Now this is more like it: After the dour, joyless slog that was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, here’s a non-trilogy Star Wars movie that’s worth its Craitian salt. Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story is a fun, fast-paced adventure, chockablock with gadgets and action yet populated by characters we care about. It’s everything Rogue One should have been, but wasn’t.
Scrappy young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) becomes separated from his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) upon narrowly escaping a life of servitude on Corellia. Determined to rescue her, Han falls in with pirates Tobias (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton) on a job for scar-faced crime boss Dryden (Paul Bettany). This eventually leads to Han crossing paths with gambler Lando Calrissian (Atlanta’s Donald Glover, stealing half the show), Lando’s loyal droid L3-37 (Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, stealing the other half of the show), and the piece of surprisingly resilient junk known as the Millennium Falcon. John Powell’s score crescendos with grand cymbal-crashes at the Falcon’s first appearance, and Han and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) taking the helm for the first time is accompanied by the first full-on quote from John Williams’ Star Wars theme — and damn if it doesn’t raise the intended goosebumps.
Solo still works as a fun caper film even if you don’t know about the significance of Kessel or who Bosqq is, and we get genuine feels when characters we’ve just met are in peril or killed. (A common defense of Rogue One’s blah characters was that, since they were fated to die there was no need to give them depth, which must be why nobody cared in 1977 when Obi-Wan was killed.) As character-driven as a Star Wars film is ever likely to be, Solo refreshingly lacks a big closing action sequence requiring the characters to go to a place to get a thing to stop a much bigger thing from going pew-pew-pew at a planet. Indeed, it’s almost more notable for what it doesn’t include than what it does: There’s a grand total of one lightsaber, and it’s in a fanservice scene that adds nothing to the story and throws the film’s timeframe into question, but is still nowhere as bad as Rogue One’s embarrassingly masturbatory denouement.
So much in every post-1983 Star Wars film has been predicated on throwaway lines from the original trilogy; it’s been argued that the entire Lucas prequel trilogy stems from a passing reference to “the Clone Wars,” which like so much of his first Star Wars script was nonsense never meant to bear closer examination. Solo has its share of memberberry moments, but not to the extent that it renders the film incomprehensible to the non-fan. Still, we now know why C-3PO — blessedly absent from Solo — will decades later in The Empire Strikes Back describe the Falcon as having “a peculiar dialect.” Did that need to be explained? No. Is the explanation one of Solo’s nicest surprises? Yes.
And f’reals, although Donald Glover and Phoebe Waller-Bridge have better things to do, Lando and L3-37 need their own spinoff film.
Rated PG-13. Opens Thursday at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, the AMC Metreon 16, the Century San Francisco Centre 9, the AMC Van Ness 14, the AMC Dine-In Kabuki, the CineArts Empire, the Presidio Theatre, and the Balboa Twin.