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SOLO Remembers That STAR WARS Movies Can Be Fun (Review)

I still remember watching the very first Star Wars movie on VHS as a kid. I knew a lot about it from episodes of Muppet Babies and just general zeitgeist osmosis, but seeing the adventures of Luke Skywalker writ medium on our 27 inch tube TV sparked daydreams and later action figure scenarios for years. A lot of this was because of the character of Han Solo; he had the coolest ship, he was charming and funny, and his best friend was a giant bear dog who could rip people’s arms out of their sockets. Han Solo is a necessary character in Star Wars, and Disney and Lucasfilm know that, and luckily Solo: A Star Wars Story knows he embodies the fun of Star Wars.

It’s sort of a shame movies can’t just exist in a vacuum without the added baggage of often troubled productions or studio interference. Ron Howard is Solo‘s credited director, but we all know he didn’t start out that way, and I confess to spending the first little bit of Solo trying to spot the joints. You can see a little bit, but it’s certainly not nearly as egregious as Justice League, the new gold standard of Frankensteined blockbusters. And luckily, Solo quickly became compelling as the pieces in young Han (Alden Ehrenreich)’s life start leading toward his inevitable turn from street ruffian to interstellar scoundrel.

A lot of that first Star Wars movie–A New Hope; you know the one–is actually about one specific mission: Obi-Wan, Luke, Han, Chewie, and the droids head to the Death Star to rescue Princess Leia. There’s capital-H Hero’s Journey stuff surrounding it, but the focus of its narrative mainly concerns rescuing this one pivotal character, and there’s fun and excitement and laughs and thrills to be had surrounding that. Solo‘s set-up follows that formula, but without the universe-altering mythology of the ancient battle between Jedi and Sith. This is A New Hope without the mysticism.

I keep harping about “fun” but that’s what Solo has that Rogue One and even most of The Last Jedi were lacking. Yes, battles between good and evil are wrought with dread and tragedy and sadness, but Solo explores the universe through the eyes of a carefree–and often out of his depth–swashbuckler who’s only thinking about the next big score. This is the first Star Wars movie where it hasn’t felt like it’s being crushed by the portentous weight of what’s to come. Oh there are references–ho ho ho, don’t think there aren’t copious, winky references, but they’re in-jokes rather than any of the “Dun Dun Dun” grave nods to stuff that’s coming, as happened in Rogue One and literally all of the prequels.

Somehow, Solo is able to pack in several surprises. Even as we start to see the vestiges of who Han Solo will become pile up–each one done for maximum audience cheers–the script by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan gives us twists to the plot that feel like a proper heist movie. Not everything is as it seems, and stuff you might have thought happened one way actually happens a different way. This one loses the foregone conclusion element of something like a Rogue One, which is very welcome and refreshing.

As the crew starts to assemble, everything gets much more interesting. Not merely Han who makes it through life with the cheesiest of cheese-eating grins, but all of his cronies, both known and unknown. The budding partnership between he and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) feels perfectly paced and earned, both orphans of a corrupt empire searching for a place. There’s probably a whole trilogy’s worth of adventures of Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett, a gun-twirling outlaw with unfathomable debts to repay to particularly dangerous people. Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) has layer upon layer of guise and you’re never sure which is the real her. And the movie really begins to shine when Donald Glover’s uber-dashing Lando Calrissian shows up, along with his co-pilot droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) who is a voice for droid rights and a thoroughly welcome addition.

Solo: A Star Wars Story doesn’t reach the heights of daring of The Last Jedi, but it’s a movie designed to be safe, familiar, and smile-inducing, all while watching characters we grew up with be young and brash. If you heard Han or Lando mention something of their backstory in A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back, you’re gonna see it played out here, but it’s more a function of the story rather than the point. And as we know Ehrenreich is signed on for more movies, Solo does a good job of setting up the intrigue of that saga, while taking care of most of the “oh THAT’s where that came from” moments so the later films don’t have to. More exciting were the references to things from The Clone Wars and nods to what’s to come in Star Wars Rebels, which are there if you’re looking for them.

For all the ways Solo could have gone wrong, it wisely aimed for a solid double rather than a grand slam on the first pitch. The Star Wars franchise under Disney and Lucasfilm is a long game, and they’ve finally learned not every movie needs to be the giant, saga-shattering puzzle piece, but instead can be a solid space adventure, like the best of what are now considered Legends. I wasn’t blown away, but I’m thoroughly compelled to watch more Solo movies, which even a week ago was not what I expected at all.

4 out of 5 burritos

Images: Lucasfilm

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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