Solo: A Star Wars StoryReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/22/18 09:22:33
The arrival of “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” the latest entry in the long-running and highly lucrative film franchise and the second spin-off film to come out that is not a part of the currently unfolding trilogy, is an event that even the most dedicated members of its devoted fanbase may regard with more than a little suspicion. For one thing, while moviegoers used to have to wait three years or so between the films, this marks the fourth “Star Wars” property to hit screens since 2015, leading to the very distinct possibility that most audiences may be getting to the point where they need a bit of a break from them. More significantly, this was a film with a number of well-publicized production problems that culminated with the original directing team of Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, hot off of “The Lego Movie,” being fired with reportedly less than three weeks until the completion of principal photography amidst rumors of clashes between them and the producers and the suggestion that star Alden Ehrenreich required acting lessons. Granted, recent “Star Wars” productions have not always run smoothly—“Rogue One” underwent extensive reshoots and the original directors for a planned Boba Fest spinoff and “Episode IX,” Josh Trank and Colin Trevorrow were both sacked before they even got near the cameras—but to can the directors that late in the process suggested a production that was in serious trouble and the hiring of Ron Howard to come in and take over (reportedly reshooting between 70-80% of the film, depending on who is telling the tale) further indicated that the producers were now less concerned with doing something a little off-beat (which was presumably the idea behind the hiring of Lord & Miller in the first place) and more interested in simply getting the damn thing done in the quickest and most painless manner possible (which would explain the hiring of Howard, a good director when blessed with good material but not exactly the most daring or innovative member of the DGA). The fact that the film would make an extremely high-profile debut at the Cannes Film Festival suggested at least some degree of confidence in it but my guess is that most will approach it with a level of trepidation not seen since “Attack of the Clones” arrived in the wake of the thunderously underwhelming “The Phantom Menace.”As it turns out, after all the strain and conflict, “Solo” is pretty much the very definition of a mixed bag. It is nowhere near the disaster that some may have expected—as two hours-plus of high-tech eye candy go, it is fairly well-made, contains a number of instances of humor and excitement and is much less of a chore to sit through than, say, “Avengers: Infinity War.” At the same time, however, while it has clearly dodged any number of bullets on its tortured path to the big screen, it never really makes much of a case for justifying its own existence. There is an odd lack of urgency to the proceedings that cannot be explained simply by the fact that it is a prequel supposedly designed to flesh out the backstories of characters whose exploits will no doubt be familiar to anyone even thinking of buying a ticket. “Rogue One” managed to avoid this problem by creating a storyline and a group of new characters that generated their own sense of drama while at the same time filling in the blanks in a previously established narrative. “Solo,” is more like expensively produced fan fiction that is entertaining enough but never quite manages to find its own footing to stand on its own
As the story opens, Han (Ehrenreich) is living on the planet Correllia as part of a group of thieves in the service of crime boss Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt). After scoring a small amount of coaxium, the rare mineral used to produce starship fuel, and stealing a speeder, he devises a plan to keep the prize for himself and use it as a bribe to help him and Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), a fellow thief that he is sweet on, escape from Corellia and be together forever. After the requisite extended chase and shootout, the plan goes sideways as Qi’ra is captured and Han escapes only by enlisting in the Empire in the hopes of becoming a pilot so that he can one day return to Corellia and rescue Qi’ra. Three years later, kicked out of flight school for insubordination and sent to serve as cannon fodder in some meaningless conflict, Han sees his chance to escape when he happens upon a group of smugglers, led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and including his wife, Val (Thandie Newton), and wacky alien pilot Rio Durant (Jon Favreau), and tries to join up with them. Although he initially rebuffs him, Tobias is impressed by Han’s ability to spring himself from a dungeon and agrees to take both him and the fellow prisoner he is handcuffed too, a Wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), along to help out on their next big score, a raid on an Imperial monorail loaded with coaxium as it winds its way through an impossibly high mountain range.
Once again, things go gunny and Han is forced to make a decision that ditches the cargo and leaves him and the others in deep debt to the man they were working for, intergalactic gangster Dryden Vos. After arriving on Dryden’s ship in an effort to strike some kind of deal to save their lives, Han is shocked to find that Qi’ra is not only there but is working as one of his most trusted lieutenants. With her help, Han is able to make a deal to replace the lost coaxium by flying off to the remote planet of Kessel where the mineral is found, stealing a load of it in its extremely volatile form and then speeding it off to a refinery on another distant planet to process it before it becomes unstable and explodes. To have even the slimmest chance of pulling off this mission requires the use of the fastest available ship and luckily, Qi’ra, who has been sent by Dryden to accompany Han and the others, has a line on a guy with just such a craft. That would be gambler and bon vivant Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and after a momentous round at the gambling tales, the two develop an instant mistrust for each other. However, Lando agrees to take them on his craft, the Millennium Falcon, and soon they are off for the requisite amount of adventure, betrayal and the filling in of various backstories.
