How did Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) acquire his surname? In what near-fatal circumstances did he meet his future wookie BFF Chewbacca? How exactly did he acquire the Millennium Falcon? And where does rogue gambler/frenemy Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) fit into the picture?
Have no fear Star Wars fans, all these questions and a whole lot more are answered in surprisingly wily and fun fashion by Solo, the latest Star Wars satellite story focusing on the origins of everyone’s favourite cosmic chancer.
Despite its widely publicised behind-the-scenes turmoil (director Ron Howard replaced The Lego Movie duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller several months into shooting), the final result emerges as fully engaging and propulsive space western that’s set to spark its own franchise.
Howard and his writers, Jonathan Kasdan and his dad, Lawrence (back in the saddle again after The Force Awakens), do err on the safe side of the Star Wars universe – there really is nothing new here, just a pick-and-mix of past glories. But Solo launches at eye-catching lightspeed and keeps up the swashbuckling momentum throughout for a completely satisfying mega-thrills-and-uber-spills ride.
Beginning in Oliver! mode with a teenage Solo smuggling for the Fagin-like Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt), the wannabe pilot intends to escape from his grungy home planet Corellia with his partner in crime and girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Unfortunately, they get split up trying to blag their way through immigration (one of the many sly touchstones to current events) and Solo signs up for the Imperial army in desperation, ending up fighting on the war-torn mud planet Mimban.
There he joins forces with a motley band of mercenaries led by grifter Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his partner Val (Thandie Newton) and four-armed alien pilot Rio (voiced by Jon Favreau). They must steal a massive consignment of Coaxium fuel from a mountain monorail shipment (the single most spectacular action extravaganza in the entire film) to pay off debts to the power-mad sociopath Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). But when the shipment is pirated by maurauders with a rebellious agenda, they have to face the murderous music aboard Dryden’s space yacht.
Solo meets Qi’ra again, only now she’s Dryden’s favourite lieutenant, and in order to save her former love from death, endorses a last-ditch payment plan to steal unrefined Coaxium from the mining planet of Kessel. What could possibly go wrong? Only double-cross, high-stakes gambling, betrayal and star-crossed romance, as Beckett’s initial words of warning to Solo – “Don’t trust anyone” – come back to haunt everyone.
For a certain generation, Harrison Ford is Han Solo. So it’s with enormous respect to Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!) that within seconds of his appearance on screen he fits the flyboy pin-up part like a glove. The cocky swagger is there, so too is the charming arrogance and winning smile, and Ehrenreich clearly isn’t afraid to extend the character in dark ways Ford was never afforded.
We learn why Solo’s idealism faded, his heart became hardened and why his one true faithful companion could only be Chewie, marvellously essayed by former basketball player Joonas Suotamo. Their bromance is an absolute delight and one of the many vital elements that make up the entertaining Solo whole.
All the key roles are impressively played: Glover does Billy Dee Williams proud as slick cheeky chappie Calrission; Bettany exudes ice-cold malevolence as scarred Dryden Vos; Clarke makes Qi’ra a potent enigma; and best of all is Harrelson, who brings an effortless charisma to scoundrel Beckett. Many will be clamouring for more of droid L3-37, whose relationship with Calrission is hilariously complicated, and is brought brilliantly to life by a motion-captured Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag).
With a grittier, dirtied down, more realistic look than is usual for the Star Wars series – take a bow Arrival cinematographer Bradford Young – Solo has a rough-around-the-edges appeal totally in keeping with its lead character. Needless to say the visual effects are exemplary, eclectically referencing everything from The Bridge on the River Kwai to The Mist for an engrossing interstellar adventure.
Whether shooting down TIE fighters or squeezing through constricted black holes, the action is relentless and top notch while hewing to the George Lucas formula of old. Some reinvention would not have gone amiss amid this delicious buffet of tried-and-tested comfort science fiction, but perhaps that will come in the next voyage for our intrepid space outlaw in another galaxy far, far away.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is released in cinemas on Thursday 24 May