Prequels can be a tricky business. Even though there is, technically, a destination in sight, the path taken to connect the gap between the past and future are often complicated. When everyone knows the fate of a certain character, how do you make their preceding journey entertaining for the viewer? It’s not an easy needle to thread and a process that involves many working components — from filling in a mysterious backstory to finding the perfect actor to bring a younger version of a fan favorite to life. Put simply, Solo: A Star Wars Story had a lot of components to juggle, and it’s debatable whether or not it fully succeeded on every narrative front — but one aspect this movie really pulled off was its rendering of a young Han Solo, in all his bright-eyed, idealistic glory.
It goes without saying that Alden Ehrenreich had big shoes to fill. With the premiere of A New Hope in 1977, Harrison Ford elevated the character of Han Solo to near-instant icon — and is as associated with Han as his other genre paragon, Indiana Jones. But Ford’s relationship with the Star Wars franchise has always been notoriously complicated. After playing a minor yet memorable role in 1973’s American Graffiti, one would think his previous working relationship with director George Lucas would’ve given him a leg up for being cast as Han — but initially, Ford was only brought in to read sides against actors who were up for some of A New Hope’s other characters, like Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker. Ford was finally cast as Han over several other actors, Kurt Russell chief among them, but even the advantage of reading Lucas’ script ahead of time didn’t entirely prepare him for the frequent dialogue changes mid-production, and what wound up on the page after multiple rewrites was clunky and hard to articulate quickly in action-packed scenes. Ford is quoted as saying to Lucas, per his own anecdote: “George, you can type this shit, but you can't say it!”
Awkward dialogue aside, it’s no secret that Ford campaigned on several occasions to have Han killed off in the original trilogy. As far as Ford was concerned, Han’s journey from carefree smuggler to true hero would only be fully realized if he died in the rebellion against the Empire, and he actively pitched Lucas on the idea of offing Han once he was frozen in carbonite near the end of Empire Strikes Back. While that, of course, didn’t happen — and Han’s death was prolonged for another two films over 30 years apart — it’s undeniable that Ford had a memorable impact on the trajectory of his character. (After all, it was Ford who improvised Han’s response of “I know” to Leia’s “I love you;” Lucas had originally intended it to be something along the lines of “I love you, too.”) When examining Ford’s rendering of Han, there are terrific subtleties in his performance that emerge after repeat viewings. Han may be a charming, suave rogue who can get himself out of trouble faster than you can say “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” but he has a sincerity that occasionally surfaces, especially in regards to his more meaningful relationships with Leia and Luke — and these hidden depths aren’t often referenced in most discussions of his biggest character traits, though they’re what elevates him above a one-dimensional cutout. He’s a smuggler, but he’s a smuggler with heart.
When Ehrenreich’s hiring was confirmed in 2016, he was one of the first actors to be cast for Solo — but fans knew they had a waiting game ahead of them given that the film wasn’t slated to premiere for another two years. The film’s production had its ups and downs — original co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller parted ways with Lucasfilm in June 2017 citing “creative differences,” and two days later Ron Howard stepped in, with Lord and Miller eventually receiving executive producer credit. Amidst the big changes behind the camera, subsequent extensive reshoots led to the recasting of at least one significant character, and there were on-set reports that Lucasfilm had hired an acting coach for Ehrenreich after not being satisfied with his initial performance under the film’s original directors. When the first trailer for Solo came out, every aspect was scrutinized — but none more so than Ehrenreich’s interpretation of Han, as much as could be dissected from a brief teaser. With the release of the final film on May 25, fans finally had the opportunity to judge for themselves whether or not this Han proved a worthy predecessor to the character they already knew and, in most cases, had grown up with.
What works about Ehrenreich’s Han is that he isn’t trying to do an impression of Ford. There’s enough of a physical resemblance between the two actors that any kind of imitation would’ve run the risk of feeling hollow at best and a poor caricature at worst. Instead, Ehrenreich leans into a very specific aspect of Han’s personality: his aforementioned earnestness and integrity. When we meet him in Solo, Han isn’t that guarded, slightly wearied space smuggler yet. He’s bright-eyed. He’s cocky, maybe a little too cocky, but his self-confidence isn’t entirely unearned — because he’s just as good a pilot as he claims. He’s a romantic and wears his affection openly, particularly for Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). His desire to make it back to Corellia to rescue her out of her current circumstances drives most of his character arc, at least in the first half of the film. It’s easy to see how the bittersweet resolution of their relationship could create a lasting effect that impacts Han’s ability to trust anyone later on, especially someone he might have romantic interest in.
We get all of that from Ehrenreich’s performance, and it’s an end result made all the more impressive with the knowledge of Solo’s rocky production process. Still, there are moments when the script itself seems to be at odds with Ehrenreich’s choice to make young Han more idealistic and amiable. Scenes where Qi’ra tries to convince Han that he is, in fact, a good guy don’t make a lot of sense when he’s already spent a vast majority of the film being one of the good guys. Perhaps if Ehrenreich had played Han as more of a scoundrel, these interactions would make sense, but when the dialogue is delivered on screen it basically reiterates what we already know to be true. We don’t need Solo to try and convince us that Han is going to be a hero someday; Ehrenreich already does that in his rendition of the character. Although he’s not the film’s weakest link by far, he does shine more in the role when he has the chance to bounce Han off of other fan favorites. Ehrenreich’s chemistry with Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca is unquestionably one of Solo’s biggest highlights, which is good given that the movie pairs them together fairly early on and then finds few reasons to split them up. And there’s a particular frisson of excitement that happens when Han and Lando (Donald Glover) meet for the first time at the sabacc table, as well as Solo’s retroactive reasoning behind Lando’s frequent mispronunciation of Han’s name (or, at least, utilizing a different pronunciation than literally everyone else).
Ehrenreich’s Han can be best acknowledged as worthy when you remember that his experiences are what ultimately shape him into the Han brought to life by Ford. Time can be a brutal teacher, especially for a lawless smuggler, but as we already know from watching A New Hope and its subsequent films, Han’s life experiences don’t make him an irredeemable cynic or a cold-hearted criminal. The Han who felt compelled to return to Corellia in order to save his young love is the same Han who chose to postpone paying back Jabba the Hutt so that he could come to Luke’s aid and help blow up the Death Star. He might be a little rougher around the edges, may have acquired a few more chips on his shoulder, but he still cares. In Solo, Ehrenreich’s Han wears his heart right on his sleeve — and it’s that same heart that Ford’s Han learns to extend to his own son years later, right up until the end, even at a cost. With the future already set, it’s hard not to appreciate the beauty in the journey — and that’s in part due to Ehrenreich, who reminds us of the humanity Han had in him from the very beginning.