Friday, 15 June 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Struggling to survive in the slums of Corellia, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and his lover Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) have plans to get away from their surroundings and explore the galaxy. However, between the numerous mercenary factions that populate their sector of space and the lurking presence of the Galactic Empire, that task may prove more difficult than they first anticipated. As Han gets deeper and deeper into the criminal underbelly, he begins to make connections and friends amongst the scum and villainy that would lead him on a path to becoming one of the galaxy's greatest heroes.

Ehrenreich is about as perfect as we’re likely to get as far as a look at a younger and snarkier Han Solo. He wears cockiness like a second skin, and given the performance he turned in a while back in Hail Caesar!, it makes his outright bombast and bravado shine even brighter in the comparison. Clarke… oh dear. To be clear, she is perfectly fine in the role as Han’s love interest, but the fact that I’m defining her character in those terms should give a decent indication of what doesn’t feel right about this. She’s doing her best with the material, even getting some well-deserved moments of badass, but it feels like too much focus was put on making her morally ambiguous and not enough on making her… well, her. Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian not only nails the too-cool-for-the-room charisma that made Billy Dee Williams’ portrayal as fun as it was, he also brings in his own brand of smoothness that allows him to make the character his own. Bonus points for actually making the “turns out Lando is pansexual” bit of outside lore seem feasible and (speaking personally here) quite appealing. Gotta say, I like what he’s whipping up here.

Woody Harrelson as Han’s initial mentor hits grizzled cowboy in all the right ways, making for a nicely collected and wilful personality on screen. Thandie Newton as his wife and literal partner-in-crime shows remarkable chemistry alongside Harrelson and makes a very solid impression, made even more incredible considering the film doesn’t take that much time out to focus on her. Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Lando’s first mate L3 makes for another great droid character, with her loud revolutionary spirit making for some damn cathartic moments. Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca continues to work really well as a physical presence, made even more so by how much he gets to cut loose during the action beats, and Paul Bettany as the evil crime boss works out nicely, but given the villains we’ve already seen in this latest crop of Star Wars flicks, he’s an unfortunate low bar.

So, originally, this film was to be helmed by LEGO Movie directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. However, they wound up leaving that post to one Ron Howard over “creative differences”. Now, even though Lord and Miller are two filmmakers who I wouldn’t want to see leave a production like this on those terms… I honestly think it was a move for the better. For one, both Lord and Miller thought that this was going to be a lot more comedic than the higher-ups were planning, and having seen the final result, I don’t think that tone would have worked as well.
And for another, if there’s one thing Ron Howard is good at it, it’s making the borders of a cinema screen feel like an entire universe unto itself. He knows how to provide grand spectacle, even when working with lesser material like his Dan Brown adaptations or his take on the Moby Dick story, and this film absolutely benefits from that. As a straight-up action flick, this earns high marks because it provides a lot of effective and varied action set pieces for our characters to work with, from the mud-flinging brawl with 'The Beast' to the ash-covered battleground of an Imperial skirmish to the visualisation of the now-legendary 'Kessel Run'. It builds on the practical and more war-oriented aesthetic of Rogue One and the Sequels to provide a pretty solid look at the seedier underbelly of this war.

But that’s in terms of visceral action; what about the story? I mean, we’re dealing with a character prequel, so this needs to operate on more than just being populated with famous names. Well, this is where the film falters somewhat, and quite bizarrely at that. It pinpoints rather crucial character-building moments for Han Solo and uses them as a springboard for the rest of the narrative: How he met Chewbacca, how he met Lando, how he got the Millennium Falcon, what exactly the Kessel Run is, etc. As far as delivering on his personal story, this film does quite well.
But he is only part of the whole picture, and for a film explicitly meant to be about him, that is a bit disconcerting. We are given a smattering of both new and familiar characters to work with, most of whom are both engaging and feel like they have a reason to be on-screen, but Han ends up getting lost in the shuffle of making sure that everyone gets their turn. It really says something when this film includes a droid uprising and revolt against the humans that enslaved them, and that is barely even a sub-plot in this two-and-a-half-hour affair; it’s that cluttered. Add to that the rather loose story structure, feeling more like the means to string action scenes together than a cohesive whole story, and the fun starts to be chipped away at.

Which is honestly a disappointment because, even beyond the action scenes, there is some definite worth to be dug out of the script’s subtler touches. And it all starts with the name of the film: Solo. ‘Han Solo’ as a character name carries the usual heavy-handedness that would mark a lot of Lucas’ contributions to his own creation (the rebellious loner has the last name ‘Solo’; subtle(!)). But here, the film actually delves into that slice of mild triteness and comes out with a pretty solid notion: What it means to be the loner in the Star Wars universe.
Throughout the film, we are shown the slums of the galaxy, populated by the many people that the Empire has separated, killed, enslaved, tortured or otherwise. Not as a collective group, but as individual people; like any ‘great’ regime, the Empire picked these people off one-by-one until they had a tidy collection of the oppressed. As individuals, especially when up against the Empire or even any of the mercenary factions vying for power, they are powerless. Of course, this goes back to the idea that I’ve mentioned quite a few times in past reviews: When a group makes an effort to single out and punish another group of people, however disparate they may be, they start to recognise the oppressors as the enemy. It’s another showing of the Rebellion against the Empire in full force, similar to Rogue One, but it embeds itself into the criminal element to show that while union is a nice thing, it’s a luxury that some can’t afford.

All in all, while definitely a fun popcorn flick, it’s a popcorn flick in one of the more disheartening ways: A little less action and a little more conversation would have been nice. The acting ranges from good to outright perfect (seriously, Ehrenreich and Glover are that damn good in their roles here), the action scenes are good while showing plenty of variety, and Ron Howard’s direction gives this sprawling adventure the epic scope that it deserves. Hell, Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan’s writing even manages to build on the ethos of the Abrams-era Star Wars universe while still giving this story its own identity. But at the end of the day, this still feels more video game than film in its fixation on action beats over coherent story, since the latter largely exists to string together the former. Given what peeks through the cracks of the writing here, this is a good film that could have been a great film if some of the focus was re-directed.

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