I saw Star Wars on opening night in 1977 when I was 10 years old, one of a small number of occasions on which history’s timeline and my own have aligned perfectly. (And no, don’t even start with your “A New Hope” or “Episode IV”; the movie’s title was, and remains, “Star Wars,” no matter what retroactive nonsense George Lucas may have spent years peddling.)
My 10-year-old self had precisely one substantive complaint about the film, which was the defining moviegoing experience of my young life (and which, in those pre-cable, pre-DVD, mostly pre-VCR days, I would go on to see 11 times in theaters): the line in which Han Solo explains that the Millennium Falcon “made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.” That younger me would have been all too happy to explain—yes, plus ça change…—that a parsec was a unit of distance (3.26 light years to be precise), not time.
So now, of course, we have an entire movie premised on that throwaway line. Drop dead, 2018.
The good news is that this 40-plus-year-old gripe may be the worst thing I have to say about Solo: A Star Wars Story. This prequel is not particularly daring or innovative, but it is nonetheless entirely competent and enjoyable. (Is it redundant for me to note that Ron Howard directed it, after Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired over creative differences? Perhaps.)
Best of all, the movie is different. There’s no Death Star or Starkiller Base, no Imperial vessel or HQ that needs to be infiltrated in order to turn off a shield or tractor beam or interstellar tracker. There’s no mumbo jumbo about the Force, no lightsabers, no First Order, and scarcely a mention of the Empire. This is a movie set in the universe of Star Wars that, for once, doesn’t feel it needs to be a rehash of Star Wars.
The story begins with a young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) escaping the Dickensian slum-planet Corellia, where he had essentially spent his life auditioning for the lead role in Oliver Twist. Alas, he’s forced to leave behind his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). He joins the Empire military in hopes of becoming a pilot, but is instead relegated to the infantry. A few years later, he encounters his Fagin (okay, I’ll stop; in any case, the character’s actually based on Long John Silver) in Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a thief of dubious morals who is in hock to a galactic gang lord named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, marked with zebra-like facial scars). And who should turn out to have become one of Vos’s top lieutenants but Han’s old squeeze Qi’ra?
What unfolds from this premise is essentially a heist movie, in which Han, Tobias, and Qi’ra need to steal a large quantity of unrefined and highly unstable fuel and get it back to Vos before it explodes. (Think of it as The Wages of Fear, but in space.) Along the way, there’s a meet-cute between Han and Chewbacca, in which the former goes from “lunch” to “best friend”; another between Han and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover); and, of course, one between Han and the true love of his life: Lando’s ship (for a while at least), the Millennium Falcon. In one of the movie’s sharper gags, Lando has devoted an entire walk-in closet to his extensive collection of capes. (Edna Mode would be furious.)
The script, by Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan, is capable but unremarkable, as is Howard’s direction. But the cast—which also includes Thandie Newton and voice performances by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Jon Favreau—consistently elevates the material. Ehrenreich, who was excellent in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, has an easygoing charisma and does not make the mistake of trying to impersonate Harrison Ford. Clarke does perhaps her best work outside of Game of Thrones, Harrelson is deep within his comfort zone, and if you are not already a fan of Glover (and, let’s be clear, you should be), this ought to make you one.
Rogue One, the previous Star Wars “spinoff” movie—i.e., not a part of the new central trilogy—was a perfectly diverting entrant in the rebooted franchise. But it was at once a tad unfamiliar, with its wide range of new characters, and overly familiar (no more Death Stars!). Solo manages to dodge both these traps, with characters already inscribed in our cinematic DNA (Han, Chewy, Lando) and a relatively novel storyline. The final act, in particular, offers a few unexpected twists. And even though Ehrenreich’s Solo is a more innocent, less jaded version than Ford’s, let there be no doubt: This time, Han definitely shoots first.