Star Wars fans were concerned but eager to see a new movie that picked up where the original trilogy ended and were justly rewarded. The second film in the new trilogy was polarizing to say the least, so the mood going into the third film is tenuous at best. When Lucasfilm and Disney announced they would start producing spin-off movies set in the same universe but not related to the ongoing storyline, fans again were worried that the studios were going to dilute or “ruin” the films they already loved. And then Rogue One: A Star Wars Story came along and surprised everyone. It was a stand-alone film but it actually bridged Episode III and the original Star Wars (and to this day I still refuse to call it “Episode IV”).

But more worry set in when the studios announced those spin-offs would likely focus on beloved characters in the franchise in their younger years. They have promised us a young Obi-Wan Kenobi movie, but they’ve kicked off this new series of “A Star Wars Story” films with a young Han Solo movie, one of the most loved characters of the franchise. That is a big, bold, risky move that could go terribly wrong very easily if things aren’t just right … and it nearly did before the original directors were fired and replaced with the reliable Ron Howard.

The plot of Solo: A Star Wars Story finds our hero Han (Alden Ehrenreich, and the movie actually tells us something interesting about Han’s last name) on Corellia, a guy looking for a big heist so he can get himself and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) off the planet and somewhere the Empire doesn’t control. It’s easier said than done and while Han manages to slip past security to a transport, Qi’ra is captured. From that point on, Han is focused on making enough money to get himself back to Corellia to find Qi’ra by any means necessary, even including joining the Empire as a pilot, something at which he never succeeds. But he does meet Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton), a couple of soldiers of fortune, and pretty much forces his way into their little group which is about to steal a train car full of highly explosive – and desired – hyperfuel. It’s a get rich quick scheme and Han sees that as his ticket home. (It should be noted that we also learn how Han and Chewbacca meet and become the best of friends.)

Of course nothing goes as planned and Han becomes entangled with various forces including Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) and Lando Calirissian (Donald Glover). And there’s another surprise as well – he finds Qi’ra now in some kind of relationship with Vos, but he’s never really sure where he loyalties lie. Working with Beckett to pay back a debt to Vos, the pair travel with Qi’ra to get a ship, the fastest one they can find, to transport more fuel, and that’s where Lando – and the Millennium Falcon – comes in. But can they pull all the pieces together before time runs out, and one too many double-crosses puts our hero in mortal peril?

I had zero expectations going in to Solo: A Star Wars Story. Nothing in any of the previews wowed me or made me feel like I had to see this movie. But … perhaps this is a movie that just doesn’t play well in bits and pieces because as a whole it’s absolutely wonderful. Ron Howard, who worked under the direction of George Lucas in 1973’s American Graffiti, has certainly learned a thing or two during his own directorial career, and he somehow manages to completely capture the spirit of what Lucas brought to Star Wars in 1977. The movie just looks and feels right, like it really does take place ten years before we ever met Han Solo, and Chewbacca, for the first time. My only complaint is a scene that relies too heavily on the asteroid scene in The Empire Strikes Back right down to a few bars of the great John Williams music he composed for the original scene. I suppose, as with some other moments in the film, it is meant to telegraph that scene, and perhaps a viewing of Empire is in order to see if there is indeed a thread that ties the two together, but at face value it just comes off as a bit of a copycat.

Besides the feel of the movie, it really lives or dies on whoever is cast in the role of Han Solo. I was surprised when I heard Alden Ehrenreich was the guy but I was also intrigued. I only knew him from Beautiful Creatures and a wonderful performance in Hail, Caesar!, so I wasn’t sure how he’d do, especially since he really looks (or sounds) nothing like Harrison Ford. But you know what – he pulls it off magnificently, perfectly embodying the spirit and the character of Han Solo without doing an impression of Harrison Ford. It’s a very tricky thing to take on a role like this, one that is so ingrained in pop culture, but Ehrenreich pulls it off brilliantly. After a few minutes, you drop the comparisons to Ford and get involved with the character. Much praise to Ehrenreich for making this work.

Besides Ehrenreich, the movie has one of the finest casts of any Star Wars movie. Harrelson, Newton, Clarke and Bettany do wonderful work bringing all of these new character to life, and they’re not all simple “what you see is what you get” characters. Most of them have many different layers that are peeled back as the story progresses, so there’s always something working below the surface of what we see that ends up surprising us. Glover is also wonderful at bringing a younger Lando Calrissian to life, also bringing new depth to the charatcter including his obsessive love of capes (and he’s apparently been outed as polyamorous). He’s as much of a scoundrel as Solo, but he has a heart too which is painfully displayed during one of the movie’s more heart-wrenching moments. But when all is said and done, Chewbacca practically steals the movie. Joonas Suotamo steps into the furry costume that’s been occupied by Peter Mayhew since 1977, and he’s perfection. The mannerisms, the head tilts, he’s got it all down pat.

Ron Howard and company have truly done a magnificent job bringing this story to life, and the more I think about it, the more I like it. And there is a major bombshell right at the film’s conclusion that will have the real die-hard fans’ heads spinning. I can’t recommend the movie enough, and I can’t wait to see the further adventures of young Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Lando.

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