Solo: A Star Wars Story
How much Star Wars can you handle? We’ve had two entries in what is shaping up to be a quite impressive continuation of the central saga, and one very decent effort in the spin-off line. All seemed fine and dandy, even with Solo, with a good cast a seemingly good set of directors.
And then, and then, and then. Solo’s production problems, which have seen costs spiral and may yet place the film on the same level as John Carter in terms of bombing, have been well-documented, but we should be fair and evaluate this, the 10th Star Wars film, on the merits of the product placed before us. Whatever about re-shoots, acting coaches and reduced marketing budgets, this is still a studio that has delivered consistently with its film-making recently, and they deserve some patience for that. And hell, it’s a Han Solo story: what self-proclaimed Star Wars fan could say with a straight face that such a prospect does not interest them in some way?
A few years after managing to escape the grim underworld of his home planet, would-be outlaw Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) falls in with enslaved Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), cynical mastermind Beckett (Woody Harrelson), famed smuggler Lando (Donald Glover), liberation-minded droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and old flame Qi’ra (Emelia Clarke) in order to undertake a dangerous heist of Imperial hyperfuel for crimelord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Millennium Falcon’s, Kessel runs, and high-risk games of sabaac abound, as Han has to found out if he is as roguish as he likes to make out he is.
Solo was, pretty much, exactly what I expected. It’s not the best Star Wars film, and it certainly isn’t the worst. I did not find myself questioning why this film was made in the first place. I enjoyed it, without ever feeling like I needed to see another one. It has its bad parts, and it has some very good parts.
The highest point of praise is simply that Solo captures the inherent fun of the Stars Wars universe, in its Saturday morning serial style adventure plot, full of set-pieces, with lots of unique, fantastical characters, ridiculous bad guys and a devil-may-care anti-hero out to make his name in the universe. At times, dealing with the hyper analysis of the recent Star Wars offerings, you tend to forget that these films are supposed to be escapist myth-making at their heart, and Solo gets that, embracing its silliness without ever becoming a laugh-fest, and maintaining the drama without ever becoming too dramatic. Indeed, the father-son screenwriting team of Lawrence and Jonathan Kazdan have rafted something that at times feels a bit more like Indiana Jones than Star Wars, and that’s OK. There are no Jedi, no Force powers, no intergalactic politics and no sense that the fate of the universe is at stake: just a bunch of criminals out to do crime.
Ehrenreich does a mostly good job as everyone’s favourite smuggler. I loved him in Hail, Caesar!, and though it’s hard to compare the two parts, I’d happily describe his turn in Solo as up to the same standard. What I liked was that it isn’t just a Harrison Ford impression, this is a different Han, one who is still sometimes faking the confidence and the smarm instead of actually having it in spades. The voice is obviously off, but I got over that quickly: the mannerisms, the glint in the eyes, the cocksure attitude in the face of adversity, they are present. Ehrenreich has good comedic timing and enough pathos for serious turns, and I feel he doesn’t deserve some of the scorn that has been sent flying his way in the course of the production.
Some may certainly balk at the films characterisation of Solo, with an emphasis on his positive side, that brushes against the edges of idealistic naivete. But, on reflection, I feel like this fits. After all, this is Han’s beginning, not his end, and as A New Hope will make abundantly clear, Han is, fundamentally, a decent person who will generally do the right thing. He’s the rogue with the heart of gold: it’s the second part that actually makes him interesting. Solo gets a bit blunt with this assessment at times, but there are moments, especially in a surprisingly under-stated third act finale, when Han gets the chance to showcase more of that “shot first” side of his personality.
But it is the supporting cast that shines a bit brighter if I’m being honest. There’s obviously Donald Glover, the 21st Century’s own Renaissance Man, who embodies Lando Calrissian with aplomb; Woody Harrelson boss character, who comes to symbolise the cynical take-no-prisoners aspect of the criminal lifestyle; Clarke as Han’s old Corellian paramour, now hiding some dark secrets; Suotamo in the Chewbacca suit, with it almost strange to see the Wookie being so active on-screen; and Waller-Bridge voicing L3, a droid with a personality so evolved that she is focused mostly on liberating her fellow droids, a concept Star Wars has traditionally shied away from.
