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The “Star Wars Expanded Universe” – Lucasfilm’s stockpile of officially licensed books, comics, video games, television series, spin-off films, and other media created outside of the official canon – began with the 1978 novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. Written by Alan Dean Foster, the direct sequel to George Lucas’s original 1977 film drew inspiration from early drafts of the script. In 1979, author Brian Daley expanded the universe further with Han Solo at Stars’ End, the first in a trilogy of Solo-centric adventures (which would later be turned into comic books). For over 35 years, the EU gave Star Wars fans what they wanted most – more Star Wars – even if the stories and character developments weren’t considered canon by the creator.
After the historic sale of Lucasfilm to Disney back in 2014, Lucasfilm announced that in preparation for the upcoming sequel trilogy, the Expanded Universe would be retconned; past stories would be reprinted under the Star Wars Legends banner, while a new continuity was established that consisted only of the films, animated series, and all future material from that point onward. As a result, many of the elements from the EU were recycled into story elements for the new films and TV series. The idea of Luke rebuilding the Jedi Order, or Han and Leia having a son who falls to the dark side, are both directly from Expanded Universe stories. The Kaiburr crystal, an ancient relic first introduced in Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, would eventually become canon in The Clone Wars show before making its film debut in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Enter Solo: A Star Wars Story, which explores the origins of the galaxy’s most notorious smuggler and scoundrel, Han Solo. But it’s more than just an origin story; screenwriters Lawrence and Jon Kasdan wrote a love letter to all of Star Wars. Like Rogue One, Solo serves as connective tissue between the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy, with some subtle nods to the Sequel Trilogy. There are references to the saga films, along with Expanded Universe deep cuts, and some surprising links to the fan-favorite series The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels. This is the Star Wars movie I’ve wanted to see since I was a kid, devouring books like Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina and The Han Solo Adventures.
When we first meet Han (Alden Ehrenreich from Hail, Caesar! and Beautiful Creatures), he’s a reckless young street thief on the industrial planet of Corellia. Working for a gang headed by Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt), Han and his street-smart girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and Me Before You) are trying to scrape together enough credits to buy a ship and escape the sewer for good, but the dreams of street urchins rarely come true. Instead, Han is forced to join the Empire. After getting kicked out of the Imperial Flight Academy for having a mind of his own, Han is shipped off to muddy Mimban — a planet first introduced in Splinter of the Mind’s Eye — to serve in the infantry.
There he meets Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), and the four-armed alien Rio Durant (voiced by John Favreau), a team of undercover thieves in the midst of a heist on the marshy planet. Deserting a cause he never believed in, Han joins Beckett’s ragtag pirate crew, but not before freeing the mighty Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), a Wookiee enslaved by the Empire on Mimban, from his chains. Together, they head off to meet Beckett’s boss, the notorious cutthroat Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Aboard the crime lord’s star yacht, Han is reunited with Qi’ra, now Vos’s lieutenant, and picks up another job – one that will bring Han into contact with the smooth, sophisticated Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his faster-than-fast ship, the Millennium Falcon.
It was always going to be tough to have a fresh-faced actor step into the iconic role Harrison Ford inhabited for nearly 40 years, but Ehrenreich does a great job of capturing the spirit and the swagger of the character. Of course, it doesn’t hurt having Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens, and his son, Jon – a hardcore Star Wars geek – guiding the story and shaping the character in ways that are both organic and unexpected. Thankfully Ehrenreich doesn’t provide a one-note impersonation of Ford. Instead, he gives the cocksure space scoundrel added dimension and makes him something of an underdog. By the end of the film, you see how and why the young Solo’s earnestness and optimism are replaced with cynicism and sarcasm.
The rest of the cast assembled here is equally impressive. After portraying Han’s hairy co-pilot in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, Suotamo gets his first legit leading role as Chewbacca, whose relationship with Han is at the forefront of the story here. Their chemistry together is palpable, and it’s just delightful to see Chewie in action, doing things we’ve never seen the 200-year-old Wookiee do before. Donald Glover, of FX’s Atlanta, disappears entirely into the role of Lando Calrissian and channels Billy Dee Williams’ charm effortlessly. Chemistry is a big reason why this movie works as well as it does, and Glover’s got it in spades with both Ehrenreich and Phoebe Waller-Bridge‘s self-made droid, L3-37, who serves as his navigator.
While on the subject of performances, Harrelson is excellent as the aging outlaw whose misfortunes have made him a cold and calculating mercenary, but also something of a mentor and father figure to Han. I was also pleasantly surprised by what Emilia Clarke brought to Qi’ra. Without getting too spoilery, Howard and the Kasdans introduce various female characters with differing motivations who remain true to themselves in even the gravest of circumstances. Every character is given a chance to shine and leaves their mark – even supporting characters with limited screen time are able to connect with the audience in meaningful ways.
As for the craft, director Ron Howard certainly knows how to make a Star Wars movie, even though it technically is his first time. When it was reported that the original directors, Phil Lord & Chris Miller (of The LEGO Movie, 21/22 Jump Street) were fired from the project after four-and-a-half months of filming, I was skeptical about the prospect of a new director stepping into the troubled production and delivering something worthy of the iconic Star Wars name. Thankfully, I was wrong. Howard and cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, Arrival) have created a wholly unique film that feels like classic Star Wars while expanding on the visual language of the series in spectacular fashion. There are some pretty incredible action set pieces as well, like the conveyex train heist on Vandor, where Stormtroopers in magnetized boots pursue our heroes atop a high-speed train as it winds through treacherous snow-covered mountain passes.
For me, this is one of the best looking Star Wars movies yet, thanks in large part to production designer Neil Lamont, creature and special makeup effects creative supervisor Neal Scanlan, costume designers David Crossman and Glyn Dillon, and all the conceptual artists and designers who poured every ounce of their creativity into breathing life into this far-out universe. The result is a fast-paced and effervescent adventure; a breath of fresh air that gets me excited to see what other stories there are to tell in this corner of the universe. In fact, I want to see Howard, Young, and the Kasdans turn this standalone movie into a trilogy, because there’s no shortage of adventures Han, Chewie, and Lando could go on.
I loved Solo: A Star Wars Story. Depending on your level of fandom, your mileage may vary. It isn’t perfect by any means – I found John Powell‘s score lacking in comparison to the recent output of John Williams and Michael Giacchino – but any minor quibbles I have are conquered by the film’s infectious enthusiasm. I suspect that casual Star Wars fans – those that watch and enjoy the movies but don’t invest time into the ancillary storytelling – will be confused or overwhelmed by the sheer amount of fan service being thrown at the screen. But for those of you who, like me, love this universe and want to spend more time in it, you will be handsomely rewarded with an unabashedly fun movie that exists only to delight its devotees.
Adam’s Rating: 4 out of 5
Follow Adam on Twitter – @AdamFrazier
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