Han Solo was never one for backstory. That’s why the pilot enjoys perhaps the most fuss-free introduction of the entire Star Wars saga. “Han Solo,” a cool-in-every-way Harrison Ford says in 1977’s Star Wars. “I’m captain of the Millennium Falcon.” Over the years, a few more Mynock-sized details emerged about Han’s life—his debts, his bounty hunter run-ins, his let-the-ships-fall-where-they-may gambling victories—but the character’s past wasn’t so much shadowy as it was overshadowed. Han Solo as viewers met him was already a wonderfully cocksure concotion, equal parts aloof and goofy, a guy defined by both his losing streaks and his last-minute loyalties. Who really cares how he got that way?
Solo, the fifth big-screen Star Wars prequel in less than 20 years and the second so-called “anthology” title of the Disney-era system, attempts to answer that question, as well as several other low-priority queries that never needed a firm resolution. For decades, a head-scratcher like, “Just what is the Kessel Run, anyway?” was best left for the fans to suss out, whether via late-night sleepover debates or pizza-fueled role-playing adventures. That was one of the pleasant aftershocks of the original trilogy: There were so many Lando-rando references, so many gaps to fill in, that moviegoers could use the force of their imaginations to try make sense of them all. And when they did, sometimes they amazed even themselves.
But in 2018, the battle of imagination vs. monetization has a clear victor: Disney, which won the Star Wars rights for $4 billion in a game of corporate Sabacc, won’t rest until every aspect of its asset has been maximized. (We’re only a few years away from Just B., a guided-mindfulness podcast hosted by Salacious B. Crumb). Disney’s galaxy-domineering determination is the only way to explain the existence of Solo, which follows twentysomething Han as he meets Chewbacca, takes his first spin on the Falcon, and even ventures upon the famed Kessel Run.
There are few, if any, revelations here, and some of the fleshed-out backstory is woefully dumb. As an expansion of the Star Wars saga, Solo is absolutely inessential. But as a movie, it’s often surprisingly delightful, an unceasing galaxy-hop with some legitimately wizard action sequences, a few nifty beasties, and the now-required wisecracking droid. It’s more Star Tours than Star Wars. But hey, Star Tours is pretty fun—even if, like Solo, it dissipates from your memory quicker than Tibanna gas.
Written by long-time Star Wars steerer Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan, and directed by Ron Howard—who took over after 21 Jump Street’s Phil Lord and Chris Miller parted ways with the production—Solo moves at a hyperdrive pace from the very first shot. The film opens with born-to-run urgency (and some truly ding-dongy exposition) on Corellia, a dingy industrial planet lousy with Imperial troopers, which is why Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke) are so desperate to flee.
After they’re separated mid-escape, a desperate Han enlists with the Empire, because he’s going to be a pilot. (You know this because he says “I’m going to be a pilot” multiple times.) When his plan doesn’t work out, Han finds himself on the lam, veering not so much from planet to planet as he does from one movie reference to the next: A chaotic, deep-trenched battlefield that recalls Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory; a wintry, off-the-rails space-train heist with serious shades of Runaway Train; and a remote desert standoff, complete with sand-fluttering flags and quietly noble villagers, that could have appeared in any of the Mad Max films. It’s a half-dozen better-movie motifs smuggled into a single 135-minute adventure.
Han’s early exploits find him accompanied by his new pal Chewbacca, who’s depicted here as more vengeful than lovable, irked by the Empire’s treatment of his Wookiee kin. The duo hookiee up with a crew of thieves led by a pragmatic rogue named Beckett (Woody Harrelson), with help from Thandie Newton’s stalwart Val, as well as a four-armed, warm-hearted, chimp-like pilot named Rio (he knows he’s something special). Their mission: To steal a very expensive material named Coaxium, which can fuel starships. Or maybe make TV cables?
It doesn’t really matter. Such details are genuinely unimportant in Solo, which is partly why the movie feels so relaxed. When the Death Star first appeared in 1977’s Star Wars, it was a technological terror whose planet-pulverizing powers felt deeply impactful. But Death Stars are everywhere now—from Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens to the airborne planet in Avengers: Age of Ultron—turning a once-formidable menace into a lazy stakes-inflation device. Solo has no such weighty concerns: It’s a pleasant-enough shaggy-dog story with a Wookiee in the mix, following a team of outlaws as they try to get their hands on a bunch of overlit tubes.
Solo’s breezy feeling is aided by its performances. Ehrenreich, so much fun as the loopy lasso-swinger in Hail, Caesar!, plays Han with a (literal) wink and a softy touch. Genuinely in love with Q’ira, and (eventually) idealistic, he’s far from the cranky, Force-bashing outcast he’ll become in later films (still, middle-age malaise hits everyone eventually, and Han’s sincerity in Solo is ripe for curdling in the inevitable Solo 2). Donald Glover, taking over the role of Lando Calrissian from Billy Dee Williams, is smoother than a silk-spun Bespin cape, and possibly in love with his headstrong copilot droid, L3-37, voiced by Fleabag creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It’s L3-37 who initiates one of Solo‘s most wonderfully, giddily disposable moments: Obsessed with liberating her fellow droids, she frees several of them during a daring raid, prompting them to stomp and beep in a manic, Gremlins-like spree of glee.
Does that kind of scene enrich the Star Wars canon? Probably not. But the humor in Solo is a welcome response to the flat despair of Rogue One, and the canon is kind of overstuffed as it is. And while it’s tempting to assume the sillier Solo moments are due to Lord and Miller, it’s worth noting that Howard—who’s jumped genres more than Ridley Scott—began his career with comedies like Night Shift and Splash. How much of this movie is Frankensteined between their two visions is impossible to know. But the very fact that Solo doesn’t feel too overly Frankensteined, nor too overly reverent to the Star Wars mythos, should be fan-satisfying enough.
There are, of course, countless nods to the early films—including a surprise appearance that will likely leave some wondering whether Disney has some even deeper ambitions for the saga than they’ve revealed. Most likely, they’re making it up as they go along, Han-style, which is what yields the occasional oddball entry like Solo. It’s a minor movie in every way possible, but with enough spry humor and genuine good intent to justify taking one of the most loved movie characters of all time out of deep-freeze. Solo might not feel like much. But it’s got it where it counts, kid.