"Solo: A Star Wars Story" begins with the Star Wars franchise's signature tag line, "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." But it seems only yesterday that the title character met his end in "The Force Awakens," the first installment in yet another trilogy that feels as if it's trying desperately to take another bite of the original apple - one that only looks shinier and juicier, by comparison, the more chomps are taken out of it.
"Solo," a dutiful excavation of Han Solo's early years, performs all the necessary feats of fan service that viewers have come to expect from seemingly endless iterations of the series. The grouchy but somehow sexy curmudgeon that Harrison Ford created in the 1977 film and its sequels is shown here as a young man, living by his wits on Corellia, a planet where young people are routinely thrown into lives of Dickensian poverty and exploitation. What he wants more than anything else is to fly, and as "Solo" opens, he's in the process of stealing a precious fuel called coaxium, which he plans to sell on the black market to buy a ship of his own.
As rendered by the moodily attractive Alden Ehrenreich, who could have played a young Henry Hill in "Goodfellas," this Solo bears only a glancing resemblance to the gruff, irreverent flyboy whom Ford portrayed so winningly. Ehrenreich is a gifted actor and possesses a rakishly appealing persona, but the character's inner darkness is only hinted at as the story line progresses and the betrayals and heartbreaks he endures come into focus.
For the most part, "Solo" is a conglomeration of set pieces we've seen before - from familiar chase scenes and a battle sequence reminiscent of World War I trench warfare to a train heist followed by a decadent cocktail party thrown at an art-deco-inspired space yacht - with some tasty callbacks to Star Wars legend and lore thrown in to delight lifelong aficionados.
Thus we witness a meet-cute between Solo and one of his most beloved sidekicks, with whom he is imprisoned in the muck and mire of an underground cell on the "mud planet" Mimban. And we watch as he meets the true love of his life, an object of instant attraction that he lays eyes on after a high-stakes card game with a gambler named Lando Calrissian, portrayed in a playful turn by a perfectly cast Donald Glover.
"Solo" was a notoriously troubled production, with original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller - best known for the cheeky "Lego Movie" - being replaced midstream by Ron Howard. It's Howard's more workmanlike, less antic sensibility that infuses "Solo" and, in many cases, drags it down, with the few remaining traces of quippy, flippant humor either falling flat or sounding hopelessly derivative. (A character called Rio, voiced by Jon Favreau, bears the unmistakable stamp of Rocket Raccoon from "Guardians of the Galaxy.") Written by "The Empire Strikes Back's" Lawrence Kasdan along with his son, Jonathan, "Solo" has been conceived as a space western, with all the overcomplicated (but also childishly simple) heists and double-crosses the genre entails. But it never works up an authentic sense of risk or excitement or novelty. With the exception of one or two lines that anticipate the title character's future adventures, the proceedings have the perfunctory air of biting into the aforementioned apple and taking tasteful, unobjectionable nibbles.
The gifted cinematographer Bradford Young, who brought such sensitive atmospherics to the science fiction thriller "Arrival," has shot "Solo" with similar attention to texture, density and dimension. But Howard has given him precious little to capture by way of an arresting production design or palette. Most of the scenes appear to transpire behind a monochromatic brown-and-amber scrim. The characters are often similarly uninspired, despite the likes of Paul Bettany, Woody Harrelson and Thandie Newton doing their best with clunky, cliched dialogue. When "Solo" manages to come to crackling life, it's thanks to a droid called L3-37, voiced with irrepressible wit and gusto by the brilliant British screenwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
At one point, L3 leads a robot rebellion, and "Solo" finally promises to levitate with righteous, anarchic glee. But soon enough, drabness and dull plot mechanics set in, as the film's - what else? - ragtag team of rule-breakers rushes to hit yet another preordained mark. "Solo: A Star Wars Story" gets the job done with little fuss but also with precious little finesse. It might arguably succeed in teeing up the cinematic narrative that would change movies forever. But in substance and execution, it bears but a whisper of the revolution to come.