'Solo' takes flight after rocky liftoff for 'Star Wars' prequel

(CNN)As "Rogue One" demonstrated, there's a rich vein of material in "Star Wars" prequels, just waiting to be mined. "Solo: A Star Wars Story" will surely make off with plenty of that loot, even if the movie requires considerable time to take flight, recovering from a messy, flat opening half before rallying and picking up speed down the stretch.

Part of that might have to do with behind-the-scenes drama spilling onto the screen, after veteran director Ron Howard replaced "The Lego Movie" duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller well into the process. The movie's first half is excessively dark -- both in terms of its actual dreary look and the story, as the young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) escapes an impoverished upbringing on his native Corellia and takes off to pursue his dreams of becoming a pilot.
Harrison Ford left behind some sizable shoes, and Ehrenreich -- making a stratospheric leap after his breakthrough role in "Hail, Caesar!" -- initially struggles to fill them. But he gets better along with the movie, which features so many callbacks to earlier films that it's hard to imagine any "Star Wars" fan not feeling duty-bound to see it, even allowing for its shortcomings.
    Those flourishes -- in a script from "Star Wars" scribe supreme Lawrence Kasdan and his son, Jonathan -- include, but aren't limited to, Han's first meetings with Chewbacca (7-footer Joonas Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian, who Donald Glover plays with a devilish gleam in his eye. Glover instantly enlivens the movie, managing to simultaneously pay homage to Billy Dee Williams' characterization while mildly spoofing it.
    In terms of new characters, the key figures are Qi'ra ("Game of Thrones'" Emilia Clarke), the girl in Han's life, and his motivation for much of what ensues; and Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a smuggler/thief whose anything-for-a-buck mentality will play a role in forging -- and defining the contours of -- Han's own moral code. ("Westworld's" Thandie Newton is part of Beckett's crew, adding to the HBO fantasy/sci-fi connection.)
    It's all a trifle uninspiring at first, before giving way to what amounts to an elaborate heist section, with a muscular, fast-paced action sequence. But the film really kicks into a higher gear -- literally as well as figuratively -- when Han finally meets one of the great loves in his life, the Millennium Falcon, his face lighting up the first time he settles in behind the controls.
    The technical wizardry augments these scenes, as do the musical cues incorporated by composer John Powell, weaving in snippets of John Williams' earlier themes -- most notably from "The Empire Strikes Back" -- in a way that helps recapture the spirit of the original trilogy, at least during certain key moments.
    With so much going on in the "Star Wars" universe since Disney acquired Lucasfilm, there's always a question of when new stand-alone projects will begin bumping into each other or run out of real estate. But perhaps the most encouraging thing one can say about "Solo" is that unlike "Rogue One," it not only leaves room for a possible sequel to this prequel, but finishes strongly enough that such a prospect seems enticing.
    In hindsight, tackling such a beloved character -- 41 years to the day after "Star Wars'" introduction with "A New Hope" -- presented an especially daunting task, inviting sky-high expectations. While "Solo" hasn't completely overcome the long odds, those harboring a love of the franchise should come away, ultimately, with a good feeling about this.
    "Solo: A Star Wars Story" premieres May 25 in the U.S. It's rated PG-13.