It’s official: Ron Howard is taking over the Millennium Falcon cockpit recently vacated by Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s controversial ejection from Disney’s untitled Han Solo Star Wars prequel. It’s the first time in the franchise’s history that an Oscar-winning director will be behind the camera. Howard is of the same generation as screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and producer Kathleen Kennedy both of whom, reports suggest, were behind the decision to switch directors even as the shoot was entering its final phases. And even though this will be Howard’s inaugural trip to that far, far away galaxy, one could make the case that he’s been warming up for this assignment for much of his Hollywood career. Here are the half-dozen films that paved the way for his first solo Star Wars assignment.
American Graffiti (1973)
A year before he became the poster child for retro-’50s nostalgia as the star of Happy Days, Howard joined the ensemble of another backwards-glancing hit: American Graffiti. Set over one long California night in 1962, the film also featured such future big-screen icons as Richard Dreyfuss, Suzanne Somers, and an actor/carpenter named Harrison Ford. The director of this seemingly minor comedy that went on to have a major impact on teen movies? (Dazed and Confused, Can’t Hardly Wait, and even Superbad owe a little something to Graffiti.) None other than George Lucas, who wrote the first draft of what would become Star Wars — The Journal of the Whills — the same year that American Graffiti hit theaters. You’ve gotta wonder if he shared any of that journal with Howard on set.
Howard experienced a close encounter of the third kind on his fourth feature, in which a race of aliens from a different far, far galaxy — the Antareans — come to Earth in search of the cocooned survivors from their former colony, the lost island of Atlantis. In another Star Wars-ian flourish, they enlist the aid of a roguish pilot to help them in this mission: Steve Guttenberg’s Jack Bonner, who captains a ship that sails the seas rather than the stars. And, just like Han, Jack falls for an attractive alien (Tahnee Welch) who’s a whole lot smarter, and savvier, than himself.
Lucas produced and conceived of the story for this Tolkien-inspired high fantasy, which debuted to mixed reviews at the time, but boasts a sizeable fanbase today. Free of the Ewok costume he wore as Endor-dwelling forest creature Wicket in Return of the Jedi — as well as two made-for-TV sequels, Caravan of Courage and The Battle for Endor — Warwick Davis plays the title character, a would-be sorcerer who embarks on a grand adventure involving a sword-wielding warrior (Val Kilmer) and, of course, a princess in need of protecting. Lucas’s own effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, created the VFX for the movie, so Howard already has them on his speed dial.
Well, the Star Wars movies are known for their firefights, right? Howard’s drama about a pair of squabbling sibling firemen (Kurt Russell and William Baldwin) does boast some gasp-inducing blazes. If Han Solo has to smuggle anything to Mustafar, the director will feel right at home.
Apollo 13 (1995)
Tatooine, we don’t have a problem. Apollo 13 proves that Howard most definitely knows the ins and outs of space travel. Based on the real-life mission that stranded three astronauts in space between the moon and Earth, the film provides a gripping account of how they troubleshoot their way back to terra firma with the help of a dedicated ground crew. No last-minute jumps to hyperspace for this team; they have to get by on the… um, force of their own will.
Let’s be honest: if, as some suspect, Han is going to make his famous less-than-12-parsec Kessel Run in this film, it’ll help to have a Formula 1-tested director calling the shots. Howard’s biopic of professional rivals James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) is punctuated by terrifically shot racing footage that practically puts viewers in the driver’s seat at speeds over 100 miles an hour.
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