Every so often in “Solo: A Star Wars Story” — and the last word of that title is awfully generous — a character will make brief, ominous reference to the inevitable rise of the Empire. While it remains largely off-screen here, that evil galactic monolith is quietly in the ascendant. Alliances are being drawn, key players are shifting into position, and soon it will fall to everyone — even those thieves, mercenaries and other freelance operatives accustomed to working in the shadows — to decide who and what they really stand for.
Except, of course, for Han Solo, who, as played by Alden Ehrenreich in this prequel to the original “Star Wars” trilogy, is still many years away from joining forces with Luke, Leia and the Rebel Alliance, much less inheriting the genial wisecrackery and stiffly smoldering presence of Harrison Ford. One of the few new things we actually learn about this perennial fan favorite in his first headlining vehicle is how he came by his surname, a detail I won’t spoil. (You take your pleasures where you can get them in this movie.) Suffice to say that the word “Solo” underscores Han’s status as a plucky rogue operator, a man with zero political allegiances, someone who cares less about which side wins or loses than about his own survival.
There was every reason to believe, in other words, that a stand-alone “Solo” movie — apologies if that was redundant — might prove to be not just a pleasantly zippy diversion but also a welcome, even meaningful display of independent thinking. The initial hiring of directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the merry comic anarchists behind “The Lego Movie” and “21 Jump Street,” was an auspicious sign. It would be nice to report that, in the ever more sprawling “Star Wars” cinematic universe, this one-off had turned out to be a charming, irreverent outlier, operating by its own rules and risks and thumbing its nose at anyone who objected.
Thumb your nose at the Empire that is Lucasfilm, however, and you might get vaporized, or at the very least be forced to fall in line. As everyone by now knows, Lord and Miller were fired in 2017 (their names remain in an executive-producer capacity) and replaced by Ron Howard, a director who tends to approach even his untroubled productions with a fixer’s stay-out-of-the-way attitude. He and his collaborators (including screenwriters Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan) have cobbled together a high-speed, low-energy intergalactic heist movie, an opportunity to spend too much time with people you don’t care about and too little time with people you do.
We first meet Han on his ugly home planet of Corellia, where he is one of several orphans slaving away for Lady Proxima (picture Oliver Twist’s Fagin crossed with that spaghetti growing mold in your refrigerator). Han and his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), are plotting their escape, but circumstances conspire to separate them. Three years later, Han, a skilled pilot stuck in a far-flung war zone, hasn’t given up his dream of buying his own spaceship and reuniting with Qi’ra.
Before long he will join forces with two wily, cynical mercenaries, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (an underused Thandie Newton), whose relationship with their employer, the ruthless gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), foreshadows Han’s future tussles with Jabba the Hutt. His talent for smooth-talking persistence already fully developed, Han succeeds in joining their mission, which involves the illegal seizure of a large quantity of Coaxium, a powerful, highly explosive substance that serves as both a universal energy source and a kind of high-pressure currency.
That’s quite enough plot, I think, though the filmmakers don’t seem to agree. Compared with 2016’s superior “Star Wars” stand-alone, “Rogue One,” this adventure has little sense of consequence in the grand scheme of things — a potential virtue that the movie tries to bury by piling incident on incident, all rattled off with little sense of flair or modulation.
To their credit, the writers have contrived a few clever twists and reversals as they steer Han from Corellia to wherever he will spend his time waiting for the events of “A New Hope” to kick into gear. There are, of course, some necessary boxes to check off, including a rookie-Wookiee meet-cute with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), who at first seems more apt to eat Han for breakfast than to become his closest comrade and co-pilot on the Millennium Falcon. Speaking of which, fans will look forward to the fateful Sabacc game (or two) between Han and his new friend and fellow pilot, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).
Even these obligatory beats, however, scarcely register amid the movie’s hectic swirl of sloppily cut-together action, as well as a pervasively gritty, downbeat atmosphere that tries hard to seem jaunty and back-to-basics. (There’s even a persistent ’70s vibe to the fashions and hairstyles.) In a rare miscalculation by the brilliant cinematographer Bradford Young, the images are often underlighted to the point of inscrutability; at times the movie’s murky, misty aesthetic made me wonder if Disney had taken the movie’s lighting budget and spent it all on fog machines.
What meager charms remain can be credited mainly to the actors, including Clarke, intriguingly reticent as a love interest and possible femme fatale. Phoebe Waller-Bridge brings some salty line readings to her performance as the droid du jour. The intensely charismatic Glover — though granted far less screen time here than will satisfy fans of “Atlanta,” “Community” and Childish Gambino — leaves you with every assurance that he will someday age into Billy Dee Williams.
The resemblance between Ehrenreich and Ford is more elusive, but also less important than you might suspect. This Han Solo may not scan as an exact younger replica of the character who has taken root in collective pop-cultural imagination, but there’s more to good acting than fitting a physical type. If I may risk sacrilege for the sake of accuracy, Ehrenreich, in just a handful of movies including “Tetro,” “Hail, Caesar!” and “Beautiful Creatures,” has already established himself as a considerably more versatile actor than his veteran predecessor in every way.
Ehrenreich isn’t given much to work with here, but his sly comic reserve and devil-may-care attitude give you reasons to keep watching, well after the story has stopped doing anything of the sort. His performance sharply rebukes the rumors that swarmed the internet a few months earlier, suggesting the actor himself was chiefly responsible for the production’s many woes. Ehrenreich hasn’t failed “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” The truth, I daresay, is exactly the opposite.
‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’
Rating: PG-13, for sequences of sci-fi action and violence
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Playing: Opens May 25 in general release