In the ever-growing library of Star Wars cinematic productions, Solo has endured the roughest road - that we know of, in any case. Rocked by the departure of directorial team Phil Lord and Chris Miller after much of the initial filming had already been completed, hampered by reshoots and with a myriad of other rumours hounding the project, none of them good, suffice it to say that my expectations for Solo were minimal out both a sense of caution and, more importantly, a feeling of apathy.
With Disney's yearly model for Star Wars taken into consideration, and with the growing sensation of fatigue which The Last Jedi served to exacerbate on a personal level, these things added to the one overall question that I had about Solo - was it necessary? Technically no film is; rarely is there an obligation to make a film that rests on anyone's shoulders, but films are made regardless, for entertainment or education or a whole host of other purposes. In the context of Star Wars, however, a film focusing on the life of one of the franchise's most iconic characters just didn't feel needed, especially when the original trilogy was as much about Han coming to accept a cause worth fighting for and growing as a person as it was about Luke and Leia's own personal journeys. I went into this with little prior knowledge of the film under my belt as a result, only knowing a few bits and pieces such as the (still) brilliant decision to cast Donald Glover as a younger Lando Calrissian. I left with an air of general satisfaction, but also with feelings of a different sensation that I could not place at first - and after examination, I found that I could still not reconcile whether or not this film actually needed to be made, among other things.
Solo, as the name nakedly states, is about the early years of Han Solo (Ehrenreich), Star Wars' acerbic yet gold-hearted smuggler. The plot is simple, if superficially different from preceding films by nature of its focal characters and its premise; after successfully bribing his way off his home world but being forced to leave behind his lover Qi'ra (Clarke), he takes it upon himself to find a way to scrounge up enough credits for a ship to return, find her, and head off into the galaxy. While enlisted in the Imperial army, he meets career criminal Tobias Beckett (Harrelson) and his crew, who comes to show sympathy for him, and he enlists both Han and recently liberated Wookie Chewbacca (Suotamo) to carry out a heist job. From there, the film settles into the rather typical beats of such a story - righting wrongs to please shady mob bosses, people from one's past emerging where one least expects them and accomplishing the impossible, slathered in a layer of snark and decorated with a smattering of intriguing tidbits.
Unfortunately, the end result is a plot that has precious little to really write home about. Certainly, at their core, the stories of many of the preceding films are themselves generic, and by this point in history almost any premise is on a surface level - Star Wars itself was presented as a simple tale of rebellion, a fight for freedom to lift the yoke of tyrannical imperialism from the wider galaxy. Those films possessed moments that carved themselves into film history despite the plain narrative that they presented. The film does offer somewhat tantalising glimpses into other facets of the larger universe through the existence of elements such as masked marauder Enfys Nest and their gang, christened the 'Cloud Riders', fleeting looks at places such as the den of iniquity known as Corelia where Han was born and raised, genuinely exciting looks at the franchise's take on a high-stakes card game, a more low-key examination of Imperial officers and propaganda - at least in the first few minutes - and all sorts of little name drops to make the world seem larger. This, however, does not compensate for the film's ultimately by the numbers story. Most people who have seen any sort of heist film are keenly aware of how the rest of the feature is going to proceed the moment Han and Chewie are roped into Beckett's little scheme, and dedicated Star Wars viewers, perhaps even those who entered the series through The Force Awakens, will know what becomes of Han and Chewie, and Lando by extension. That is not to say that prequels are inherently flawed - three of Star Wars' own movies, and perhaps the most crucial with regards to the greater narrative, are prequels themselves - but knowing that none of what occurs in Solo really matters overall hampers one's enjoyment of the experience. With the exception of a single revelation in the closing moments of the film that is doubtlessly going to leave hardcore fans salivating, the events of Solo are just too distant to have any lasting effect by virtue of the film taking place before Rogue One. Its intention was to be a self-contained story, no doubt, and that's acceptable, but when we know what happens and how little the effects of this film seem to linger, one grapples with searching for a reason to remain invested in the larger picture.
