Some Star Wars aficionados were annoyed by how much The Last Jedi subverted their expectations. Even Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, admitted in interviews that he wasn’t too pleased by the way his character had changed since the 1980s. But no one need worry about Solo: A Star Wars Story upsetting the apple cart, or indeed the landspeeder: it does exactly what you might predict a prequel featuring Harrison Ford’s iconic space-scoundrel would do.

Ticking off a checklist that could have been written by fans, it introduces the twentysomething Han (Alden Ehrenreich); it has his Wookiee pal Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) learning to play holographic chess; it has the flamboyant Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) cheating at cards and swishing his cape; and it has all of them climbing aboard the Millennium Falcon to attempt the legendary feat of astro-piloting which Han mentioned in the first Star Wars film: the Kessel Run.

It’s a lightly comic, family-friendly, action-packed, nigglingly sexist popcorn movie which isn’t the worst Star Wars film, but is the most inessential

This efficient box-ticking is admirable, to a degree. When George Lucas made his three Star Wars prequels, from 1999 to 2005, he managed to garble the continuity so badly that they contradicted the events of the original trilogy. But Solo, written by the father and son team of Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, does a neat job of filling in the gaps in its hero’s back story, and devotees will appreciate every line of dialogue that echoes something they’ve already heard a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. 

They might wish, though, that it had grander ambitions. Perhaps it would have been different if Phil Lord and Christopher Miller had directed Solo, as they were initially hired to do. But, during production, the guys who made The Lego Movie were fired and replaced by the guy who made The Da Vinci Code – and Ron Howard, for all his merits, is not known for his radical film-making. What he has delivered is a Disney-fied, sub-Guardians of the Galaxy adventure: a lightly comic, family-friendly, action-packed, nigglingly sexist popcorn movie which isn’t the worst Star Wars film, but which is the most inessential.

It’s also episodic. To be generous, you could say that the choppy structure is true to the roots of Star Wars as an homage to such cliff-hanging Saturday matinees as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. But instead of having an over-arching plot, Solo has a string of tenuously connected, protracted action set pieces, none of which is too coherent, and most of which are obscured by smoke and steam. 

In between these shoot-em-ups, Han makes a dash from his grey, industrialised home planet, enlists in and then deserts from the Empire’s army, joins a band of robbers, and makes an impressive number of new friends; considering that the film is entitled Solo, it’s remarkable how little time its protagonist spends alone. Although it starts as the lovers-on-the-run tale of Han and his childhood sweetheart Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), it soon makes room for Chewie, Lando, a pistol-twirling mercenary named Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his girlfriend Val (Thandie Newton), a four-armed alien called Rio (voiced by Jon Favreau), and the robotic L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who demands equal rights for her mechanical sisters and brothers. What this line-up lacks is a proper villain, but the entertainingly smarmy gangster who employs the crew to carry out a ‘hyper-fuel’ heist is named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).

It’s difficult to care about anyone in Solo who isn’t Han, Chewie or Lando

Yes, anyone who has studied English and Irish poetry and theatre will be as distracted as I was by the fact that one character is Beckett, another is Dryden, and during one scene they namecheck each other about 20 times. It gets to the point when you’re waiting for a stormtrooper to march in and said, “Sorry, sir, but Milton has just stolen an escape pod, and he’s heading for Tattooine with Yeats and Oscar Wilde!”

Apart from their literary names, the only surprising thing about the film’s characters is how many of them are killed. What’s less surprising is that none of these deaths has much of an impact because we met the characters in question just a few minutes beforehand. For that matter, it’s difficult to care about anyone in Solo who isn’t Han, Chewie or Lando. After all, we know that they don’t crop up in any other Star Wars film. And if Han has forgotten all about them by the time he hooks up with Luke and Leia, then why should we try to remember them?

It’s easier to care about Han, though. Ehrenreich is no Harrison Ford – who is? – and I couldn’t believe that this younger incarnation of the character would ever acquire Ford’s gravelly voice. But he’s a likeably goofy hero with an irresistible grin and an air of boyish decency. Given how irritating Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen were as the younger incarnations of Darth Vader, he could have been much, much worse.

★★★☆☆ 

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