Movie Review – Solo: A Star Wars Story

Principal Cast : Alden Ehrenriech, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Paul Bettany, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo.
Synopsis:  During an adventure into a dark criminal underworld, Han Solo meets his future copilot Chewbacca and encounters Lando Calrissian years before joining the Rebellion.

****

This review contains mild spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story

Plagued by behind-the-scenes production issues – including replacing original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller after the film had been almost entirely shot – there’s a sense of trepidation heading into the latest offering from Disney and Lucasfilm, Solo: A Star Wars Story. Hollywood history is littered with the rotting husks of films that have been “saved” by studios replacing directors, actors or even entire scripts heading into theatrical release, and the general fear for this film centred around whether incoming director Ron Howard, shooting from a Lawrence and Jake Kasdan screenplay, could salvage something from what (at least from the outside) appeared to be a trainwreck production for one of the industry’s prestige franchises. Solo is an anthology Star Wars film, similar to Rogue One in that it deviates from the Episode saga and delves into an alternate branch of the main franchise, in this case giving us an origin story for one of the original trilogy’s most beloved characters, Han Solo. Free of the dictates of a Skywalker Saga film, Solo has the opportunity to expand not only Star Wars lore but also flesh out the motives and mystery behind the galaxy’s most notorious smuggler, here played by a youthful Alden Ehrenriech.

Set between Revenge Of The Sith and A New Hope, Solo tells the story of Han’s formative years, beginning on his homeworld Corellia, a destitute cesspool echoing Mos Eisley’s aesthetic of “a hive of scum and villainy”, where inhabitants scrounge simply to survive. Hoping to escape the planet, Han and Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke – Game Of Thrones) are separated at the last minute, with Han joining the Imperial Navy while Qi’ra is trapped behind. Years later, Han joins up with career criminal Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri) and his crew who are attempting to steal a valuable substance to power starships for crime lord Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany – Avengers: Infinity War). After their initial heist is hijacked by a pack of ravagers, Beckett, Han and Imperial Wookie prisoner Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) decide to steal the unrefined substance from a distant mining colony. The mission is fraught with danger, so they enlist the services of debonair racketeer Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover – Atlanta) and his robotic associate L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge – Goodbye Christopher Robin).

Solo: A Star Wars Story wasn’t a story anybody was asking for. The trouble with the anthology franchise films have always been the gradual unwrapping of characters and stories that are perhaps best left wrapped; Rogue One, while an excellent film, hinged on the idea in the opening crawl of A New Hope and left many displeased with the outcome, while Solo, despite the best intentions of all involved, hones in on the Year One of everyone’s favourite renegade smuggler and does a disservice in some ways to Harrison Ford’s iconic portrayal of the character. The argument about revisiting known quantities or attempting to tell new and unique stories with different characters other than ones we know about will always rage: Solo does little to quell this fire.

The film is a bit of a mess. Oh, it’s handsomely mounted and delivers some rousing spectacle in the vein of George Lucas’ overall aesthetic, and there’s a few laughs and winks to the audience along the way, but at the end of the day it’s just meaningless. The story of Han’s introduction to Chewbacca for the first time doesn’t nail the emotional impact I had hoped, even though throughout the film their bond becomes one of the highlights of Kasdan’s script. Han himself occasionally feels like a supporting role against both Glover’s Lando and Clarke’s Qi’ra, both of whom offer more mystery and enthusiasm in their less prominent status than the title character ever does, and although Ehrenreich acquits himself admirably in the thankless task of making us forget about Harrison Ford for a moment, he never feels authentic in the part. This is less to do with Ehrenreich and a lot to do with Ron Howard and the Kasdans.

The film crosses between heist movie and old fashioned western, with Bradford Young’s desaturated cinematography (why?) evoking the visuals of both a gritty, urban war movie and a sprawling sand-riddled adventure. The film’s key set-pieces, particularly the highlighted “train theft” from the trailers, are legitimately exciting, with Ron Howard handling the multi-pronged character beats really, really well, while the Millennium Falcon’s “Kessel Run” (name-checked by Han himself in A New Hope) more than lives up to the hype. But it’s the middle bits, the grinding story elements and flatly written character moments that never quite work here. Paul Bettany’s Dryden Voss ain’t no Jabba The Hutt, and his motivation is driven purely by sadistic satisfaction to the point he’s more caricature than character. Woody Harrleson’s Beckett has plenty of barnacled depth to him, and played like he stepped out of a Robert Louis Stevenson pirate novella comes with a subtle glint in the eye the audience will always enjoy. And the less said about L3, the better: suffice to suggest Phoebe Waller-Bridge does a great job in a role that’s achingly awful, as the “comedy relief droid” in a film trying hard to both accept it and avoid it.

It should be mentioned that the direction by Ron Howard is, simply put, professional. This is a film that feels constructed to contrast against the sultry, melancholy tones of The Last Jedi’s sombre reception, and to a degree it works. But there’s fun, and then there’s Capital F fun, and baby Solo is very much the former, not the latter. Sputtering character development and misfiring emotional arcs – as well as hugely predictable plot twists and double-crosses – mire this film in juvenile antics the series asks us to swallow with the same bitter taste many did for The Last Jedi. Whereas at least The Last Jedi knew what it wanted to do and did it despite fan outcry, Solo is a film that doesn’t seem to know exactly what it wants to be.

No, the force (ha!) meant to unite the fans and draw us into Han’s story here is absent. Meatless skeletal story structure and a reliance on fan service reduce Solo to a middle-teir Star Wars movie. It’s occasionally fun and very slick and delivers momentary diversions from your daily grind, but as a cohesive whole there’s a thinness to it all. Popcorn cinema is exactly what Star Wars has always been, but the veneer Ron Howard and his brave production team smother this film in “you’ll have fun and you’ll damn well like it” style doesn’t work as well as it needs to. While I did enjoy myself at times, Solo is a frustrating event film that fails to do the franchise justice.

© 2018, Rodney Twelftree. All rights reserved.