To put it lightly, Star Wars has an unfortunate history when it comes to putting origins of notable characters on the big screen. The whole prequel trilogy was designed to flesh out the history of the cinematic universe via the path Anakin Skywalker took to become Darth Vader, but its legacy is one of bad storytelling choices, underwhelming performances, and garish, ugly visuals. That in mind, the sci-fi franchise has clearly learned a lot of lessons leading up to the making of Solo: A Star Wars Story -- but at the same time, it does ultimately suffer from many of the same issues as George Lucas' last three directorial efforts.
Unlike the original prequels, Solo: A Star Wars Story is riding into theaters on an emotional wave mixed with equal parts hesitation and anticipation, largely due to the very public behind-the-scenes issues. Initially it was 21 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller who were hired to helm the project -- famous for making fantastic films out of bad ideas -- but after months of work, creative conflicts resulted in them leaving late in production and being replaced by Ron Howard. Fortunately this isn't something that is immediately apparent watching the story play out, as you don't recognize any major style or tonal changes, but it is still very much a mixed bag, blending fun sequences of adventure and wonderful character moments with an overabundance of eye-winking plot hole explainers, an uneven narrative, and a very real need for greater stakes.
Scripted by the father-son duo of Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, Solo: A Star Wars Story first takes audiences to the mud-covered planet Corellia, where a young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) works as a pawn in a large crime syndicate stealing and making deals to survive. As the film struggles to find its legs, we are introduced to Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke), the woman our hero loves, and learn of his aspirations to become a great pilot someday. He finds their ticket out thanks to a successful score, but in the process becomes separated from her -- vowing that he will eventually return.
Three years later, Han finds himself as a grunt in the Imperial army -- fighting authority tooth and nail all along the way -- but once again opportunity comes knocking. A fateful battlefield introduction to Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), and Rio Durant (Jon Favreau) connects him to the world of intergalactic crime, run by a gangster named Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany), and gives him the chance to finally prove that he has what it takes to become the greatest pilot in the galaxy.
The chief problem with any prequel story is creating meaningful stakes, given that you know certain heroes and villains will live to grow into adulthood, there's a need to develop and showcase the characters in new and interesting ways. In the case of Solo: A Star Wars Story, it's a game of wins and losses. The honest truth is that Han Solo doesn't have much room to grow, given that he starts as the gruff, lone wolf at the start of the original Star Wars, and that's basically where he starts here. Fortunately, Alden Ehrenreich proves to have the charisma to carry it across the finish line, and while he doesn't really look like Harrison Ford, there are legitimately certain instances where he evokes him.
With Han not playing out much of an arc, a lot of the fun is left to the supporting cast, and they definitely have it. Donald Glover has proven to be the ace up the sleeve of every project in which he is involved, and that streak doesn't end here as he brings back fan-favorite Lando Calrissian. While he doesn't do a straight-up Billy Dee Williams impression, there is a very recognizable change in his inflection: he's actively working to be smoother, and he makes it play. Likewise, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) actually gets to serve as a real part of the story after basically being a background player in the last two saga films, getting his own little hero moments. Fans are also certain to quickly fall for Rio Durant and the droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), both of whom provide fresh and funny new voices to the franchise.
As you would expect, Solo: A Star Wars Story partially operates to answer questions that fans have been asking since the rogue smuggler first arrived on the scene in 1977 -- but while it's cute in parts, it's overkill in many others. It's great to see how Han meets Chewie, forming an ever-lasting friendship, and it's not going too far to say that much of the second act is dedicated to the famed Millennium Falcon doing its legendary Kessel Run -- which makes for some thrilling big screen fun (there are some critiques, but they involve spoilers). These are positives sadly balanced out by the movie going too far in some areas, and giving explanations for which no fan ever really asked. This includes a bizarrely pointed moment where Chewbacca gets his nickname, and the revelation Solo isn't a family name.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is a ricocheting experience of highs and lows, and the end result doesn't inspire any real extreme reaction -- as hard as that might be grasp in the world of modern blockbuster filmmaking. It's just... fine. It's certainly way better than any of the films in the prequel trilogy, but also the weakest of the most recent generation of titles (which have ranged from really good to excellent). Unlike the previous Star Wars Story, Rogue One, it does leave the door open for a follow-up, and it would not be surprising at all to see the franchise utilize that opening. If they do, hopefully they can continue to really refine their prequel storytelling strategy for notable heroes, because right now it looks like they haven't fully nailed it.