EDITED 27 May 2018 to change star rating down from 3. I've slept on it a couple nights, and it just didn't feel right

The big challenge in watching Solo: A Star Wars Story is, of course, watching Alden Ehrenrich play the young version of Harrison Ford's iconic charming asshole smuggler Han Solo, introduced 41 years ago this week in the epochal Star Wars. Fortunately, by not looking like a Star Wars film, sounding like a Star Wars film, or giving us as protagonist a man who resembles the original character in anything other than name, Solo has done a fine job of making it easy to separate Ehrenreich's performance from Ford's, and appreciate what he's up to on its own merits.

That's great, because the largely adorable cast is one of the only two things about Solo that works particularly well. The fourth feature in the Disney era of Star Wars is also, by a decent length, the most unnecessary and trivial; it is almost certainly the least-interesting of the ten live-action Star Wars features to date (and maybe even "live-action" is a needless qualifier; Star Wars: The Clone Wars sucked, but the neon-colored Truman Capote the Hutt in that film is at least interesting). It exists solely to fill a narrative gap that doesn't even exist: Han Solo, in the original films, was already a complete stereotype, and it's easy as hell to read into Ford's performance the backstory that made him a charismatic bastard with a heart of gold: he likes money and likes spending it. That's not enough to support a whole feature (to say nothing of the hella obvious sequel hooks that Solo plants in its final 20 minutes), so Solo decides that he was actually a boyish romantic turned brittle by the ugly world around him and being betrayed by everyone he trusts. Solo also backloads all of this into the last couple of scenes, if not all the way to the unlikely-to-be-made Solo 2: A Star Wars Storier. Which means that basically this is just the film about the boyish romantic. The great irony here is that Solo is a slavish, pandering bit of fanservice that dredges up details that only a Star Wars nerd could care about, answering questions that only a Star Wars nerd could want to ask (if even that: I'm not sure that anybody wanted to know that Han Solo got his surname from an Ellis Island-style bureaucrat), and all in the matrix of a story that presents a mostly unrecognisable version of one of the franchise's most beloved figures.

The benefit, at least, is that it's much easier to watch Solo without the hanging spectre of four decades of history than the other neo-Star Wars pictures (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Star Wars: The Last Jedi). This benefit only goes so far, because Solo still isn't, like, doing anything. The film picks up on the beastly industrial planet Corellia, builder of the galaxy's starships, where Han and Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) are a pair of "scrumrats", pickpockets in the employ of giant prawn gangster Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt, born to be the voice of a shrimp monster in a Star Wars movie), deeply in love, and anxious to escape. Han is able to bribe an Imperial official, but Qi'ra manages to miss their window of escape by mere seconds, and Han joins the Imperial Navy with the hope of becoming a pilot, and returning to Corellia to rescue her.

Three years later, the plot lurches forward so messily that it seems like it might give you a concussion, and here we come to one of the greatest problems with Lawrence & Jonathan Kasdan's screenplay (papa Lawrence has been part of the Star Wars universe for most of its existence, which doesn't work to the film's benefit in this case). The film's shifts between its four acts are fucking awful. They are awful because of their suddenness, because of the wild shifts in tone that are necessitated each time and never executed properly, because major plot points in one act are mostly ignored in the next. Watching Solofeels like watching several mini-movies glued together, only they used shitty glue.

Anyway, the film: Han escapes the Imperial Army with the aid of a POW, the 7-foot-tall hair-covered Wookiee Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and by hitching a ride with a trio of smugglers: the four-armed orange alien Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau), Val (Thandie Newton), and leader Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), owner of the most hilariously prosaic name in the history of the Star Wars franchise. The five of them undertake a mission to steal a train car full of highly valuable, highly explosive starship fuel - "hyperfuel", an appropriately ridiculous sci-fi name - but a rival team of smugglers sneak their way in, and Val and Rio Durant both end up dead, in a pair of moments that contain absolutely no emotional resonance, and inform nothing of the film to come. They're just clearing the decks to allow Han, Chewy, and Tobias Beckett to form a little family cluster as they come up with a desperate plan to find a new haul of hyperfuel before well-connected sociopathic gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) kills them. This involves Han reconnecting with Qi'ra, who is now Dryden's concubine, and has been sent to make sure that the smugglers don't fuck up; it also involves Han meeting, for the first time, dashing raconteur and interplanetary gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), owner of the good ship Millennium Falcon, and his woke droid navigator L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridgew) The suicidal plan involves making the Kessel Run, a jaunt in and out through a space hurricane, which has never been done in fewer than 20 parsecs. Fans of the nonsensical dialogue in the 1977 Star Wars undoubtedly know what that means.

