Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Donald Glover, Emilia Clarke, Joonas Suotamo, Thandie Newton, Woody Harrelson
SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY
Directed by Ron Howard
I expect many reading this played at Star Wars when they were younger – whether it was running around with toy light sabres, blasters or spaceships. I also expect relatively few wanted to be Luke compared to the amount who wanted to be Han: I know I didn’t. Yeah the farm-boy’s transition to full on Jedi was rewarding, but Harrison Ford’s loveable scoundrel had an effortless charm which made him the coolest gunslinger in the galaxy. Yet when I first heard he was getting his own movie, I had little interest. Surely this successful marriage between actor and part is the sort of casting that only comes once a franchise. Moreover, with original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller leaving the production over creative differences, it’s safe to Solo hasn’t got the same burden of expectation as other recent entries.
It’s also not much like them either – and it’s not just the lack of force. In contrast to the bombastic, epic nature of The Last Jedi, Solo is a small-scale story. The source of conflict isn’t a large scale war, although it is mentioned, and until the last act there’s no traditional battle between good and evil. Rather it is a heist for coaxium: an expensive, explosive and very valuable source of fuel. Do you remember the abuse of distance/ time jargon in A New Hope, where Han claimed to have managed something called the Kessel Run in 12 parasecs? This is the movie of that – needless to say it’s not as simple as he makes out to the Skywalkers. The plot sees a younger Han (Ehrenreich) join the empire before becoming an outlaw, and running with Chewbacca (Suotamo). Under the supervision of Beckett (Harrelson) they then attempt to rob an Empire monorail, so as to buy their own ship with the profits. Some complications later, and they’re on the afore-mentioned Kessel job, in an effort to win their freedom.
One of the best things about the Disney-led Star Wars universe is seeing more of the Galaxy. On this front, Solo definitely doesn’t disappoint. Among other places, the film goes from the murky streets of Corellia, up snowy peaks, into dive bars (where robots duke it out for sport), through underground tunnels and to hyperspace. These locations are used well too, being mined for shootouts, chase scenes and frantic action set-pieces – some of which are vintage Star Wars. In taking the reins, during a troubled production, and splicing footage from other directors with his own, it’s fair to say Ron Howards had his work cut out. And for the most part he succeeds, with thrilling action sequences that have an improvised, seat of their pants, feel (after he finally loses the needless dark tint over the first act). Given the franchise’ recent emphasis on more experimental filmmakers, Howard seemed an odd choice, but he really doesn’t disappoint. Perhaps even more than other director’s in the franchise, he also manages to capture the wonder of space exploration, giving a great sense of adventure. If I were coming to it as a kid, I reckon I’d have loved it.
However, it’s leading man, Alden Ehrenreich, who has the toughest job of them all – standing in for perhaps the most beloved character in the maybe most beloved movie of all time. Happily, he more than meets the challenge, capturing Ford’s iconic smirking delivery and troublemaker grin without lapsing into an impression. Annoyingly, Emilia Clarke is no Carrie Fisher and adds very little humanity to a role that’s both underwritten and underperformed. With Han being a larger than life character, his love interest needs more energy and personality than she gives. You can just about buy her as a love interest, but she really struggles to sell some of the more dramatic sequences. In particular, the last time we see her has little of the dramatic weight the story ought to command it to have. In better news, Donald Glover excels – having evidently done his homework. He has all the charisma of Billy Dee Williams, and many of his mannerisms. Initially I felt a film about Lando would be a better idea, given that we have far less context on him than Han. The performance here makes me still want to see that – provided there’s a story worth telling. Because as much as enjoyed Solo, I’m not sure there’s one here.
I’m really not sure Solo justifies its own existence. While the low-stakes aren’t a problem per se, the lack of character drama really is. Built into the premise is a rule that the cynical rogue must remain a cynical rogue (to later soften up), so there’s not much of an emotional arc here. I also don’t think a knowledge of anything that happens here will enhance watching the initial series. Furthermore, we know Han, Chewie and Lando can’t die and the Falcon can’t crash. Thus the most rewarding part should have been seeing their relationships develop. Unfortunately, Lando has unexpectedly little screen-time, but that which he does is enjoyable. More pressing is the Han/ Chewie pairing, which has minimal friction as they go from battling to besties within a couple of scenes. Some of the bits that celebrate their friendship are fun, although I’d have liked to see a more tempestuous dynamic for the first two acts as they find their rhythm – in part to offset a slightly dull third act (that sees a twist so predictable it maybe shouldn’t be called one). I also would have liked to see Han as a less passive protagonist, driving the story rather than just having things happen to him for the bulk of it. I get that as a smuggler he’s not the one in charge, although as per Rogue One’s Jyn the character often feels like he’s taking the passenger seat. He’s not the only one: Thandie Newton as space pirate Val leaves the action all too early and hilarious new social justice warrior Robot L3 deserves way more than she gets.
This shouldn’t be the case, because at over two hours the movie is relatively long. Nonetheless, the relentless action quotient for the first half paradoxically makes it feel like not a lot happens. On multiple times characters are written out, but not a single darn seems to be given by the core cast (so the plot can go on at light speed) so I expect the audience may be similarly apathetic. Still, despite a weak story structure, it’s rarely less than entertaining and the time flies by like a pod-racer. There’s a hell of a lot of fan service too, with several scenes we’ve just been told about in dialogue getting shown, including the famous card game with Lando, the origin for Han’s mysterious dice, more 3D chess with a Wookie and a great injoke that undermines Lucas’ later tinkering for his remastered editions (the use of the Empire theme is also inspired). As an accompaniment to the rest of the series, it’s very welcome – even if it sometimes watches like a visualised Wikipedia page. A cash grab maybe, but a darn good fun one even if it’ll end up mid series-league for much of the crowd. Like Marvel, the one a year trend may result in franchise fatigue, but I’d for now I was just glad to hang out with an old friend