Solo: A Star Wars Story (Walt Disney Pictures/Lucasfilm, PG-13)

T he Han Solo movie had every opportunity to be a nostalgia laden, reference heavy, fan-service film. There are so many things that Harrison Ford embedded in fans’ minds in his tenure as the scoundrel, it was hard to believe a film that wasn’t stuffed to the brim with cringe-worthy jokes and forced allusions. Instead, Ron Howard put together a careful homage to Han in a universe that never ceases to expand and evolve.

I went into Solo: A Star Wars Story with my guard up. Han is a massive fan favorite and his own solo (can’t escape that pun) film has been desired by those fans for decades. Most things set up on such high stilts of expectation come crashing down. Episodes VII and VIII were no stranger to criticism. As beloved as Star Wars is, going back to that well is always a frightfully dangerous game.

Do you succumb to fan theories and demands and create something that people have openly said that they wanted, sacrificing your own creative freedom? Do you go a completely different path and create something new, betting on your ability to tell a good enough story that the subversion of expectations is forgiven, perhaps even accepted? Do you find a way to thread the needle between the two, taking the chance that the fervent fans will forgive any deviance because you gave them some of what they wanted. Who wants to take those chances?

Ron Howard decided to go with a mix between the second and the third and the result is an origin film that is both original and inspired, drawing from the mountains of Star Wars lore in a surprisingly fresh way.

Han Solo is a “scruffy looking nerf herder.” We’ve all heard the words, we all know the character. He is an outlaw, a puckish rogue, a miscreant. His good looks a weapon, his tongue quick, and his draw quicker (he did shoot first after all), he is the Star Wars equivalent of a swashbuckler. But how did he become that person? You aren’t simply born that way. How did Han Solo get there?

Solo seeks to answer these questions by taking you down a road wrought with criminals, smuggling, Imperial capital ships, and giant space beasts, and believe it or not, that last thing isn’t at all gimmicky, despite sounding absolutely ridiculous.

Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!, Stoker) was given the monumental responsibility to take on the mantle of Han Solo. He is dashingly successful, emulating Harrison Ford in such subtle and honest ways I actually caught myself gasping at the likeness more than a few times. He just fits well. His interactions with Chewbacca feel natural, his motivations fit his modus operandi, and—most importantly—his imitations don’t feel like imitations. They feel natural, internal, personal.

Alden isn’t alone in his daunting pursuit however, and the cast of Solois largely impressive, with very few missed queues and even fewer easily noticeable weaknesses. Emilia Clarke’s (Game of Thrones) Qi’ra is cleverly delivered, dancing the lines of loyalty with inherent grace. Woody Harrelson (Zombieland, True Detective) leads a crew of space pirates extremely well, teaching young Han along the way. Most impressive is Donald Glover’s (Atlanta, Spider-Man: Homecoming) Lando Calrissian. If there was anyone in the universe more smooth than Han, it would be Lando. Donald’s performance is admirable. Lando is an extremely beloved character, despite his relatively limited screen time in the original trilogy. After Solo has some time to clear the air (perhaps even before) there will be calls for Lando’s own movie. Of this I am confident.

Creating this prequel film was a relatively tumultuous endeavor. Disney parted with Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller over creative differences at a stage that appeared dangerously late in the production schedule. The announcement that Ron Howard would take over, while comforting, didn’t completely right the ship for a lot of fans, and the fear that a half baked movie was on its way was palpable. A few months later there was a story that Alden needed an acting coach on set. Things looked…tenuous. As the credits rolled on Solo: A Star Wars Movie all of those fears came up empty.

The film is fast paced and in a few moments there can be passing confusion, but by and large the pacing and structure of Solo is worthy of some praise. The story takes us all over the galaxy, most places fans have never seen, all while weaving a remarkably emotional origin for one of the most revered characters in all of Star Wars. The plot is thoroughly entertaining, the characters are well thought out and impactful, and by the end you have a great feel on why Han is the way he is.

This film had so many opportunities to be teeth-grindingly referential and it wasn’t. It mixed in its references with artful pacing. What’s more, it left some extremely interesting story threads wide open. Expect to see players from Solo later. And expect to see me in theaters to see it again. A slam dunk by Howard, and more proof that Star Wars can very well exist outside of the Skywalker bloodline. | Caleb Sawyer

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