“Apollo 13” director Ron Howard’s “Solo, A Star Wars Story” (* OUT OF ****) qualifies as an exercise in trivial pursuit rather than a sensational space odyssey in the thriving “Star Wars” franchise. Unfortunately, this frivolous, uninspired potboiler pales by comparison with the best: “Rogue One.” Mind you, “The Force Awakens” featured captivating characters with far more impressive pyrotechnics than “Solo.” Happily, the second “Star Wars Story” is neither as bombastic nor as pretentious as the execrable “Last Jedi.” Unfortunately, “Solo” suffers from the problems afflicting prequels. Since we know none of the franchise leads–Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian–can die, the filmmakers generate only half as much suspense. The ill-fated characters that perish exert little impact in the greater context of events. Apart from prequel-itis, “Empire Strikes Back” scenarist Lawrence Kasdan and son Jonathan squander more time on penny-ante trivia about the eponymous character instead of fashioning a genuine, white-knuckled, escapade that might have propelled the franchise to greater heights. A mediocre B-movie, “Solo” is a routine crime thriller set among the stars. The best scene involves an elaborate but nerve-racking, roller-coaster train heist on a prodigious mountainside. Everything else seems superficial. At least one scene resembled the dudgeon scene in “Return of the Jedi.” The aerial combat scenes with the Tie Fighters attacking the Falcon conjure up fewer thrills than the initial standoff in the original “Star Wars.” Han’s adversaries project minimal menace. They fold like accordions in our hero’s hands. Worse, they don’t die spectacular deaths. You’ll neither find a diabolical Darth Vader nor an arrogant Orson Krennic lurking in the background. A campy gargantuan octopus in outer space with teeth makes the depiction of the Kessel Run appear ludicrous rather than legendary.
Basically, “Solo, A Star Wars Story” amounts to a laundry list of trivia serving as dots to connect the humdrum plot. Evidently, the people at Lucasfilm, Walt Disney Features, Imagine Entertainment, and Allison Shearmur Productions thought that depriving the title character of any shred of mystery would be indispensable for “Star Wars” aficionados. Why the Kasdans couldn’t have made Han Solo into a livelier fellow still eludes me. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” never really gets under Han’s skin, and the script seems intent on filling in the blanks of the Harrison Ford character as reincarnated by a different actor. Han Solo’s younger version (Alden Ehrenreich of “Heil, Caesar”) bears little resemblance to his lanky predecessor. Appropriately, he is an optimistic soul who hasn’t attained the wisdom that years of hardship would later impart. Strutting about like Billy the Kid, Ehrenreich smiles too often to be taken seriously. Of course, everybody is bound to appreciate the irony when he utters the line: “I’ve got a good feeling about this.” If the film establishes anything, it is Han’s naivety. He spends the entire movie fooling himself that he isn’t the good guy, even when his passing love interest observes that he is a good guy. Arguably, the most controversial aspect that “Star Wars” purists will clamor about concerns Han’s precipitous action in the final showdown with Beckett. For years, Lucas waffled about Han’s clash with Greedo in the Mos Eisley Cantina. After altering it for the 1997 Special Edition re-release of “Star Wars,” Lucas turned around and changed it again no less than twice. This minutia is the single thing that distinguishes this otherwise the somnolent saga.
Nevertheless, the filmmakers address a number of questions any “Star Wars” fan would love to know. Indeed, we learn how Han acquired not only his surname, but also won the Millennium Falcon while gambling with duplicitous Lando Calrissian during a game of Sabacc. Furthermore, we learn the circumstances of Han’s chance encounter in a prison cell with Chewbacca. While most of the film sticks to the original details that have been part and parcel of the “Star Wars” film franchise as well as the Extended Universe of the “Star Wars” spin-off novels, Howard and the Kasdans have altered those circumstances for dramatic purposes. Originally, Han had been an Empire officer who had intervened on behalf of Chewbacca while a fellow Empire officer was torturing the Wookie. In “Solo,” the two are thrown together unceremoniously as prisoners in an oubliette, a prison that can only be accessed by a trapdoor in the ceiling. Nowhere in the film do the filmmakers account for Han’s ability to converse with Chewbacca in the Wookie’s own language. An important character, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson of “Natural Born Killers”), exists as a mentor who recruits Han into the big league of crime. Beckett furnishes Han with his distinctive firearm, a blaster pistol with a scope on it. A career criminal who refuses to trust anybody, Beckett wields probably the greatest influence over our protagonist. Earlier, we were told about the oppressive “Oliver Twist” like conditions that governed his formative years as a juvenile delinquent on the shipbuilding planet Corellia. Later, the details of the Kessel Run are fleshed out, but the schlocky space octopus sabotages any thrills. Remember, you cannot have suspense when you already know the outcome.
Apart from a tremendous train heist, “Solo” delivers little nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat, tension despite its lavish $250-million budget. When you consider how long “Star Wars” fans have awaited such an opportunity, it is hopelessly disheartening to have a film that winds up being such a superficial, sophomoric saga. The problems that Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy encountered after she fired original co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of “The Lego Movie,” replacing them with Oscar winning helmer Ron Howard, who restaged three-quarters of the movie, undoubtedly must have exacted a dire toll on the film. Moreover, “Solo” amounts to the least picturesque entry in the franchise with some of the drabbest cinematography. Entire scenes have been photographed in sepia, so that faces, costumes, uniforms, and technology appear washed out against shimmering white backgrounds. Indisputably, “Solo, A Star Wars Story,” lacks the force that made the classic “Star Wars” adventures entertaining.