The mix is eclectic, allowing Solo to be part-heist film, part character drama. Most important of all, everyone fits into things, and doesn’t feel thrown in: in different hands, I’m sure a host of characters, from Greedo to Jabba, would be turning up here for one-note cameos, but Howard restrains himself. In Han’s verbal sparring with Lando or Qi’ra, with the easy back-and-forth camaraderie between smugglers, Solo manages to capture just a little bit of the same kind of dynamic that so made the original trilogy what it was, and all for a story where you could easily imagine being a ragtag group of resistance fighters stealing uranium from the Nazis. It has a good balance of drama to comedy, and I feel that maybe Howard was the right pair of hands to find that balance.
And the sub-plots are varied too. Chewbacca is out looking for his enslaved tribe, Qi’ra is rising in the ranks of the criminal underworld, Lando and L3 share a supremely odd quasi-romantic relationship, and Beckett just wants one big score to get under Vos’ thumb. Most of this stuff is pretty small-scale in practise, but helps to make Solo, despite its title, more of an ensemble piece than anything else. The one mistake may be a romantic side-plot between Han and Qi’ra: Han and Leia it ain’t, and I actually feel that Star Wars should shy away from romantic adventures, being only 1-2 on that side of things.
Where Solo really errs is in its apparent need, or maybe requirement, to have an origin story for every minor thing to do with Han Solo, from his name, to his blaster, to the operating system of the Millennium Falcon, all packed into one adventure, as if everything defining about his life happened in the space of a weekend. Occasionally such narrative knots threaten to drag the whole experience down, which is a shame when one looks at the interesting things that are going on elsewhere.
The story’s villain, in Paul Bettany, is also not all that great, a return to the idea of an antagonist looking a bit weird and mindlessly killing people instead of being actually interesting. And on that point, a late-in-the-game reveal of the real villain is bound to cause some eye-rolling.
The second of the Star Wars Story line does actually improve upon some of the sins of the first, with a general toning down of the non-stop non-sequester referencing of other elements of the franchise, which grew to such endemic proportions in Rogue One. Here, such referencing seems superfluous, as the whole movie is essentially one giant reference, but I found that more palatable than Rogue One’s method of dropping a nod to something in every second sentence of dialogue. There is still an uncomfortable tie to the saga’s larger theme of “Empire vs Rebellion” which feels forced, but it only really becomes an important part of the story late-on.
But beyond any of that, Solo is an entertaining blockbuster spectacular, well-paced and driven, with its numerous sections set around some excellent set-pieces. Corellian speeder chases, Imperial warfare on a muddy alien world, mining rebellions, they all pop-up in their turn, but it’s in two very special sequences, a train heist and the famous “Kessel Run”, that Solo really shows off. Both are inventive, visually stimulating action scenes that get the heart-racing, and even the latter, where we get on the Falcon’s aft cannons for the third time in franchise history, still feels unique in its specific setting, reactions and outcomes. They are the kind of sequences that define the possibilities of the Star Wars universe, and what makes them still worth that big-screen experience. One moment, where Solo dips into the nether realms of Lovecraftian horror, is an especially great use of CGI wizardry.
On a larger visual level, Solo is a slightly mixed bag. The seams of two directing teams are pasted over a good bit better than they were in, say, Justice League, but are still sometimes a tad evident. Solo generally opts for very muted colours, that fit the criminal underbelly that is being depicted for the most part, and makes certain characters, especially the very flashy Lando, stand out even more. Solo makes its home underground, in ships, in caves, in snowy or desert wastes, and in the mud (literally), and Howard/Lord/Miller direction reflects that. At times, it even gets the Rogue One treatment, in the visceral depiction of battle between grubby, hard-pressed soldiers, most especially in a look at the not so exemplary side of the Empire’s nation-building early on. The production details are, as ever for Star Wars, fantastic, from Lando’s collection of capes, to the various breeds, seeds and generations of different alien life-forms.
Solo’s financial struggles mean that the sequel set-up by the films conclusion will likely never come to pass, and I think Solo is a complete enough story that it isn’t really something we need to see. Hopefully, we may see Disney be a bit more careful with its choice of directors in future, and maybe, if we’re very lucky, a revaluation of the current strategy of releasing one of these a year, a bit of cinematic overkill that will inevitably result in diminishing returns. Boba Fett or Obi-Wan is next in the Star Wars Story line, but maybe they might decide something a bit more original will be in order.
But moving away from that, I liked Solo. It’s a nice bit of escapist sci-fi adventure, that shows us more of several characters we all love, in a universe that even the most be grudging of purists will like settling into again for two hours and change. The cast does a good job, it looks great and I think that it nails the depiction and character of the titular smuggler. It was worth making, and I think that history will be kind to it. I can’t say “Great shot kid, that was one in a million”, but at least I don’t have to say “What a piece of junk!”. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).