certainly plays to the talents of director Ron Howard, whose most memorable films tend to be known for their colorful protagonists rather than their pulse-pounding battle sequences. As a result, Howard, who took over the reins from original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller some five months into shooting (the original team departed over creative differences), gets plenty of entertaining mileage out of Han Solo & Co.'s formative years, even though he never quite manages to launch the Millennium Falcon into hyperdrive.

Despite the intermittent lags, the production proves to be more than a salvage operation thanks mainly to those engagingly choreographed performances, led by an irresistibly charismatic title turn from Alden Ehrenreich who ultimately claims Solo as his own even if he doesn’t entirely manage to convince us he’s Harrison Ford.

Although the end result will not likely find itself occupying an upper berth in the Star Wars movie pantheon, there’s enough here to satisfy the fan base and give Disney a very strong turnout (it received its Cannes premiere on Tuesday) when it opens Memorial Day weekend.

In order to preserve the various character reveals and surprise plot points in the script by Jonathan Kasdan and his dad, Lawrence (who had returned to the Star Wars fold to pen The Force Awakens), suffice it to say the story tracks Solo from his teen smuggling days on his home planet of Corellia with his partner in crime, girlfriend Qi’ra (Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke), to the trenches of the war-torn mud planet Mimban.

There, Han joins forces with a band of mercenaries headed by career criminal Beckett (Woody Harrelson), along with the take-charge Val (Thandie Newton) and four-armed Ardennian pilot Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau).

Of course, one need not look any further than the poster to know that, along the way, Han will also meet up with faithful companion Chewbacca (former basketball player Joonas Suotamo) and, equally notably, Lando Calrissian (the wildly magnetic Donald Glover doing Billy Dee Williams proud in a casually scene-stealing turn). Also figuring into the lively character mix is Paul Bettany’s power-hungry sociopath Dryden Vos, and the criminally too-briefly-seen L3-37 (a hilarious, motion-captured Phoebe-Waller Bridge), truly a self-made astromech droid — she built herself up from various parts she’s acquired — who has an emotionally complicated relationship with Calrissian.

Obviously, the person with the most to prove here is Ehrenreich, who previously managed to steal a few scenes of his own as aw-shucks cowboy actor Hobie Doyle in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, and he captures enough of Ford’s genial swagger to earn Solo bragging rights — even if the performance could have withstood a few smirks and winks.

But while Ehrenreich's Solo proves adept at maneuvering the Millennium Falcon out of some tight spots, the picture itself follows a safely predictable course. Missing here are the sort of plot-related or visual curveballs thrown by Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi or Gareth Edwards with Rogue One.

The unexpected aspects in Solo are less of the "didn't see that coming" variety than the sort of reveals that lead to the anticipated Han-Chewy encounter or how Han and Lando first crossed paths.

And if Howard might have had a bit of a challenge initially getting the proceedings out of the gate and up and consistently running at full speed, composer John Powell provides plenty of cues with amped-up orchestrations that incorporate several iconic themes by John Williams, as well as a newer Williams composition, "Han Solo Theme."

From a visual standpoint, the production admittedly looks quite lovely, with cinematographer Bradford Young and production designer Neil Lamont establishing some strikingly resonant delineations in the contrasting industrial/desert/alpine intergalactic landscapes.

Although Howard dependably steered the production back on tonal course after the original directors reportedly took it in a different, less traditional direction, the realignment has ultimately resulted in something that feels a bit too comfortably familiar.

This time around, that galaxy far, far, away doesn’t seem quite so out of this world.

Production company: Lucasfilm
Distributor: Disney

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe-Waller Bridge, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau, Linda Hunt
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriters: Jonathan Kasdan & Lawrence Kasdan
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, Simon Emanuel
Executive producers: Lawrence Kasdan, Jason McGatlin, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Director of photography: Bradford Young
Production designer: Neil Lamont
Costume designers: Glyn Dillon, David Crossman
Editor: Pietro Scalia
Visual effects supervisor: Rob Bredow
Composer: John Powell
Casting director: Nina Gold

Rated PG-13, 135 minutes