Like “Rogue One” in 2016, “Solo” is subtitled “A Star Wars Story” to distinguish it from the trilogy of trilogies that make up the canon proper (the most recent installment being last year’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”). But it’s also a way for Lucasfilm, Disney, and the other empires involved in this series to hedge their bets. “A Star Wars Story” means it’s not the Star Wars story, so audiences should feel free to lower their guard — to adjust expectations into B-movie territory.
And as a B-movie, “Solo” delivers, sometimes in a way that reminds a viewer of this franchise’s roots in classic Saturday matinee adventure serials and sometimes simply as proficient, dutiful, time-passing entertainment. At best, it’s a backstory, a project designed to scratch a fan’s itch to know more. At worst, it’s backfill. You’ve always wondered how Han Solo came to be Han Solo? No? Well, here you go anyway.
As young Han, Alden Ehrenreich has the swagger, the sarcasm, and the sigh-guy handsomeness; all he lacks is Harrison Ford’s breezy and grounded contempt for the silliness surrounding him. In 1977, Ford owned that role from the very first frame. Ehrenreich is merely — and enjoyably — renting it.
The early scenes are set on what looks like northern New Jersey spun off as its own planet, where Han and his teenage love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) toil as Dickensian thieves for a giant bug-like Fagin voiced by Linda Hunt. From there, “Solo” lets the hero go solo, and it’s a mark of the film’s cavalier approach to connecting the dots that Han says, “I’m going to be the best pilot in the galaxy,” and suddenly, leaping across three years in the Imperial armed forces, he is.
For a few scenes, we’re in an interstellar version of a World War I trench-warfare movie, which at least allows the hero to fall in with a ragtag group of space pirates headed by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton) and to begin his friendship with Chewbacca, played by Joonas Suotamo in the hair suit. Among other conveniently missed opportunities is showing us how or where Han picked up enough Wookiee to converse with his new friend.
“Solo” would rather keep the action coming while continuing to play mix-and-match with Hollywood genres. There’s a fast-moving heist movie/Alistair MacLean runaway-train thriller that takes up an early chunk of the film, and the nods to classic westerns are everywhere. The director is Ron Howard, the Hollywood stalwart who was brought in midway through production to replace Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“The Lego Movie,” “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”); apparently, the duo’s anarchic approach to the Lucasfilm crown jewels rattled the producers’ sensibilities.
If there’s any part of the “Star Wars” saga that could go a little gonzo, though, it’s a Han Solo prequel. Instead, Howard keeps everything running on schedule and moving relentlessly forward; the movie moves, but it very rarely feels truly inspired. (One knock against “Solo” is the grimy brown color schemes of Bradford Young’s cinematography; between this and last year’s “Blade Runner” reboot, the galaxy is working on about a third of the rainbow.)
The movie’s MacGuffin — the thing all the characters want — is a rare and glowing element called Coaxium that is supposed to power ships into hyperspace but that mostly just powers the plot from one double-cross and pitched battle to the next. Among the minor disappointments of “Solo” is its lack of a major villain: Qi’ra reappears by the side of the oily warlord Dryden Vos, whom actor Paul Bettany renders interesting but never outsize. Only toward the end does it seem like something larger is at stake and only because the movie starts nodding more vigorously offstage to the “real” “Star Wars” chapters.
We’ll always have Lando, at least. Donald Glover, whose musical alter-ego (Childish Gambino) has been much in the news of late, plays the young Lando Calrissian with a passable stab at Billy Dee Williams’s speech patterns and not nearly enough screen time; it’s a warmly eccentric performance that hints at a Newman and Redford-style buddy comedy that “Solo” has no interest in being, more’s the pity. Additionally, Lando brings with him the much-loved starship the Millennium Falcon and a droid, L3-37, who’s the most intriguing character in the movie.
Voiced with clipped bravado by the British actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge (star of the BBC/Amazon series “Fleabag”), L3-37 is a proponent of droids’ rights, an activist thorn in her human partner’s side, and one-half of a curious and ultimately moving romantic relationship. She represents a narrative direction and a sense of purpose that “Solo” has neither the energy nor the approved agenda to pursue. Instead, the movie is content to fill in the blanks, which it does capably, casually, and forgettably.
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan. Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany. At megaplexes in Boston, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX 3D in Reading and Natick. 143 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of sci-fi action/violence).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.