When it is well-known that a film contains material from directors other than those officially credited, it is tempting to try to analyze the scenes in depth in order to divine who was responsible for what. Until people begin to talk about who did what, we will never know what material in “Solo” was done by Howard and what was done by Lord & Miller before they got the boot. If I had to guess, however, I would probably say that Lord & Miller were probably responsible for most of the Lando-related material on display as it displays a somewhat more bent sense of humor that hews closer to what they were doing in films like “The Lego Movie” and “21 Jump Street.” This is especially true of the stuff involving Lando’s co-pilot, a feisty droid named L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) who preaches emancipation for her fellow robots, often at the most inopportune times, and exchanges banter with Lando that is curious, to say the least. These scenes are among the best in the film because they best epitomize the premise that these spin-off films were theoretically supposed to serve—creating an opportunity to explore different aspects of the vast “Star Wars” universe, both narratively and stylistically, without disrupting the central saga. The rest of the film, by comparison, has been produced in a smooth and efficient manner that is entertaining enough but which hardly pushes the stylistic envelope in any way. As Ron Howard joints go, it is one of his better ones of late but any traces of the guy who once made such sprightly gems as “Night Shift” and “Splash” are nowhere to be found here. Then again, his primary objective was to bring a troubled production together so as to avoid disaster and in the respect, his work here is a success.
No, the real problem with “Solo” is the fact that the screenplay by Jonathan Kasdan and his father, the great screenwriter and “Star Wars” veteran Lawrence Kasdan, is probably the choppiest and most uneven of the entire franchise to date. The screenplays for the prequels were worse, of course, but at least they managed to maintain a consistent tone and drive throughout. The opening scenes are surprisingly lumpy, especially when you consider the fact that the Han Solo character is so thoroughly established in the minds of practically everyone who will be seeing the film. In trying to jump-start the story, introduce a new collection of characters and their relationships to Han and include bits in which the origins of a number of Han’s most famous characteristics, the Kasdans never quite find the right groove and things seem to be going all over the place. The parts giving us our first glimpses of Han-related iconography are especially embarrassing at times. While getting a chance to see the first meeting of Han and Chewbacca is undeniably fun, I would say that taking time out to explain how Han acquired his last name and blaster are unnecessary at best and pandering fan service at worst. Once the story gets to the monorail raid, however, it finally clicks into a nice heist movie groove that sustains things for the next hour or so, bolstered in no small part by the introduction to Lando and the long-awaited depiction of the legendary Kessel Run. Alas, after that undeniably thrilling sequence, the screenplay once again bogs down with a seemingly unending series of surprise revelations and betrayals that do little for the story at hand other than to evidently set up a second “Solo” project—how else to explain how one key character just basically disappears from the proceedings without any proper resolution to their plot line?
Probably the biggest disappointment on display in “Solo” is the way that the Han/Qi’ra relationship desperately tries to strike the same sort of epic romantic sparks that the Han-Leia did in the original trilogy. Like their predecessors, they bicker and banter throughout but unlike their predecessors, you never get any real sense that the two of them are on the same wavelength at any point in the proceedings. I should hasten to add, however, that I suspect that the problem here is more the fault of the script than anything else as both Ehrenreich and Clarke are both good and charismatic actors. As Han, Ehrenreich has the unenviable position of stepping into the shoes of the character that made Harrison Ford an international star and I have to say that he mostly pulls it off—he manages to evoke the combination of swagger and lightly concealed sense of decency that Ford brought to the part while still bringing enough new touches to the proceedings so that it is more than just an impression. As mentioned earlier, Glover steals every single scene that he appears in as Lando to such entertaining degrees that most people will find themselves wishing that they had been watching a movie devoted to his character instead. As for the newcomers to the fold, Woody Harrelson is entertaining enough but it is a performance that you have seen him give in any number of other movies while Thandie Newton and Emilia Clarke are both kind of wasted in roles that don’t begin to tap what they are capable of delivering as actresses. This last part is especially disheartening since one of the best things about the recent run of “Star Wars” movies has been the surprisingly meaty roles giving to the likes of Daisy Ridley, Felicity Jones, Laura Dern and the late, great Carrie Fisher—“Solo” doesn’t put the franchise back to square one in this particular regard but it certainly seems like a weird and unnecessary fail.As a supplement to the “Star Wars” saga, “Solo” is a handsomely produced and reasonably entertaining movie that will no doubt entertain fans of the franchise. Unlike “Rogue One,” the other standalone film to date, it never quite generates enough interest in its story or characters so that it is able to fully succeed as its own individual thing. The story meanders badly in the early and late going, the in-jokes and references get a little tiresome after a while and at nearly 2 1/2 hours in length, it does wear out its welcome towards the end. This is not to suggest that it is a bad movie per se—i had a reasonably good time while watching it (especially the Lando stuff) and I would rank it above any of the entries in the prequel trilogy and “Return of the Jedi.” However, with the exception of that hideous animated film from a few years ago, this is the first “Star Wars” feature that I have seen that felt more like a piece of product more than anything else. Considering the fact that any “Star Wars” film is pretty much guaranteed to earn a billion dollars at the box office, I just wish that the producers had taken advantage of the unique advantages of doing a Han Solo-related prequel (no talk of the Force, no members of the extended Skywalker family, an avowed anti-hero at its center) to give viewers something a little more distinct and memorable. As it is, “Solo” sort of works but with the exception of the Lando stuff, you will be hard pressed to remember any of it the day after seeing it.
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