Tuesday, May 15, 2018

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

Did we need a standalone Han Solo movie in the Star Wars universe? No, no we didn’t. But no one asked me, and in the grand scheme of things, unnecessary as it is, we could have done much worse than Solo: A Star Wars Story. Granted, we also could have done much better. It’s a wildly mixed bag, but with the utter chaos behind the scenes—the ousting of directors Chris Lord and Phil Miller 2/3 of the way through production, the recasting, the rewrites, the reshoots—worse was always on the table as a very real possibility.

Overlong and overstuffed—we apparently need forced origin stories for every facet of Han’s character, from the groan-inducing way he got his name to how he stumbled upon some of his favorite catch phrases—there are things that will make Star Wars fans cringe and smile equal measure. Various chase scenes and heists carry the franchise’s swashbuckling high adventure mantle. And at the minimum, most of Solo is reasonably fun. At least until the final act, when it turns into a messy jumble of questionable narrative choices and dubious motives.

Alden Ehrenreich takes over the Han Solo role and the film traces his origins as a Dickensian street urchin on his home planet Corellia. He’s in love with a girl, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), but fate tears them apart and he sets out upon a great adventure and falls in with an outlaw crew made up of his new criminal mentor Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), and Rio (voiced by Jon Favreau). Thus begins his real education, which throws him into the orbit of vicious gangsters like Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), his new walking carpet BFF Chewbacca, and fellow scoundrels like Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover filling Billy Dee Williams’ shoes).

As Han, Ehrenreich is…fine. I was admittedly skeptical because in all the trailers, he looks like sucking charisma void. But he’s better than I feared; he’s fine. He has some charm and almost-spark, sells the melodramatic romance angle well enough, and is full of half-cocked, improvised schemes that never quite work as planned.

Ehrenreich is fine. And while that’s all well and good, when we’re talk about a character as iconic as Han Solo, one of the most beloved cinematic figures of all time, fine doesn’t cut it. Especially when Harrison Ford played Han in 2015 in The Force Awakens. That memory is all too fresh and Solo never fully escapes that looming shadow. Maybe this won’t be an issue for some people, perhaps younger viewers without the same connection to Han, but Ehrenreich never makes the role his own. Watching him, all I ever thought was that this kid is just doing a swaggerless Han Solo impression.

It doesn’t help matters that Solo tries to have it both ways with the title character. The story sets him down the path to being the untrusting, cynical rogue we first meet in A New Hope. That’s great, but at the same time, it repeatedly hammers the fact that, for all his posturing, he’s the good guy. Part of what makes Han so great is that we get to watch him transform from a self-interested criminal out for number one into a legitimate hero. It’s a difficult transition for him, and more than any other character in the saga, he has the most clearly defined arc. Solo tries to make him the guy who shoots first and the guy who ultimately does the right thing. The two sides can’t necessarily coexist, especially not with what we’re given here. If he was always going to do the right thing, his evolution in the original trilogy becomes an inevitability and loses its impact. And he’s going to be a shitty criminal to boot.

Ehrenreich does what he can, but he’s wooden and has one shtick—we get it, he wants to be an outlaw but has a warm, gooey center. After a while, it turns into a drudge. Fortunately for everyone, Lando shows up and injects some much-needed life into the proceedings. Billy Dee Williams is great, but Donald Glover takes over the role—while I kept thinking of Harrison Ford watching Ehrenreich, I never once had that thought watching Glover. He oozes charm and smooth cool—seriously, he has an entire cape closet and I’m pretty sure at one point he wears a cape over another cape and pulls it off. This is also by far the most time we spend with Lando, and we see a wider range than ever, including a strong connection with his radical droid sidekick, L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge). They get the most emotional moment of the entire film.

The weight the supporting players carry varies from case to case. Along with Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke sells the sappy love story well enough. It’s not particularly interesting, but it does what’s needed for the most part. Chewy is Chewy, though it’s nice to see him get more to do than in the last two Episode movies. Thandie Newton’s Val is more or less a wash, which is a shame because she could have been something special in the Star Wars canon. Dryden Vos begins as a scary-as-hell gangster, though when he shows up again later, that’s not the case—that’s not Paul Bettany’s fault, blame for that lies fully on the script. Of the secondary characters, Woody Harrelson’s Beckett offers the most intrigue. He essentially becomes a proto-mentor to the young Han and this is where he picks up many of his trademark tics and foibles.

Over the first two-thirds of the characters fulfill their roles as they would. Their choices are justified and make sense, and there’s a consistency to their actions. But that changes as the plot nears the climax. Characters act against type. And not in a complex or earned way like the script intends, but in a cheap, hammy, convenient way. It tries to create this web of shifting allegiances, betrayals, and moral ambiguity, but instead of working to develop those possibilities, it just slaps them on like bumper stickers. They’re twists for the sake of having twists and the result is, instead of shock or surprise, a hollow ringing emptiness.

The timeline is a bit dubious. Like I said, they try to cram in a lot—if it’s an iconic piece of Han lore, Solo attempts to visualize it, like every momentous event in his life happened in one compressed era. That said, replacement director Ron Howard and writers Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan paint a different picture of that far, far away galaxy. Set between Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars Rebels, the Empire is present, but it hasn’t fully tightened its grip yet. This is a more of a creeping tide of fascism than a full-blown authoritarian regime; it’s a time of syndicates and cartels operating in the cracks, very much intended to be like the wild west. There are small outfits, like Beckett’s; rival crews, like the one led by masked marauder Enfys Nest; and major crime networks, like the Crimson Dawn, Dryden Vos’ operation. It’s nice to get away from the Jedi and the Skywalkers and see how the rest of the galaxy lives, which is what these Star Wars Story films were originally intended to do.

In Howard’s hands, the action is slick and solid. An early chase scene through the streets of Corellia stands out, as does a western-inspired train heist. Cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma) paints lovely pictures of the exotic planets, from snow-capped mountains to sweeping desert vistas to dingy urban settings. As one might expect from a Star Wars movie, the creature design is on point—one in particular has distinct shades of Dark Crystal, while there are Lovecraftian flourishes found as well.

Overall, Solo: A Star Wars Story is an up and down ride, and I mean that in both good and bad ways. There’s soaring space adventure and bland tedium; we see fantastic renditions of beloved characters juxtaposed against ho-hum portrayals of others. It works best when it settles the cocky, cavalier action and cheesy romance, but tries to do too much and is in desperate need of a trim. It’s fine, but when talking about Han Solo, is fine good enough? [Grade: C+]

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