Grade: B/B-
Entire family: No (parental discretion advised)
2018, 135 min., Color
Sci-fi/fantasy Adventure
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Amazon link

Whoever came up with the high concept Solo: A Star Wars Story hit upon a guaranteed way to put people in the theaters. According to one audience poll, Han Solo is the fourth most popular character in the franchise—behind Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and that heavy-breathing übervillain, Darth Vader. The problem is that the beloved character was originally played by a beloved actor, and that had to have posed a casting nightmare. How do you replace a charismatic actor like Harrison Ford while also creating a believable backstory involving a younger version of Han Solo?

With great difficulty, it turns out. If Alden Ehrenreich were playing a brand new character, everything would be two thumbs up in the Star Wars universe. He’s engaging enough and, with a little time to get to know him better, would probably evolve into an even more likeable character. The problem is that fans can’t help but compare his portrayal of Solo to Ford’s, and any gaps will be perceived as flaws, not differences of interpretation. This Han isn’t as consistently boyishly and roguishly charming in the self-deprecating, sarcastic manner that made Ford’s character so popular.

That’s the first thing that stands out about the latest Star Wars film. But there are some other things that strike you as well. Ever since Guardians of the Galaxy became a hit with fans, the superhero and sci-fi fantasy world has tried to copy that success with a similar blend of “type” characters (one creature, one ethnic, one big and strong, one humorous, etc.) and a comparable mix of action and comedy. It’s what fans want, apparently, because films like that continue to fly high. There are times when you’re watching Solo that you can’t help but think Guardians of the Galaxy.

Another thing that pops out is the writing. At times it looks and feels a bit too contemporary, or else director Ron Howard (yes, you heard right) went for current vernacular and accessibility over language that would seamlessly link up with previous Star Wars films. Solo and his buddies talked more like Guardians of the Galaxy cast members than characters from pre-Star Wars: A New Hope. That’s curious, since the screenplay was written by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan—the latter who, of course, wrote the screenplay for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. But I guess it just proves how big of an effect Guardians of the Galaxy and films like it have had on the sci-fi/fantasy world.

Fans of Game of Thrones will delight in seeing Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) as the female lead. She had instant charisma on that hit HBO series and has just as much onscreen presence in this film. She just has that extra hard-to-define-or-pinpoint sizzle when she’s in front of the cameras, somehow playing to both the actors in the scene and the audience. It’s the kind of presence we expected from whoever ended up playing Han Solo—though to be fair, Clarke does have the benefit of playing a new character.

Those are the things that stand out. But despite those (unfair?) criticisms, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a rousing, rollicking adventure that has a strong story, expectedly great special effects, and some pretty spectacular action. Along the way, viewers learn how Solo got his name, how he and Clarke’s character, Qi’ra, were lovers separated by circumstance on the planet Corellia before Solo was expelled from Imperial Flight Academy for insubordination. It’s when he meets Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his rogues that Solo starts to become more the character we saw in the other Star Wars movies, and the backstory of how he and a Wookie named Chewbacca become BFFs and how he acquires the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) are the fun aspects of this action story.

Like Episodes IV-VI (the original three films), Solo: A Star Wars Story is suitable for a younger audience because it seems to have been made with the whole family in mind. And for that, I suspect we have Howard to thank. This is new ground for him, and the actor who played Opie Taylor and Richie Cunningham and later directed such films as Splash, Apollo 13, and A Beautiful Mind has acquitted himself well. And with high-def Blu-ray featuring superior sound and visuals, it’s a delight to be back in the Star Wars universe.

Language: Very mild; “crap,” “damn,” “hell” and “ass” are the extent of it, though along with the more contemporary language there’s also more in the way of expletives

Sex: Nothing is shown, though it’s understood that Qi’ra is the property of a crime boss and that she and Solo had been lovers; they kiss, but that’s it; weirder is an implied relationship between a human and a robot

Violence: Lots of shooting and laser cannon blasting but no actual blood and the deaths are mostly mass rather than up-close-and-personal—though we do see an official murdered, a man stabbed, and another shot, and Chewbacca does hold up a pair of arms as if to suggest he ripped them off

Adult situations: There’s drinking but no drunkenness and vague references to drugs that will go over the heads of most youngsters

Takeaway: For a novice to the genre, Howard really did a fine job of directing this, with crisp pacing and a nice juggling of quiet moments, frantic ones, comedy, and urgency; I wouldn’t be surprised if he was asked to direct a Solo sequel