TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. "Solo: A Star Wars Story," the latest blockbuster space adventure from Disney and Lucasfilm, tells of the early adventures of Han Solo, the wily pilot played by Harrison Ford in the original "Star Wars" trilogy. He's played here in his younger years by Alden Ehrenreich, leading a cast that includes Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson and Donald Glover. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: You don't need to be a "Star Wars" obsessive - I'm certainly not - to warm to the idea of a movie about the young Han Solo. As immortalized by Harrison Ford, Han has always been a fan favorite, a wisecracker and a risk-taker who, before joining Luke, Leia and the Rebel Alliance, shows no allegiance to any cause beyond himself, his rookie co-pilot, Chewbacca, and his spaceship, the Millennium Falcon. By rights, "Solo: A Star Wars Story" should have been a similar kind of movie - a sardonic, irreverent outlier in the Lucasfilm universe, operating by its own rules and thumbing its nose at anyone who objected.
So what went wrong? Quite a lot, really.
It was a good sign when Alden Ehrenreich, the terrific young actor from "Tetro" and "Hail, Caesar!" was cast as Han and also when Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the merry comic daredevils behind "The Lego Movie" and "21 Jump Street," were hired to direct. But then Lord and Miller were fired last year due to apparently irreconcilable creative differences. And you could sense the iron will of Lucasfilm asserting itself. God forbid anyone should try to inject a little wit or personality into this surefire cash cow.
The directors were replaced by the much more risk-averse Ron Howard. And as a consequence, what might have once been a fresh and funny tour de force has devolved into bland, impersonal hackwork.
Written by the father-son duo of Lawrence and Jake Kasdan, the movie introduces us to Han Solo on his miserable home planet Corellia. He and his girlfriend Kira, played by Emilia Clarke, are desperately trying to escape the planet together. But circumstances conspire to tear them apart. Three years later, Han is a skilled pilot working with a cynical mercenary named Tobias Beckett, played by Woody Harrelson. Their aim is to steal an enormous stash of coaxium, a powerful energy source whose combustible properties are seen in the first of several clumsily slapped-together action sequences.
A high-speed, low-energy intergalactic heist caper ensues in which the plot somehow manages to feel both utterly inconsequential and exasperatingly busy. The movie keeps up a frenzied pace with zero sense of modulation. There are a few clever twists in store involving a powerful gangster played by Paul Bettany and his assistant, whose identity I won't spoil. But the narrative is basically an elaborate bridge between the movie's obligatory payoff moments.
It's fun to see Hans' hostile first encounter with Chewbacca. Call it when rookie met Wookie. Another key piece of "Star Wars" lore is Hans' fateful card game with a rival pilot named Lando Calrissian, played by Donald Glover, who owns the Millennium Falcon at this point in the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY")
DONALD GLOVER: (As Lando Calrissian) There's no liars in this game, just players.
ALDEN EHRENREICH: (As Han Solo) Is this seat taken?
GLOVER: (As Lando Calrissian) If nobody's in the seat, then it ain't taken, friend.
EHRENREICH: (As Han Solo) So this is sa-back (ph)?
GLOVER: (As Lando Calrissian) Sabacc.
EHRENREICH: (As Han Solo) Sabacc - got it.
GLOVER: (As Lando Calrissian) You played before?
EHRENREICH: (As Han Solo) A couple times, yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, alien language spoken).
GLOVER: (As Lando Calrissian) Captain Lando Calrissian.
EHRENREICH: (As Han Solo) Han Solo. Looks like you're having a good day.
GLOVER: (As Lando Calrissian) I'm a lucky guy.
EHRENREICH: (As Han Solo) Can I ask you a question, Captain Calrissian?
GLOVER: (As Lando Calrissian) Anything, Haen (ph).
EHRENREICH: (As Han Solo) It's Han, but that's OK. I heard a story about you. I was wondering if it's true.
GLOVER: (As Lando Calrissian) Everything you've heard about me is true.
CHANG: There's a deliberate grubbiness to the look of the movie, which I suppose makes sense for a story told from the perspective of a down-on-his-luck freelancer from the wrong side of the galaxy. But while the cinematographer Bradford Young has used shadows to brilliant effect in films like "Arrival," his work here is murky to the point of inscrutability. I spent half the time trying to tell the characters apart and the other half wondering what happened to the lighting budget.
Still, the performances mostly click. Harrelson is in rascally good form. Clark makes an intriguing love interest and possible femme fatale. And Phoebe Waller-Bridge brings some grit to her role as the saucy droid du jour. Donald Glover, whom you may recognize from the FX series "Atlanta" or by his musical name Childish Gambino, doesn't have nearly enough screen time. But his charismatic presence comes close to stealing the movie. You never have any doubt that he'll one day age into Billy Dee Williams, the actor who played Lando in "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return Of The Jedi."
Ehrenreich doesn't resemble Harrison Ford to the same degree, but there's more to good acting than fitting a physical type. While some online rumormongers had suggested that Ehrenreich's miscasting was the chief source of the movie's many production woes, the actor does solidly engaging work here, rich in devil-may-care attitude. He keeps you watching long after the rest of the movie has stopped giving you any reason to do so. Ehrenreich hasn't failed "Solo: A Star Wars Story." The truth, I suspect, is precisely the opposite.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "Solo: A Star Wars Story."
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
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