By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published May 25, 2018 at 6:56 AM

The beauty of the original "Star Wars" trilogy isn’t just the imagination on the big screen but the imagination it left off. Places casually mentioned, characters briefly glimpsed on the side of the frame, battles vaguely recalled, all served as launch pads for everyone’s own tall tales. As many in Hollywood learn the hard way, though, it’s almost impossible to compete with those powerful imaginations. Just ask anyone who’s adapted a famous book for the big screen.

Or ask "Solo: A Star Wars Story." After all, how do you stage a Kessel Run sequence that can compare to the legends printed in fans’ heads for decades, each special and particular to each individual person? And in case that wasn’t enough of a hurdle, Disney then fired popular director duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller – masters of turning terrible ideas ("The Lego Movie," "21 Jump Street") into bright, bouncy entertainments – well into the shoot. Their version may have died, but much like Edgar Wright’s lost "Ant-Man," its ghost lives on, haunting viewers with what might’ve been.

Faced with that unenviable and unfair challenge of competing with fans’ imaginations – whether hard at work since the original films or just over the past few years envisioning the Lord and Miller take on space – "Solo" comes at the problem by depressingly using little imagination of its own, delivering a perfunctory and painfully adequate solo mission for Han Solo. For one of cinema’s most beloved rogues, the movie that bears his name plays depressingly safe, a tiresome 135-minute winking pre-credit sequence for a better blockbuster.

Before teaming up with Luke Skywalker to take down the Empire, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) is just a scrappy no-name wannabe pilot trying to swindle his way out of the galaxy’s criminal underworld and into freedom with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia "Khaleesi" Clarke). Unfortunately, only he manages to escape, vowing to return to save her. But first, he needs some cash and a ship, so he teams up with some bandits (Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton) for a few quick heists that’ll take him back to his love, out of his life of crime and amongst the galaxy’s legends.

While Han’s mission may be to connect with Qi’ra, the movie’s main mission is to exhaustingly connect every aspect of his character to some kind of cheap fan fiction-esque explanation. His friendships with Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) both receive predictable introductions – Chewie’s is particularly hacky – while Han’s blaster, dice, gun spinning and more all get backstory, providing the lamest possible answers to questions no one was particularly asking. Even Han’s name gets an eye-rolling rationale that brings the "Super Mario Bros." movie to mind – never a good thing. You half expect "Solo" to stop off at a galactic H&M so we can see how he found his famous vest.

Screenwriters Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan keep trying to fill gaps that don’t exist, and in telling more story and explaining everything away, they end up only making the "Star Wars" universe feel smaller. The result isn’t a movie; it’s storytelling as caulk, misused to fill the holes in air vents and absentmindedly suffocating all the life inside.  

That can’t completely explain away Ehrenreich’s lifeless lead performance, though. Admittedly there’s not much one can do with a script that feels the need to explain why Chewbacca’s nickname would be Chewie – for a movie about one of the most quoted, quippiest characters in cinema history, there's not a single memorable line from "Solo" – but all of the young actor’s charm and charisma from 2016’s "Hail, Caesar!" has been lost in a sarlacc pit. Instead of the sarcastic, devil-may-care character fans know and love, Ehrenreich plays him through sleepy mumbles and restrained grumbles.

There are a few moments where his performance pops, like a brief instant where he gleefully takes in his first seconds behind the wheel of the Millennium Falcon, but otherwise it’s a frustratingly clenched imitation, as though he’s wearing the legacy and weight of Harrison Ford’s iconic turn like a straitjacket.

He’s at least surrounded by an impressive crowd of supporting characters. Harrelson is good fun as our protagonist’s endearingly untrustworthy mentor and gang leader, while Newton’s snap and attitude as is gone far too soon as his partner in crime and life. Paul Bettany (Vision from "Infinity War") makes for an enjoyable villain, too, as the casually menacing crime lord Dryden Vos.

The real stars, however, are Glover’s Lando and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Amazon’s "Fleabag") providing the voice as his exhausted, underappreciated robo-copilot L3-37. Unlike Ehrenreich, Lando manages to channel his iconic forerunner while still breathing life into the imitation with a sly, smooth, delicious arrogance while Waller-Bridge luckily gets most of the script’s wittier attempts at humor – and enthusiastically makes the most of them – as she harrumphs about droid rights in the "Star Wars" universe. You’re almost certain to walk out wondering why the film couldn’t have followed these two – or frankly any of the other characters scattered around. Alas, the movie isn’t called "Supporting Cast," and as for the actual titular role, there’s a disappointing black hole where a star should be.

As for the rest of the film around him, it’s all … fine. Big CGI spectacle isn’t generally one of his calling cards, but replacement director Ron Howard ("Apollo 13," "The Da Vinci Code") does a solid job mixing together effects-heavy space action with the charmingly tactile alien creatures and droids, while a brief detour into the grimy trenches of a space war is a rare burst of a new perspective. Some of the script’s jokes land as well, even if many of them feel more like leftovers from the reportedly funny-forward Lord and Miller shoot, relying on sharp edits, cartoony slapstick and some off-kilter self-awareness punchlines. But, in general, considering the behind-the-scenes woes, "Solo" is an inoffensively watchable project. 

"Solo" shares that half-hearted passion for itself. This is the kind of movie where a character is killed right after announcing his retirement plans, a cliché old enough to have been in "A New Hope." The pacing is sluggish – a low-speed opening vehicle chase seems to last an entire act – yet it’s also edited too fast, with almost each scene following the next just a beat or two too quickly. The film features two major robbery sequences – including the famed Kessel Run, turned into an anonymously chaotic, fairly compelling raid that can't help but pale to its legend – but never indulges the audience on the plans, where most of the tension and fun of a movie heist comes from.

An onslaught of third act baits, switches and broken loyalties helps bring a little sense of unpredictability to the proceedings (until another cheap fan service tie-in from the past arrives to set up its future). But the only thing murkier than the grim, musty cinematography (from the usually terrific Bradford Young of "Selma" and "Arrival" acclaim) is the plotting, which hurriedly attempts to establish several brand new crime syndicates and relationships with various loyalties but mostly leaves the audience behind in process. They even resort to trying to explain it all with some dull title cards at the start of the film. If only this franchise had a signature opening credits sequence that could’ve spiced the exposition up …  

Oddly enough, that’s the one aspect of these "Star Wars Story" spin-offs that LucasFilm won’t homogenize into the brand. Originally, these one-off films were supposed to be places to explore the franchise, trying new characters, stories and genres in the "Star Wars" galaxy. They were supposed to make the universe feel bigger and more diverse. Instead, "Solo" has been flattened out and sanded down into safe brand-approved product, yet another "Star Wars" prequel where we know where the pieces will land by the end – with no new emotional ideas or character depth to make this extra chapter worthwhile.

I’d say hopefully things will turn around, but considering LucasFilm just greenlit a Boba Fett prequel, I’ve got a bad feeling about this. 

"Solo: A Star Wars Story": ** out of ****

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.