Rogue One was a liberating change of pace for the ever-expanding Star Wars franchise, unburdened by mandates to cue up events, characters, or other details from already-released films. Han Solo, the next installment in the grab-bag series of offshoots organized under the A Star Wars Story banner, doesn’t have that luxury. Everybody loves Han Solo, there wouldn’t be a solo Solo if we didn’t, and that means that this Millennium Falcon’s freighted with quite a bit of baggage.
There are indeed plenty of awkward genuflections to the original trilogy, as many fans feared. We find out how Han Solo got his name, and verily, it is dumb. Also dumb: the cutesy call-forwards to lines of dialogue from Episodes IV-VI, the musical cues that instruct the audience on how to feel when some pre-ordained story element (the introduction of the Falcon, Han and Chewbacca taking their rightful place at the helm) snaps into place, the belabored explanation justifying parsecs as a measurement of distance and not time. But for the many obstructions placed before them, director Ron Howard and his motley crew of freelance space hooligans make a respectable go of things, serving up a roundly enjoyable hunk of Hollywood spectacle.
Lovable smart-alecks aren’t born, they’re made. We first join Han Solo as a young buck — though star Alden Ehrenreich’s boyish good looks make it difficult to discern just how old he’s supposed to be — in indentured servitude on a trash planet, plotting a flight at freedom with his best gal Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, re-affirming the doubts about her pivot to silver screen stardom first suggested by Terminator: Salvation). He’s got a confident streak a parsec wide, but still has much to learn about the way of the world beyond his little corner of it. The journey of a provincial boy taking on the whole of the galaxy echoes a young Luke Skywalker, and Ehrenreich brings approximately seventy times the charisma to his performance that a still-green Mark Hamill did in his franchise debut. It’s a disservice to Hail, Caesar! to think of it as Ehrenreich’s audition for the blockbuster big leagues, but whichever casting director saw his aw-shucks cowboy turn and put two and two together deserves a raise.
Breaking out of his lot in life using little more than his wits, Han sets out on a grand adventure with good ol’ Chewie, Qi’ra, the jaded Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, recycling his character work from The Hunger Games), an ultrasmooth Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, reporting from his own, marginally more interesting movie), and the radical liberationist droid L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the single finest element of this great big machine). Where Rogue One adhered somewhat more closely to schematic of a war movie, it’s business as usual this time around, with an elaborate multi-phase mission culminating in the time-tested vaunting of #Resistance in the face of imperialist thuggery. Though it really culminates in a shameless green light for future installments, if the box-office gods be kind.
Howard, brought in to right the ship after those rascals Phil Lord and Christopher Miller dared to steer the project toward — egads! — comedy, doesn’t make a particularly strong argument for his pinch-hire. The coloration looks awfully stale, and while the animatronics may be the most imaginative in the entire franchise, the film suffers most chiefly from a lack of visual panache to match its stars’. But the fans will most assuredly be appeased, and if nothing else, Han Solo will go down in Lucasfilm history as the movie that conclusively affirmed that humans can and do have sex with droids.