Opening weekend review–The space Western returns in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Review by C.J. Bunce

Maybe you don’t need the Old West to have a great Western after all.  Bringing back the feel of the first third of the original Star Wars: A New Hope with a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid level of fun and humor, Solo: A Star Wars Story is finally in theaters with something for every Star Wars fan.  The saloons may be different and so are the sidearms, but this is the story of a young gunfighter, complete with the related outlaws and mercenaries, partners and betrayals, card playing, and gunfights.  With the sweeping adventure of The Empire Strikes Back, the perfectly rebuilt and repackaged nostalgia of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and a jumping off point for a galaxy of possibilities for beloved characters we only thought we knew, director Ron Howard delivers.  Not weighted down by the gloom and doom of the Dark Side in Rogue One or the rest of the Star Wars films, this Star Wars story creates new and original locations and situations for a few familiar characters plus many new ones and still ties into the overall episodic stories, taking place after Revenge of the Sith, but before Star Wars Rebels and Rogue One.  Yet we meet many new characters and questions are raised in the film that beg for one or more sequels to this branch off the main Star Wars saga–we can now have many new tie-in novels, comics, TV series, and maybe even movies to keep it all going.  If you didn’t think The Last Jedi captured the nostalgia or fun of earlier Star Wars films, then Solo is for you–not since The Empire Strikes Back has an entry in the saga been such a rollercoaster ride.

Surprises?  In a film that could have just filled in the blanks, the surprises were dished out from beginning to end, including some big ones we won’t mention here.  The overall tone is something out of Amazing High Adventure, and it makes perfect sense: It’s Silverado in space.  Screenplay writer Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote the screenplay with son Jonathan Kasdan), known for writing Westerns Silverado and Wyatt Earp, prior Star Wars entries The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens, and that greatest of adventure movies Raiders of the Lost Ark, was the perfect match to veteran director and movie icon Ron Howard.  The Western inspiration is supported visually in the Frederic Remington-inspired colors and landscapes.  You can spot the World War II movie references along the way, too, that Kasdan and Howard no doubt enjoyed as moviegoers over the years, like Von Ryan’s Express.  The relationships between characters evoke gangster movies and even pirate tales like Treasure Island.  Science fiction fans will see parallels to Han’s band of mercenaries in both the crew of the Ghost in Star Wars Rebels and Joss Whedon’s Serenity crew in the Firefly television series.

The Kasdans smartly injected those scenes every fan has thought about, pulled from passing references throughout the original trilogy to become fully realized plot threads, and then they folded in so much more.  Without the religion and mysticism of the Force, Solo: A Star Wars Story breaks the precedents of the saga as space fantasy to become arguably the first end-to-end science fiction movie of the franchise.  And it’s not just a fun movie.  Viewers will get plenty to think about.  Characters here are sometimes swapped into positions taken by other characters (and beasts) in prior movies in a way that will make moviegoers want to take another look at the prior films again.

Thankfully, Alden Ehrenreich makes Han Solo his own, filling the shoes of the older Han we already knew confidently without being an impersonator, much like the success of Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk in that other Star franchise.  Ehrenreich’s smile and charisma has an innocent and sincere Roy Rogers vibe.  Ehrenreich is Solo, Solo long before he earned that confident and cocky stride.  With Chewbacca in tow, Ehrenreich might even be Hondo.  Joonas Suotamo takes the reins from Peter Mayhew perfectly for his take on Chewbacca, with a much better and bigger role here than in The Last Jedi.  Donald Glover maneuvers his Lando Calrissian, a rogue we actually got to know surprisingly little in the original trilogy, into fabulous new places–his cape room is hysterical and his companion a great sci-fi twist.  More Glover as Lando in future films is a must for Disney and Lucasfilm.

But the coolest character and performance that rises to the top?  That is shared by Woody Harrelson’s layered and archetypical mentor to Han, and a fantastic space pirate played by Erin Kellyman–these great characters enter the story tangentially but importantly much like Han and Chewie entered the main Luke Skywalker story back in A New Hope.  Fans will find Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra fits right into the new Star Wars universe’s smart and savvy women with Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso, and Thandie Newton plays the lieutenant to Harrelson’s rogue in a role similar to Gina Torres’s Zoe Washburne in Firefly.  The film’s token CGI alien is a nicely realized variation on Rocket the Raccoon, voiced by Jon Favreau.  Paul Bettany has the right level of villainy and deceit as one of the faction leaders.  And Phoebe Waller-Bridge voices a droid audiences haven’t heard or seen before anywhere in the franchise.

Composer John Powell, who created the gorgeous Ferdinand soundtrack and is known for his action movie scores including the Jason Bourne franchise, Paycheck, The Italian Job, and countless animated films, uses John Williams’s themes and builds his own to good effect, with a soundtrack similar to Michael Giacchino’s Rogue One score.

If you’re looking for Easter eggs, listen for the voice of Academy Award-winning actress (and Silverado co-star) Linda Hunt as the Jabba-esque gang leader Lady Proxima.  Watch for Dark Horse comics characters Tag and Bink entering the canon for the first time.  Clint Howard, veteran of his brother’s films as well as the Star Trek franchise appears as a droid slaver.  Warwick Davis reprises his cameo role of Weazel from The Phantom Menace.  Harrelson dons a familiar costume worn by another Solo actor in an earlier movie–as with Rogue One, David Crossman and Glyn Dillon’s costume designs perfectly replicate the look of the original trilogy.  And see if you can spot the Boba Fett-style Mandalorian armor in the lair of Bettany’s character.  Marveling at that brand-new Millennium Falcon, looking great while in Lando’s possession, is enough of a reason to watch this movie twice in the theater.  It’s not A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, or Rogue One, but it could be next in line.

The second of the Star Wars “anthology” movies, Solo: A Star Wars Story will appeal to anyone who loved Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and the humor and nostalgia will probably make this a win for fans of the other Star Wars films, too.  See it now on the biggest screen you can, Solo: A Star Wars Story is in theaters nationwide today.





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