Solo: A Star Wars Story (12A) ***

WITH four Star Wars films released since 2015 it is now approaching time to get the Sharpies out to draw up timelines and family trees. Who is who? When is this? Are we there yet? Or you could leave all that to the fan boys and girls and just enjoy each show as it comes.

Ron Howard’s prequel has enough to satisfy the cognoscenti and the dabbler alike, as well as being a good entry point for those with young Jedi to train in the ways of the greatest space soap known to cinema (you will need some serious stationery supplies for that).

Howard starts as he means to go on, by keeping things simple. It’s the future. It’s grim. There’s a guy, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) who loves a girl, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) and they want to escape to a new life together, him to fly spaceships, she to … well we don’t get that far. There is a chase to organise and the first nod to the mother ship to deliver in the shape of a famous aerial move.

Barely pausing for breath, Howard catapults Han into a muddy battlefield where he falls in with a gang of desperadoes led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson). With his great coat and his swagger, Beckett looks like a cowboy of old, one who can handle any frontier town, and any trouble, that comes his way. Han immediately slots into the gang, the kid to Beckett’s world weary senior. There is one other member of the pack to pick up before the tale proper gets going, a certain tall, handsome but fearfully hairy chap you will likely recognise. Most of the fun to be had in prequels comes from how famous characters are introduced, so no spoilers here about how Han meets his legendary co-pilot for the first time (or how Han gets his surname).

Howard’s light touch stands in contrast with the generally gloomy look of the film. At times it is difficult to see what is going on, such is the swirl of muddy greys, greens and shadows. Fortunately the action scenes are big enough to triumph over the murk. Even these, however, have their flaws. There is nothing wrong with their execution. Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) is a safe pair of hands, hence why he took over the director’s chair after some initial hiccups. But any action scene, if it is to be truly thrilling, has to contain an element of peril. Here, we know our favourites are going to survive.

Harrelson has the picture all to himself until Donald Glover turns up to play Lando Calrissian, hustler and pilot. Between Star Wars, his video for This is America, and Atlanta on BBC2, there is barely a big or small screen Glover is not playing on at the moment. On the evidence of Solo it surely won’t be long till he is filling Harrelson-size shoes with a lead role of his own.

Otherwise, the young cast is hit and miss, with Ehrenreich and Clarke struggling to raise much of a spark, while others, including Phoebe Waller-Bridge, playing the droid L3-37, seize the chance to deliver stand out turns. Like some metal Miranda, her head girl bossiness works a treat.

The screenplay by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan keeps the twists and turns coming to the end.

It helps that they do not have a set in stone point to head for, though enough clues are dropped as to where the tale will go next should there be a sequel to this prequel. With so much else going on in the franchise, that will depend on box office receipts. It will be a pity if this is the first and last instalment.

Also out this week is the historical drama, Zama (15)***. Directed by Lucrecia Martel, helmer of The Headless Woman, this adaptation of Antonio Di Benedetto’s novel stars Daniel Giménez Cacho in the title role. Zama is a magistrate for the Spanish crown in 18th Century Asuncion. Desperate to get home to his family, Zuma believes he has found a way. But at what cost? While the pace is glacial at times this is a handsomely shot look at how absolute colonial power corrupts absolutely.

Zama, GFT, May 25-31