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3 reviews, 5 user ratings

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Solo: A Star Wars Story
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by Jay Seaver

"One for the fans who buy the tie-in material, and hopefully a few more."
4 stars

There are degrees of fandom for big properties like Star Wars, and the companies who own these properties have long created enough material to ensure that everyone can get as much as they want, especially when there were relatively long, fallow periods between main events. These tie-in materials are by their nature inessential, and even conditional - they are sometimes contradicted and booted out of canon - but, despite being more clearly created for mercenary purposes and being inconsequential by certain measurements, these secondary additions to the franchise can be quality entertainment. That's the sort of movie "Solo" is, tie-in material that wound up getting a big-screen budget and doing fairly well with it.

Indeed, Solo embraces the Star Wars fan who wants to take a deeper dive into its worlds in a way that I don't think any franchise like this ever has in the stuff made for the core, mainstream audience. It drops references to the mooted Expanded Universe and even the late-1970s/early-1980s tie-in novels in the same way that the original would mention unseen characters and events to give texture, and it's kind of fun nonsense whether it's nonsense words or sly winks to a given viewer.

In this particular go-around at showing the early years of the saga's smuggler with a heart of gold, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) is a scrumrat on Corellia, whose main export appears to be be ships for the Galactic Empire. He's managed to swipe a container of valuable hyperspace fuel so that he and girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) can bribe their way off-planet, though only he makes it. He enlists to learn to fly but winds up in the infantry, eventually deserting to join a pack of thieves led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) alongside his girlfriend Val (Thandie Newton), pilot Rio (voice of Jon Favreau), and new friend Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). When a job goes sideways, Beckett and Han must convince Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), a Crimson Dawn gangster, to give them a chance to make things up. Fortunately, Qi'ra has risen in the organization to become Vos's lieutenant, and not only puts in a good word for Han, but helps them recruit smugglers Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and their ship, the Millennium Falcon.

Most people will recognize about a third of those names, and that's the challenge facing father-son screenwriting team Lawrence & Jonathan Kasdan, director Ron Howard (who reshot much of the film after producers felt Phil Lord & Christopher Miller weren't getting the right tone), and the cast: The audience knows where some of the characters will end up, which makes the rest even more expendable than most former girlfriends and mentor figures are in genre films. The trick, then, is to make the details shine, so that even when the movie isn't about twisting what the audience knows into a new shape, they can be enjoy the smaller bits of discovery, or treat it like a genre film that familiar characters have been dropped into. They do fairly well on that count; as much as the story is inevitably going to get to explaining one particular line that's been picked at for forty years with some standard gangster material leading up to it, the filmmakers mostly keep the focus on the current moment and making sure that there's something other than Han and Chewie being in danger that's worth the audience's concern.

Heck, the film sometimes has more good characters than it knows what to do with. Most of the attention is going to be on Alden Ehrenreich as Han, Donald Glover as Lando, and to a lesser extent Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca (there's no consultant credit for original actor Peter Mayhew here as on The Last Jedi) making some well-established roles their own, and they do pretty well. Ehrenreich, especially, makes a good transition from "not Harrison Ford" to recognizably a young, less experienced Han as the film goes on, still mostly eager to please, channeling the moment Han reappears during the first Death Star battle as much as any other moment from the original films, creating the guy that Ford's Han is able to return to being for a moment or two. Glover's Lando is jokier than that of Billy Dee Williams, but it works here, and Glover's good enough to show signs of the more pragmatic, slightly less devil-may-care Lando of The Empire Strikes Back. Suotamo's taking over for Mayhew is obviously fairly invisible, but this is a slightly different Chewbacca than viewers are used to - where the Wookiee in the other movies smirks about how people find him intimidating but is usually a big teddy bear, this one has the rage-filled body language of someone who has been recently mistreated and gets to act on it.

The new members of the crew are strong as well, with Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, and Jon Favreau good enough to make one sad that they won't be running with Han all the way to where viewers first met him on Tatooine. Harrelson, especially, does a neat job of echoing what Ford did with Han forty years ago, hardened but charismatic and at ease with his own crew, without seeming to copy the other actor, showing an especially fine chemistry with Newton. Emilia Clarke and Paul Bettany are a little rougher: Bettany (replacing an actor not available for the extensive reshoots) does a decent "guy who smiles gregariously while threatening the hero's life", but not a great one, and he never quite meshes with Clarke. She herself seems to have trouble finding any femme fatale in Qi'ra, who is positioned as being part of a major criminal organization and says she's done bad things, but never holds herself like it's had any sort of impact on her.

The filmmakers mix this all into a series of heists and double-crosses that range from slick to frantic, with the best being a terrific train job and a climactic melee on Vos's yacht, with a robbery that becomes a full-scale riot in between having just the right sort of anarchy. A lot of the big effects scenes are somewhat familiar material, but handled in awfully sure-handed fashion, and of the four movies released over the past three years, this one may feel the most like the original trilogy - there's remarkably little CGI clutter compared to practical creatures and Eurocomic-inspired costuming, with even the mostly-FX sequences rendered to match Bradford Young's often dim-but-evocative cinematography while John Powell's score adapts John Williams's themes into its own thing.

(It's worth noting that the visual palette is the sort that substandard presentation can wreck - I was lucky enough to see it in bright laser projection twice, but many have reported lesser experiences with theaters trying to extend bulb life or screening it in polarized 3D. Finding the best screen in your area is highly recommended, even if it adds another couple bucks to the ticket price.)

Star Wars will be re-entering new territory after next Christmas, when "Episode IX" ends the main saga and Disney starts to plan one or two releases a year that aren't so connected, and at certain points "Solo" feels like them easing audiences into it. Between the behind-the-scenes tumult which inevitably leads to an inconsistent tone and fans maybe not ready to see its title character recast so soon after Harrison Ford's farewell to it, LucasfIlm has made a movie that not all fans, let alone people in the much larger group that likes Star Wars and enjoys a new movie once in a while, feel they want or need, which is ironically apt: Not everybody wants the novel and comic-book tie-ins that fill in this sort of hole either, even if some turn out to be enjoyable sci-fi adventures in one's favorite playground.

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originally posted: 05/31/18 08:53:52
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User Comments

9/08/19 Karen_S A great deal of fun 5 stars
6/25/18 mr.mike Entertaining, fun and action-packed - all that The Last Jedi wasn't. 4 stars
6/06/18 Tony Brubaker An incredible science-fiction masterpiece, quite astonishing. 5 stars
5/27/18 Bob Dog A solid space opera that would have been better with Lord&Miller irreverence. 4 stars
5/26/18 Jennifer Croissant This is one of the truly all-time great adventure movies, pure magic. 5 stars
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  25-May-2018 (PG-13)
  DVD: 25-Sep-2018


  DVD: 25-Sep-2018

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