There's intrinsically no reason to care about any of these characters, and extrinsically, it's only because we know that Han and Lando will be interesting later on (Lando, in particular, is a non-entity in the plot; Glover's excellent Billy Dee Williams impersonation is enough to make him fun to watch, but he never actually does anything). The cast gives their all to making it pleasant, and mostly succeeds - Clarke is dreadful, and given her characters' importance in the grand scheme of the plot, that's a pretty significant setback. But mostly, this is all burdened down with the Kasdans' heavy, overplotted script, which takes all of this much too seriously for what presents itself as a snappy summer heist movie In Space! It's easy to guess what parts of the film its original directors, Phil Lord & Chris Miller, were trying to sabotage from within, and easy to see why producer Kathleen Kennedy replaced them; it's unfortunate as hell that their replacement was Ron Howard, by all accounts a decent guy and hard worker whose anti-personality as a filmmaker (as well as his curious, ongoing problem with exaggerating the disjointed flow of episodic plots) hamper a film that needs a lot of sparkle and charm to overcome how goddamn bloated it is: the 139-minute Solo is the second-longest of the Disney Star Wars films, and it doesn't use that running time wisely, nor is it remotely as "fun" as it supposes itself to be. The action scenes are mostly a shambles, with editor Pietro Scalia dropping the ball entirely (the battle scene that inaugurates the "three years later" sequence is especially awful; I gave up trying to figure out where we were in space after about 20 seconds). The one exception is the train heist, the solitary moment where the film is up to something special and spectacular, remembering that the beauty of space opera is its capacity for creating ludicrous technologies that are more dazzling than coherent, and here, almost uniquely in the film, the overclocked editing is exciting, rather than confusing. The film also looks just terrible, with the ordinarily-great Bradford Young leaving everything murky and underlit, like he smeared his lenses with Vaseline and mud before shooting, and also put heavy filters on the key lights. It's not merely the worst-looking Star Wars film, it's one of the worst-looking big-budget movies I can remember seeing, and for no discernible reason. It contributes substantially to the thick, heavy feeling that perpetually threatens to do the film in.

Anyway, that's a lot of complaining; there's a lot to complain about. Solo is a pretty bland, unexciting experience - I thought two years ago that this was the film where Disney's wildly over-ambitious plan to milk the Star Wars franchise for all it was worth was going to finally kill the cow, and I was entirely right - though it manages to redeem itself, barely in two ways. One I've mentioned: the cast is darling and fun, with Ehrenreich and Glover in particular committed to the idea that this is a bubbly swashbuckler and not lead-footed fanservice trying and failing to set-up a more epic tale. And Harrelson plays the anti-Alec Guinness with a fine sardonic contemporary feel that well suits a character named Tobias Beckett.

The other thing is design: the film is wildly creative, and the world-building deserves much more than the shabby cinematography and snoozy directing that it receives. Neil Lamont's production design includes several wonderful interior and exterior spaces, including that wonderful train, spinning its way along giant mountains, and the lush, but vaguely disturbing and alien inside of Dryden Vos's ship, to name just the two most obvious. Corellia also looks pretty wonderful, sort of like late-Victorian London reconceived for science fiction. Even better: the creature designs are fabulous. I'm not sure that I picked up which member of the crew was resonsible for designing Solo's bestiary, but it is easily this franchise's best collection of aliens since the extremely high bar set in 1983 by Return of the Jedi, aided and abetted by some terrific alien costumes by David Crossman and Glyn Dillon. That might not sound like much in the face of such a drab story, but this is space opera, and having a vividly-designed, well-populated universe is half the battle. It's the only half that Solo comes anywhere close to winning.

Reviews in this series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
The Star Wars Holiday Special (Binder, 1978)
The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)
The Ewok Adventure (Korty, 1984)
Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (Wheat & Wheat, 1985)
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (Lucas, 1999)
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (Lucas, 2002)
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (Lucas, 2005)
Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Filoni, 2008)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards, 2016)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Howard, 2018)