It's nice to once again see a Star Wars movie from somebody who actually seems to get Star Wars. Granted, that's a subjective take in a world where Star Wars has grown to mean many possible things, but Solo: A Star Wars Story feels like it could easily have fit in, tonally, to a world in which only the original trilogy existed. Not counting all the easter egg references to other Star Wars things, of course...look, the point is Lawrence Kasdan and Jonathan Kasdan's dialogue sounds like the classic characters talking, and Ron Howard's direction evinces the knowledge of hot rod culture and adventure serials that George Lucas had back in the day. Though I've come to appreciate Rogue One and The Last Jedi over time for what they are, both brought a "war is hell" aesthetic that had no place in what was always a lighthearted fantasy yarn. Even Star Wars Rebels, just by taking every unused Lucas idea ever and re-gifting it, got closer.
It's easy to criticize Solo for its most obligatory beats: here he is getting his blaster! Here he is deciding to nickname Chewbacca "Chewie"! The Millennium Falcon looks different, but here's what he does to make it look the way it did years later! But that's a bit like criticizing a Star Wars movie for having a lightsaber battle (this one doesn't, incidentally)--a band has to play the hits, but it's how well you do them that counts. And even played by a different actor, Han remains one of the most relatable characters in this universe. No longer struggling merely with the binary choice of self-interest versus greater good, this Han is a guy who has perhaps only temporarily escaped a hellish past with no clear idea of what to do next, except to somehow make his way in the world, accrue a small fortune, and fly back home to save the women he had to leave behind. And I hate to say it, y'all, but said woman, Emilia Clarke's Qi'ra (an unused early name for Rey was Kira, incidentally), is a better match than Leia ever was. The biggest bummer of an otherwise fun adventure is that because this is a prequel, you know they can't end up together. And you just know their hypothetical kid would totally NOT have shish kebabed dear ol' dad decades afterward.
Failing rather quickly at his aborted attempt to join the Empire, Han frees Chewbacca from captivity and hooks up with Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a more out-of-shape space version of Danny Ocean with a crew that does heists, and a pressing need for the kind of muscle only a Wookiee can provide. (Let us briefly take a moment to acknowledge that Chewbacca is more genuinely useful in this movie than any other. Okay. Done.) When their first job doesn't go as planned, Beckett and crew find themselves on the hook for the obligatory One Last Job that will both net them a big score and avoid certain death at the hands of Beckett's contractee, Paul Bettany's scarred and decadent crime lord Dryden Vos. Circumstances and necessary plot contrivance bring Qi'ra back into the picture and along for the job right about this time too. And they're gonna need a fast ship to, y'know, make a run to Kessel.
If this sounds like a heist movie, it only sort-of is. This isn't a story where one act is planning the heist, one is executing it, and the other is recovering after it goes wrong. In more classic Star Wars fashion, individual heists and scams last about the length of a cliffhanger serial episode, which the next moment resolves before moving on to another one. And in featuring and spotlighting the Star Wars equivalent of Star Trek's dilithium crystals ("coaxium"), the plot gives necessary context to The Last Jedi's fuel shortages (and the stupid gold dice, but you saw that coming).
Donald Glover is getting a lot of early credit for his role as young Lando, but frankly, it's not a role that seems super-challenging for a guy who's already as naturally charismatic as Glover. Alden Ehrenreich as Han has the harder job, not just because Harrison Ford is iconic, but also because River Phoenix has already given a master class in how to play a younger version in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It's been interesting to note that so many reviewers say he's shaky in the beginning but gets better; y'all do know movies are shot out of sequence, right? So most likely it's you getting acclimatized. The kid's got it where it counts, showing plenty of Ford echoes (he does the finger-point A LOT) while still being his own guy -- a guy who's sometimes reminiscent of a younger Leonardo DiCaprio.
Though the movie doesn't begin with the signature text crawl, the alternative manages to evoke as similar nostalgic warm fuzzy, certainly more so than Rogue One. The same can't quite be said of the score by John Powell, as it rarely shuts up and is, to put it mildly, no John Williams soundtrack, though the occasional Williams echoes are pointedly delivered to inject "all the feels" at key moments. And while the movie has a couple of big surprise moments, they also manage to be head-scratchers: is that a thing that can happen at this point is the timeline? Is this person connected to that person, as is implied but never actually said? Like the Dave Filoni animated shows, Solo stuffs many references to older Expanded Universe canon in remix style. I was particularly pleased to hear Lando make reference to his exploits on Oseon and with the Sharu, though less so that his new droid L3 has been retconned into those memories in place of Vuffi Raa. (Another note for the Lando-canon obsessed: there's no indication here that Sabacc cards can change their face value holographically, which is a plot point because such a quirk might preclude easy cheating.)
People may say that the story doesn't work if you don't already know who Han Solo is, but, um...who doesn't know who Han Solo is? That seems a bit like complaining religious movies don't work if you've never heard of this character called Jesus who was in a book entitled The Bible. I might even argue that the Han-Chewbacca first meeting could play better if you'd never heard of these characters before, but there's really no way to know, unless you bring a guest who has somehow never seen a Star Wars movie before but is interested in this particular one.
It's not clear how much time is left in official canon until the Ehrenreich Han becomes the young Ford Han, but if more can be squeezed in, I'm down for more solo Solo adventures. As a notable character in a rival franchise said about the best character in his series, of all the souls I've encountered in the Star Wars universe, his was the most...human. Thank you, Ron Howard, for remembering the way George Lucas used to be, and unfreezing that spirit.