Additionally, Solo, like Rogue One, is eager to bombard its viewers with a deluge of nostalgic throwbacks - stormtroopers say 'Move along' as they once did to Kenobi on Tatooine all those years ago, Han's lucky dice are featured front and centre, oblique references are made to popular characters in the wider mythos and a key portion of the film revolves around the Kessel Run, an event mentioned only in passing in the original film and possibly ad-libbed by Ford himself - but also much like Rogue One, it struggles to create any sense of identity for itself because of its need to remind audiences of these things that once existed or were once mentioned or seen, something that infects even the film's very setup. There are even references to locations featuring in Rogue One itself in the script, which leaves one wondering how much Disney's crew values the memory retention capabilities of their supporters. The end result that arises from this mindset is a film that is certainly well-crafted, but also a product that openly struggles to present anything new and thought-provoking that doesn't wind up as either truthfully intriguing but regrettably pushed to the side, unintentionally hilarious - like the briefly-seen 'Lady Proxima', a criminal overlord who just so happens to be a ridiculously fake-looking giant worm - or quietly aggravating, as with new character L3-37 who is a militant advocate of droids' rights and fond of railing against 'organics', even invoking a throwaway line from A New Hope after her first meeting with the crew, and precious little else aside from revelling in the occasional moment of witty banter with Lando.
To make up for what the film lacks in the story and in the uniqueness department, somewhat, the performances are solid - for the most part. Donald Glover as a younger Lando is perhaps the most eye-catching member of the cast. Though at times he goes seldom-seen, he nails Lando's character with a potent cocktail of irreverence, humour and genuine conviction, and should a follow-up ever be made I would be delighted to see him reprise the role. Alden Ehrenreich has served to defy doubters with his roguish, charming and ultimately determined depiction of Han in his younger years, even though he still doesn't entirely look the part. Emilia Clarke's Qi'ra is perhaps the greatest surprise among them, having entered the film believing that she would be little more than a token love interest - or worse, a bog-standard moll, given the seedier nature of the setting that they were trying to depict. As a fellow "scumrat", though, she comes to prove that she can hold her own as well as Han can - perhaps even more so in certain respects, and she comes to serve the plot in ways I did not believe would come to pass. Harrelson does a convincing job at portraying Beckett as a cynical, grizzled outlaw and malefactor, and barring a handful of noticeably flat line readings he stands out as one of the best things about Solo, cast-wise. It is difficult to grade Chewbacca's 'performance', Joonas Suotamo being behind the fur - but it can he said that he growled, roared and snarked in untranslated Shyriiwook with enough conviction. Even here, however, there are duds. Actors of note are essentially thrown away without much thought with brief turns in playing starkly one-dimensional characters - alongside Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3, there are also Thandie Newton and Jon Favreau who end up essentially as tragically wasted talent - and Paul Bettany plays quite possibly the blandest and most thoroughly forgettable villain that a Star Wars title has ever played host to.
On a technical level, too, the film shines. There are a handful of outstanding moments of cinematography that chiefly arise during the train sequence in the early film, the more rough-and-tumble nature of the premise results in locations that are grittier and feel more worn-down and lived-in as a result, and the depictions and Corelia and Kessel that we see do spark the imagination. As with most Star Wars features, the CGI is mostly top notch, if a little peculiar and oddly uncanny in certain places, particularly during the third leg of the Kessel sequence and some fast-paced shots of interior mechanisms. It's much more refined when viewed up-close, like with L3-37's design or with the exotic crowds of players indulging in sabacc, a bizarre and mostly impenetrable card game with roots in an old novel attached to the now-abandoned and pre-Disney 'Expanded Universe'. But with the exceptions of Kessel and Corelia, of which precious little is seen, the crew seem reluctant to make these locales in a 'galaxy far, far away' alluring and unique, falling into the same trap that ensnared Rogue One and both new trilogy films with how sparse and barren they made their new locations seem. The writing also hovers slightly above decent and rarely deviates, though there is a fair amount of humour to be had with Lando, Han, L3 and even Beckett taking turns at providing laughs. At times, too, the pacing hangs excessively much to the film's detriment - there is a heavy sense of ending fatigue in particular, further underscored by the Kessel Run consuming an ordinate amount of screen time. Although the film is never at a loss for direction, it seems content with staying far too long in certain places, and its somewhat inflated running time doesn't help in that area.
I entered into Solo with virtually non-existent expectations, but an open mind (and getting to see it in IMAX was a definite plus). I was willing to be surprised, and in some ways, I was. it does do an admirable job at adding more to the setting, and its characters are mostly colourful, but it's overshadowed by a plot that's almost suffocating in its predictability - something that even good performances cannot deflect. In the end, for all of its technical competence, cast experience and name recognition, it still ends up as it started - a film that struggles to define its own existence. If there is ever a form of continuation, without the behind-the-scenes strife that threatened to rip Solo apart at the seams, perhaps we can eventually hope to bear witness to something more concrete and willing to strike out on its own. As it stands, however, it registers as little more than 'alright', and with Solo being released while controversy about the previous film is still very much alive, that may be far from the reaction that its creators desire.