Spare a thought for the screenwriters of origin stories. Sure, at first glance, it might seem like they have it made: an enormous built-in audience, a clearly defined universe steeped in history, and pre-existing characters so beloved across multiple generations that all their quirks, mannerisms and catch-phrases are already fully fleshed-out. All the writers have to do is join up a few narrative dots and cue that memorable theme song. But what about tension? How do you place your heroes in deadly peril when the audience already knows they survive? How do you make a character's emotional growth even remotely interesting when the audience already knows who they become? And what possible story can you tell when the audience already knows how it ends?
The solution is recalibration, shifting the audience experience from one of wonder and surprise to anticipation. Much like a movie based on real events, origin films focus not on what, but on how, why and when. Back in 1995 director Ron Howard masterfully applied that technique to create the tense final moments of Apollo 13. Now, with Solo: A Star Wars Story, he again shows how waiting for something to happen can be just as exhilarating as wondering if it will happen at all. This is a movie of firsts: the first time Han acquires his surname, the first time he sets foot on the Millennium Falcon, and the first time he encounters his lifelong friend and ally Chewbacca. It's entirely accessible for newcomers, and an even bigger treat for fans.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is the second of the Star Wars Spin-offs, and like Rogue One takes place somewhere in between the timelines of the larger, better known chapters (in this case, after Revenge of the Sith but before A New Hope). It is an age of lawlessness, the opening tells us, and nowhere is that more prevalent than the distant planet of Corellia, where the long arm of the Empire is less feared than the gangs that lurk in its shadows. It's here that we meet the young Han (Alden Ehrenreich), a wannabe pilot forced to boost speeders and run errands for a slug-like criminal matriarch and her cronies. Han and his girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) have dreams of escaping to explore the universe. But when their plans fall apart, Han reluctantly joins the Empire to secure his way off planet, vowing to return as soon as humanly possible to liberate his great love. Fast forward a few years, though, and Han finds himself stumbling from one calamity to the next, convinced like all good scoundrels and conmen that his next score will be the big one – the one to set everything right.
The beloved nature of the Han Solo character is largely down to actor Harrison Ford and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan – the latter of whom wrote both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The master scribe returns for Solo, delivering a story that's less galactic opera and more small-scale heist movie in the vein of an old school Western. Solo's swagger, the gun on his hip, and even the iconic outfit all fit perfectly with that space cowboy aesthetic, while Ehrenreich makes the wise call to embody the character rather than impersonate. He doesn't begin as Solo, but instead neatly and incrementally becomes him over the course of two action-packed hours. On the other end of the scale, Donald Glover's portrayal of the iconic charmer Lando Calrissian scarcely evolves from his first line to his last, yet is so note perfect that it scarcely matters. Clarke's contribution is equally nuanced, especially in the film's latter stages. The roster is rounded out by fun turns courtesy of Thandie Newton, Woody Harrelson and Paul Bettany as the assorted rogues Han encounters on his travels.
Focussed, fun and faithful to the lore, Solo: A Star Wars Story comfortably shrugs off the production woes that seemed destined to leave it in ruins and instead delivers us a fine and worthy expansion of the wider Star Wars universe. Oh, and if you had any lingering doubts, let it be finally laid to rest: Han shot first.