‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ is moderate surprise, makes jump to hyperspace

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

Like a game of Sabacc with a loaded deck of cards, the odds were stacked against “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” The prequel spinoff was saddled with the most publicly troubled production in recent memory, but Ron Howard’s space romp largely sticks the landing — even with stumbling blocks that should have sent the film spiraling to its doom.

For starters, “Star Wars” fans were always wary of a Han Solo spinoff, given the franchise’s considerable history with bungling backstories. But here we are, stuck with a narrative that, for all its behind-the-scenes brouhahas, might have been better served by a comic book.

Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and the ever-faithful Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) are taken under the wing of scoundrel Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). To steal a supply of fuel that’s as volatile as it is valuable, they join forces with fellow smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the insurrectionist droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who’s egregiously underused) and Han’s former flame Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke).

Father-son screenwriting duo Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan hasn’t reinvented the hyperdrive, so to speak. “Solo” dutifully ticks off the requisite beats — Han befriends Chewie, becomes captain of the Millennium Falcon and learns to always shoot first along the way. As a franchise mainstay, Lawrence Kasdan imbues the script with a sweet sincerity that keeps “Solo” from feeling like it’s on cruise control.

Case in point: The stars align for Han and Chewie’s meet cute, which proves to be the best scene in the film. Unexpectedly, Han’s origins enrich the character we already know rather than paltrily demystifying the franchise’s favorite rogue.

Of course, “Solo” hinges on Ehrenreich’s ability to invoke Harrison Ford’s iconic portrayal. Rumors that Ehrenreich required an on-set acting coach surfaced last June, further diminishing any goodwill toward the film. But those fears should be put to rest. Ehrenreich smartly avoids simply doing a Ford impersonation, capably capturing Solo’s cocksure grin on his own.

Then there’s Donald Glover. Is there anything he can’t do? Glover recalled asking original Lando actor Billy Dee Williams for pointers, claiming that Williams responded, “I don’t know, just be charming.” With a disarming cool in his eyes and a cape on his shoulders, Glover is undeniably just that, serving up wholly convincing suaveness.

While the cast of “Solo” is certainly strong with the Force, several ancillary characters are disposed of unceremoniously or prematurely, and some are subjected to both treatments. At these points, the film’s seams start to show.

Original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired by Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy over “creative differences,” and veteran filmmaker Ron Howard was hired to reshoot much of “Solo” — up to 70 percent of it, according to the Wall Street Journal. Through characters and subplots that prove themselves expendable, it becomes obvious where Howard’s film begins and where Lord and Miller’s material ends.

A common complaint regarding Howard’s appointment was the relative blandness of the choice, but Howard, whose main qualification was his steady hand, was never the main draw behind the camera — that would be cinematographer Bradford Young.

Young’s signature close-ups lend Han Solo’s origins the intimacy they demand, while ultrawide portraits of natural landscapes elegantly reference the Western genre. His preference for natural light drenches certain scenes with shadows that evoke the worn-out shabbiness of the “Star Wars” aesthetic in ways never before seen by the franchise. Yet it’s a shame that Young’s talents — previously seen in “Arrival” and “Selma” — wind up in a film that’s mostly notable for its threadbare cohesion.

“Solo” doesn’t achieve the genius idiosyncrasies of “The Last Jedi,” nor does it succumb to the ephemerally diverting spectacle of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” Instead, the film narrowly averts disaster, circumventing competence to gesture toward greatness in sparse moments that flit away far too soon. But we shouldn’t be saying that about “Star Wars,” a franchise that endangers itself by settling for anything less than iconic.

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” opens at UA Berkeley 7 on May 24.

Contact Harrison Tunggal at [email protected].