Movie superstardom is, in its purest form, akin to magic, predicated on a combination of talent, opportunity, and some ineffable element that separates the extras (and, for that matter, many award-winning actors) from the Tom Cruises and Sandra Bullocks of the world. Whatever that rare and unique quality is that elevates certain individuals to the realm of global icons, there’s no doubt that it exists, and moreover, that it can’t be manufactured via persistent casting and aggressive marketing. Such idiosyncratic magnetism may not be precisely definable, but as the past century-plus of cinema has conclusively proven, you know it when you see it—and, conversely, when you don’t.
The latter is, alas, the case with Alden Ehrenreich in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Tasked with embodying one of science fiction’s most famous and beloved characters, Han Solo, the 28-year-old actor (best known for his solid 2016 work in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! and Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply) delivers a performance that’s as competent and fitfully entertaining as the film itself—but which is a galaxy or two removed from the sort of intergalactic heights Harrison Ford reached in the franchise’s first three episodes and, again, in 2015’s The Force Awakens. As the defiant and foolhardy hero, Ehrenreich hits all the beats expected of him in this big-budget origin story. Yet frustratingly, he does little more than that. Operating in a middle-ground register that’s defined by its bland safeness, he sturdily shoulders the weight of the chaotic material while failing to bring the sort of smirky, charming vitality that made the smuggler-turned-resistance-fighter such an essential series player. In a role that demands greatness, he is, in a word, OK.
To be fair, the same can be said of Solo: A Star Wars Story, although given its production troubles, that’s not nothing. As has been reported for months, original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie) were removed from the project after months of shooting, and—amidst rumors that Ehrenreich required an acting coach to spruce up his lead turn—were replaced by Ron Howard. That turmoil suggested a tentpole in terrible trouble. The final product, however, exhibits no outward signs of that inner disarray. Per his trademark, Howard handles his action with craftsman-like efficiency and style, whether it’s hectic CGI-heavy chase sequences and combat skirmishes, or more comedic character interplay between an assortment of colorful personalities both new and old. Save for some muddy lighting during its initial scenes, the film is, from a technical standpoint, both coherent and assured, having carefully hidden whatever Frankensteinian stitching was required to get it into finished shape.
But what of the actual, you know, story? Written by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan (the former responsible for co-penning The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), this before-they-were-rebels tale takes the same approach as 2016’s Rogue One—which is to say, it’s a fan-service effort determined to explain things that were briefly mentioned in the first three movies. Enthusiasts will learn how Han met and partnered up with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). They’ll discover how he crossed paths with Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and eventually took possession of Lando’s beloved Millennium Falcon. And as for his famously speedy execution of the Kessel Run (in under 12 parsecs!), well, that’s a key part of these proceedings, as are myriad other details that have been included precisely to satisfy the curiosity of Star Wars aficionados.
Casual fans won’t care about such geekiness, and unfortunately for them, when it’s not dramatizing everything we’ve previously heard about Han, Solo: A Star Wars Story doesn’t do much of great interest. When we first meet Han, he’s escaping a life of slavery and, in the process, suffering a great loss—namely, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), his girlfriend, who’s detained at the very moment they’re about to achieve freedom. Stranded alone—hence the source of his last name, as explicated by a clunky early bit—Han winds up in the Imperial army, and then in the company of Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a professional thief who reluctantly agrees to let the wannabe pilot join his crew, which also includes Beckett’s girlfriend Val (Thandie Newton) and four-armed alien Rio (Jon Favreau). Their ensuing heist of a high-speed rail train traveling through snow-dappled mountains is the film’s finest set piece, and in its aftermath, Han and company wind up reunited with Qi’ra, who’s now the property of Beckett’s evil employer, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).
Qi’ra leads Han to Lando, and from the moment Glover appears opposite a card table from Ehrenreich’s rogue-in-training, Solo: A Star Wars Story seems poised to truly excite, since the Atlanta mastermind boasts the sort of mega-watt charisma the project needs. Too bad, then, that aside from two bookending scenes, Glover’s Lando is relegated to the background, where he’s stuck interacting with his own sidekick, droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), whose commitment to the cause of droids’ equal rights turns out to be as groan-worthy as it sounds. In similarly two-dimensional roles, Harrelson, Clarke, Newton, and Bettany do equally satisfactory work—all the while making one pine for a surprising attitude, opinion, or deed to materialize and derail the film from its fill-in-the-franchise-blanks course.
Unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which for the past decade has used its current movies to help set up bigger future ones, Lucasfilm has, with both Rogue One and now Solo: A Star Wars Story, sought to expand its series by mining its minutia. That backward-looking termite-art approach—which here extends to multiple teases of sequels-to-be, including a promising one that makes scant timeline-related sense—has been designed to placate devotees with familiar subjects and scenarios. The studio’s newest offering will surely rankle far fewer feathers than did last December’s more daringly heretical The Last Jedi; on the contrary, it’s a veritable olive branch to die-hards after Ford’s Han was murdered by his son Kylo (Adam Driver) in The Force Awakens. Yet trying to grow by intensely focusing on the microscopic seems, at this stage, to be a misguided tack—one that results in effective installments such as Solo, but conjures little of the magic that originally made, and is needed to keep, Star Wars a genuine phenomenon.