Solo: A Star Wars Story ★★★★

You were a Luke Skywalker person or you were a Han Solo person. It was like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones must have been. Luke was Apollonian, it was in the name, celestial, blond, monkish, probably celibate; Han was Dionysian, disreputable, a smart-ass, a ladies’ man, in the swamps with a hairy monster. Han was also the human being, a would-be Bogartian presence among the demigods, aliens and robots, too old to be play-acting with the kids and never fooled by the pompous Jedi mysticism.

The origin story Solo has been very carefully put together for Disney by Ron Howard, who was there when it started (Harrison Ford was Bob Falfa, again too old to be playing with the kids in American Graffiti) and writer Lawrence Kasdan, who was around when it mattered (The Empire Strikes Back). One half of Solo is a war movie with mud and trenches taken from Paths of Glory and a spectacular WWII train heist. The other half overtly joins the back-story dots (the legendary Kessel run, the introduction to space pimp Lando Calrissian). Those who complain that this is predictable should remember what happened in the 1990s and early 2000s when the Star Wars series became unpredictable. Star Wars is now an impossibly fraught business: the cultish possessiveness of the fans, the growing pressures of the box office.

Anyway, there is plenty to like. Alden Ehrenreich as Han gets a sullen arrogance that masks some deeper hurt, all traces of which were missing from Ford’s canonical (what a word to use) version. Ehrenreich’s Han is also better than Ford’s tired resurrection of the character in The Force Awakens, which lends some support to Kasdan’s belief that Han should have been killed off during the original trilogy. That would also tell you that Kasdan probably knows the character better than anyone, even Lucas and Ford. If this film has an author, it’s him.

Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, Paul Bettany and Emilia Clarke nail their supporting roles in different ways. Unlike the prequels, the Disney-era films use good actors well rather than leaving them looking puzzled before green screens. The African scenes (actually the Canary Islands) are a novel twist on familiar desert settings that start to parallel the more earnest story told in Rogue One. In a plot that can seem like a box-ticking exercise, these scenes also had that rare quality: genuine surprise. The film also gives us – and I like this in particular – an impression of ordinary life under the Empire, which is remote, but present. Again, the checkpoint scenes early on could be a French Resistance fighter facing the Gestapo in a classic WWII film. That’s the model.