"It is a lawless time," states the scene-setting opening text for the latest Star Wars spin-off Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), and frankly those words couldn't be closer to the truth right now. Yes, if the black and white world of social media is to be believed, this fanbase really is an anarchic environment at the moment. After The Last Jedi, failed to live up to many’s expectations and after countless announcements of further Star Wars projects, people are already arguing furiously about franchise overload.
This latest movie then is put in a bit of a tricky position, as it's also had a troubled production and fans have been sniffy about the whole concept from the start too. It sees Alden Ehrenreich as a young Han Solo finding his feet in the smuggling world and is set during the chaotic period about ten years before the original trilogy where Solo began to become the secretly soft-hearted and intriguing outlaw that we all know and love today. The thing is, we certainly do all know and love him by now, so exploring the origins of one of the most appealing and well-known characters in this universe and arguably in movie history could easily become a somewhat fruitless exercise.
Thankfully though, this film largely flies past those concerns and lands as a charming and entertaining summer adventure flick that explores what seems to be a relatively insignificant corner of the galaxy and one fairly insignificant journey within it, and then has a whole lot of fun along the way.
As such, absent here is the franchise's usual melodrama, mysticism or grandeur, and in that void is a much simpler affair from director Ron Howard that arguably serves as a palette-cleanser after Rian Johnson's heavier, bolder The Last Jedi, thanks to its exceedingly uncomplicated narrative.
We initially find Solo on the grungy ship-building planet of Corellia where he and partner in crime Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) are attempting to escape the clutches of their criminal underworld, and when we meet them again years later they both still appear to be longing for true independence in their separate lives. Han joins a mission with gangster Beckett (Woody Harrelson) sighting a promise for freedom, and whilst that trip simply transpires to the end of the film, it's what the story unlocks that means it's such an enjoyable romp.
For one it means we get to explore lots of interesting corners of the galaxy in much the same way that we did in the brilliant Rogue One, where excellent practical world-building adds real depth to the experience and an underlying darkness comes through from the murky criminal worlds and looming Imperial threats. But crucially it's also a story fairly detached from everything bigger happening around it, so lots of the focus can be put on developing the character of Han himself - this is what the film is really about after all, and it's actually done surprisingly well.
Indeed, not only does Erenreich do a brilliant job bringing the character to life with bags of whit and charisma, but the arc given to him by Empire Strikes Back, writer Lawrence Kasdan and son Jonathan Kasdan is an interesting development as Han has a youthful innocence that he arguably learns to lose as the film goes on. This means it builds on Harrison Ford's version of the character without attempting to emulate or deliberately distance itself from it and gives this film a viable and engaging character study at its centre as a result.
The supporting characters are all thoroughly memorable too - particularly Emilia Clarke's Qi'ra and Woody Harrelson's Beckett, as well as Donald Glover's Lando who may do a little much prequel-esque box-ticking and whose droid may be relentlessly irritating, but whom equally packs more smooth-cool style than you can shake a stick at. Paul Bettany also does a typically stand-out job as the film's main villain which is thoroughly exciting to witness and helps add to the film's slightly darker backdrop.
All in all then, Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) may be a fairly basic adventure story at its core, but it's that very simplicity that allows for the interesting exploration of unusual corners of the Star Wars world, and for the engaging development of a great set of characters.
Star Wars fatigue may well feel like a problem for some then, but when the films are this enjoyable and well-executed, as far as I'm concerned, it's very hard to get tired of this ever-expanding universe. In the words of Woody Harrelson's Beckett, "we're in this life for good," and I'm certainly not complaining about that yet.
Final Score: 8 out of 10.
Solo: A Star Wars Story • In Theaters Now • Runtime 2:15 • Rating PG-13 - Sequences of sci-fi action/violence