Spare a thought for the screenwriters of ‘origin stories’. Sure, at first glance, it might seem they had it made: an enormous built-in audience, a clearly defined universe steeped in history and pre-existing characters so beloved across multiple generations that all their quirks, mannerisms and catch-phrases are already fully fleshed-out. All they'd have to do, you’d think, is join up a few narrative dots, tick some iconic-scene boxes and cue that memorable theme song. But what about tension? How do you place your heroes in deadly peril when the audience already knows they survive? How do make a character’s emotional growth even remotely interesting when the audience already knows who they become? And what possible story can you tell when the audience already knows how it ends?
The solution is ‘recalibration', shifting the audience’s experience from one of wonder and surprise to anticipation. Much like a ‘based on real events’ movie, instead of telling a ‘What Story’ (What happens? Then what happens? Then what happens after that?), origin films tell the how, the why and the when of their leading figures’ early lives. Back in 1995 director Ron Howard masterfully applied that technique to create the excruciatingly tense final moments of Apollo 13, and here now in Solo: A Star Wars Story he again shows how waiting for something to happen can be just as exhilarating as wondering what it might be. This is a movie of ‘firsts’; the first time Han acquires his surname, the first time he sets foot on the Millennium Falcon and, most importantly, the first time he encounters his soon-to-be lifelong friend and ally Chewie. It's entirely accessible for newcomers, and an even bigger treat for the fans.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is the second of the so-called Star Wars Spin-offs, and - like Rogue One - takes place somewhere in between the timelines of the larger, better known chapters (in this case, after Episode III but before IV). It is 'an age of lawlessness', the opening tells us, and nowhere is that more prevalent than the distant planet of Corellia where the long arm of the Empire is less feared than the gangs that lurk in its shadows. It's here that we meet the young Han (Alden Erenreich), a wannabe pilot forced to boost speeders and run errands for a slug-like criminal matriarch and her cronies. Han and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) have dreams of escaping to explore the universe, but when the plan falls apart and leaves Han the sole escapee, he reluctantly joins the Empire to secure his way off planet, vowing to return as soon as humanly possible to liberate his great love. Fast forward a few years, though, and Han finds himself stumbling from one calamity to the next, convinced like all good scoundrels and conmen that his next 'score' will be the big one and will set everything right.
The beloved nature of Han Solo owes most of its reverence to Harrison Ford, who played him, and Lawrence Kasdan, the veteran screenwriter who wrote him in both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Here again in Solo the master scribe returns, delivering a story less Star Wars and more small-scale heist movie in the vein of an old school Western (including a galactic version of a 'stagecoach robbery' that's probably the film's best sequence). Solo’s swagger, the gun on his hip and even the iconic outfit fit perfectly with that space cowboy aesthetic, and Erenreich makes the wise call to embody the character rather than impersonate. He doesn’t begin as Solo, but instead neatly and incrementally becomes him over the course of two action-packed hours. On the other end of the scale, Donald Glover’s portrayal of the iconic charmer Lando Calrissian scarcely evolves from line one to last, yet the performance is so note perfect it scarcely matters. Clarke’s contribution is equally nuanced, especially in its latter stages, and there are some fun turns by Thandie Newton, Woody Harrelson and Paul Bettany as the assorted rogues Han encounters along his travels and who help shape his eventual state.
Focussed, fun and faithful to the lore, Solo: A Star Wars Story comfortably shrugs off the production woes that seemed destined to leave it in ruins and instead delivers us a fine and worthy expansion of the wider Star Wars universe. Oh, and if you had any lingering doubts…let it be finally laid to rest: Hans…Shot…First.