What’s in a name? For Han Solo, everything and nothing. The skilled pilot and notorious smuggler’s moniker was heretofore unexplained, which makes sense: First and last names rarely require complex exposition, at least not the kind that Han gets in “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” the second spinoff in this ever-inflating franchise (2016′s war-torn “Rogue One” was the first).
“Who are your people?” an Imperial guard asks at customs, surrounded by recruitment propaganda for the evil Empire. “I don’t have people; I’m alone,” Han responds, declining to provide a surname. Can you see where this is heading? The agent eyes Han’s swoopy brown hair and round cheeks, landing on the only logical conclusion: Solo. He’ll be known as Han Solo. Get it?
Disney executives have been touting this reveal since March of last year, back when “21 Jump Street” and “Lego Movie” maestros Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were directing “Solo.” A few months later, the studio replaced Lord and Miller with Ron Howard, citing “different creative visions,” standard PR-speak for “they’re not making the movie we want them to make.” The studio also hired a new editor, cast Paul Bettany as a key villain formerly played by Michael K. Williams (who wasn’t available for the necessary reshoots), and brought in an acting coach to help Alden Ehrenreich, the actor given the demanding task of living up to Harrison Ford’s unmatchable charisma. A lot changed, but one thing never wavered: Han Solo’s name would still receive an impossibly trite backstory. And now it’s canon.
Oh well. The “Star Wars” universe has seen worse ― and, with more standalone entries and new trilogies (plural!) on the horizon, it will probably see worse still. (Like Mr. Solo, Disney is no stranger to being “in it for the money.”) For a film riddled with backstage drama, “Solo” is a fluid, entertaining diversion in a series that has gotten so much right since being resurrected with 2015′s “The Force Awakens.” It’s the first “Star Wars” movie that is, at worst, a waste of time. Thankfully, it’s a harmless waste of time.
Its dexterity should come as no surprise: Ron Howard is nothing if not competent. A journeyman with few stylistic idiosyncrasies, Howard can take us to locales as various and foreign as outer space (“Apollo 13”), the Louvre (“The Da Vinci Code”) and the American Midwest (“Parenthood”) without losing sight of the everyday ingenuity prevailing within his protagonists. (“I don’t have people” is Han’s version of ingenuity.) Working with Bradford Young, the wunderkind of a cinematographer who shot “Selma” and “Arrival,” Howard has crafted a zippy origin story that’s as superfluous to the broader “Star Wars” design as it is captivating to watch.
Setting out to fill a few gaps in the galaxy’s overarching big-screen mythology, this proto-Han saga doesn’t bring the titular nerf herder face-to-face with Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Darth Vader, C-3PO or Greedo. We’re still years away from those fateful meetings. No hokey religions or ancient weapons here. Instead, everything that happens in “Solo” hinges on the dude’s attachment to Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), a childhood comrade who doesn’t make it past the gates of the aforementioned customs bureau, where Han tries to bargain using a tube of coveted hyper-speed fuel known as coaxium. Determined to rescue Qi’ra and escape the mounting Imperial takeover, Han endears himself to Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a crafty scoundrel claiming a mission to steal 100,000 grams of coaxium for silvery British villain Dryden Vos (Bettany).
Each “Star Wars” movie is obliged to reboot the Mos Eisley cantina scene from “A New Hope,” and “Solo” places one of its renditions (yes, there is more than one) in the midst of Vos’ rowdy palace. It’s there that Han finds Qi’ra, who now calls herself Vos’ lieutenant but is better described as his cunning captive. Cue the schemes.
Still with me? Phew. Amid a heap of jargon that father-son screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan (“The Empire Strikes Back”) and Jonathan Kasdan (“In the Land of Women”) successfully mold into comprehensible anchor points, Han picks up a few recognizable faces on his path to secure Vos’ gleaming gasoline. He befriends a Wookiee named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), acquires a piece of junk called the Millennium Falcon from a suave cardsharp swashbuckler named Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, MVP) and pilots the perilous smuggling route referenced in “A New Hope” (called the Kessel Run and allegedly completed in less than 12 parsecs, if you’re keeping pace). That’s all good and well, if you ignore how many newcomers are sidelined so our old friends can fraternize a little longer. Don’t get me started on just how thankless Thandie Newton’s role is.
All together, this outline comprises enough of a plot to almost distract from the fact that “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is an affront to everything Harrison Ford brought to the original movies. Aside from a bomber jacket and the patch of chest hair poking out from his V-neck, Ehrenreich is nothing like Ford. And he’s not really given the chance to be. The script makes Han more of a smug gentleman than a cavalier tomcat. Much of the dry wit and cocky gaze brought to the screen by Ford, who famously hated the dialogue that George Lucas handed him, has been shaved down to asides so peripheral to the characterization that this might as well revolve around a brand-new protagonist. Ford gave the originals an ironic touch, winking at the kiddie-movie proceedings around him. But Ehrenreich is too amiable for that. By the time Han is positioned opposite Vos’ overlord, a known villain from “Star Wars” lore, both the timeline that governs these stories and the hallmarks that define their characters have more or less fallen to the wayside. Still, the events chug along; at least there’s comfort in Chewie’s howl.
What to do, then, with a movie that is so decidedly fine, in a franchise demarcated by the highest of highs and the lowest of lows? Do we celebrate because it’s not a disaster? Cry foul because it’s not über-faithful to one of the series’ greatest figures? Pop streamers because it’s more fun than the bleak, tactical “Rogue One” and more picturesque than the gaudy, bloated prequels? Do we decry the logic gaps and the cheap reveals? (At one point, a soldier removes her helmet with sweeping grandeur, as if the movie were re-introducing a familiar character — one of a few “huh?” moments where the style contradicts the story being told.)
What to do, then, is all of these things. We’re right to demand more originality in today’s blockbusters, but a standalone installment such as this is only capable of providing so much. With that in mind, you want to see the same Han Solo you’ve always known, the one whose gruff charm would soften only slightly after fathering Kylo Ren. You want a fresh story in a familiar world. “Solo,” unconcerned with deepening the good-versus-evil theology that suffuses the sequels, relies on pure momentum, rather than detailed world-building, to map its adventure. In Howard’s hands, that, too, is fine, if not especially inspired.
Such is the fate of a property that has ballooned beyond its foundation. Where last year’s “The Last Jedi,” in its poised and sophisticated way, created fresh ground for the saga by pulling up its Skywalker roots, “Solo” works diligently to plug longstanding narrative holes that were never that vital in the first place. As the central storyline soars ahead, the offshoots are predicated on tertiary details of yore ― Kessel Runs, Death Star blueprints and other one-off blips. Meh.
That “Solo: A Star Wars Story” manages to be entertaining ― the creatures! the capes! Phoebe Waller-Bridge voicing a sassy droid! ― in spite of its hurdles is a testament to Ron Howard’s scrappiness. We never needed to know how Han Solo got his name, but what’s the harm if we do?
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” opens in theaters May 25.