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SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018) review

May 27, 2018

 

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written by: Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan
produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur and Simon Emanuel
directed by: Ron Howard
rated: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action/violence)
runtime: 135 min.
U.S. release date: May 25, 2018

 

And now for the movie no one asked for – or maybe I’m, ahem, solo – in never thinking twice about the backstory of one of the most iconic scoundrels in the Star Wars universe. Harrison Ford’s Han Solo is the Han Solo we know and love and I don’t recall ever hearing fans yearn for tales of a twentysomething Corellian smuggler. We had all we needed to know about the wise-cracking, cynical, self-made pilot of the fastest “hunk of junk” in space, when we first met him in “Star Wars” back in 1977 and at no point did we lose sleep wondering what was going on with this cool guy who had a walking carpet for a copilot before we met them in the Catina. But, Disney and Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy have to maintain what has become “a brand” going and here we are – and guess what, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is a blast!

You read that right. Something happened literally days before watching this movie. I started to get excited albeit with trepidation and once I saw a clip of Han and Lando meeting for the first time, I was sold. It worked. It had a fitting tone and sly humor and it made me think I could drum up some anticipation for this. I felt like this movie could be fun and seeing more of the underworld of Star Wars – a place where smugglers and criminals navigate alongside (and sometimes under) the radar of the Empire – was appealing, maybe like revisiting a place that only existing in my young imagination. Needless to say, I found myself opening up to it and unexpectedly having a fun time getting my low expectations rewarded.

 

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The movie opens on the shipbuilding planet of Corellia, a dingy place where orphans fend for themselves under the grasp of gangster Lady Proxima. It’s here where we meet Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), a young man with desires to become a great pilot, desperate to escape enslavement with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) and experience freedom for the first time. After seeing an opportunity to leave, Han is separated from Qi’ra when they try to get off-world and winds up joining the Imperial Navy as a flight cadet in an attempt to escape his pursuers and also learn how to become a better pilot with the goal of getting a ship and reuniting with his love.

Fast-forward three years and we find Han thrust into a battle as an infantryman after being fired from the Academy for insubordination. Disillusioned and in over his head, Seen by his superiors as a cocky and disobedient deserter, Han is locked up where he meets Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), a Wookie he convinces to help him escape. Having previously noticed some thieves posing as Imperials soldiers, Han manages to persuade their leader, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) to let he and Chewie join his crew on their ship in yet another attempt to escape his situation. After some convincing by his four-armed cohort, Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau), Tobias admits he and his wife, Val (Thandie Newton) could use a pilot and the added strength of a Wookie on their next job, a train heist to steal a shipment of the hyperfuel Coaxium on the planet Vandor.

That job doesn’t go as planned thanks to the interference of maurader Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman), leader of a crew of pirates, putting Tobias in a hot spot with his employer, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), a ruthless crime lord and leader of the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate. To make it up to him, Han and Chewie offer to help Tobias steal unprocessed coaxium from the mines on Kessel and when they present this idea to Dryden on his space yacht, Han unexpectedly reunites with Qi’ra, who he learns has aligned herself with the Crimson Dawn since their separation. Dryden agrees to the offer as long as Qi’ra joins them and since they’re in need of a ship, she leads them to Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, pitch-perfect), captain of the Millennium Falcon.

 

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To convince Lando to join them, Han challenges him to a game of sabaac, waging the suave smuggler’s ship and although he doesn’t win the card game, Lando agrees to join their mission for a percentage of the profits. Together, with Lando’s testy copilot L3-37 (a superb Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a self-made droid with a passion to abolish droid enslavement, the rag-tag crew  embark on their perilous mission. Along the way, Han’s bond with Chewie strengthens and he must deal with his feelings for Qi’ra, not knowing she’s really not the woman he once knew. After some casualties and losses, Han winds up in the cockpit of the Falcon, using his cocksure stubbornness to prove his mettle as a pilot, in order to ensure he and his new friends make it out alive.

Of course, the recognizable characters make it out alive. You know what happens to Han Solo if you’ve seen 2015’s “The Force Awakens” (let’s not take for granted that this movie could be someone’s first “Star Wars” movie, as weird as that seems), just as we know Chewie  currently maintains the Falcon for Rey. Who knows what became of Lando in the proper episodic saga, but he seemed just fine when we last saw him kicking back at the end of “Return of the Jedi”. What “Solo” is doing is similar to what George Lucas (The Maker) did with the prequel trilogy (1999-2005), which is take us back to the early days of familiar characters. Most of those movies had some problems, but you can see the intent and the potential for some interesting stories (expand on what the audience knows and add some new characters), not to mention the introduction of different worlds and creatures. Overall, I’m down with that, but like any movie, it all depends on the story.

One of the writers here, Lawrence Kasdan, is someone who knows a thing or two (he co-wrote the last two episodes of the original trilogy, as well as “The Force Awakens“) about a certain scruffy-looking scoundrel, so the titular character is in good hands. Kasdan brought on his son, Jonathan, to finish off the script while he was working on “The Force Awakens”. So, one would assume the writing is in as good a pair of hands as Ron Howard, who is assigned directing duties here.  Howard was hired after Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“The LEGO Movie“) left the project over the age-old “creative differences” after four months of filming and wound up reshooting 70% of the film. Maybe Lord and Miller’s approach didn’t mesh well with the overall agenda at Lucasfilm and they ultimately had to make the best business decision for their product. Regardless, news like that never sits well with fans, so there was some definite concerns as to what the outcome of this project would be like.

 

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Well fear not, since Howard delivers a satisfying space action flick that could be considered a Western with a dash of noir inflections. While the Oscar-winning director is often overlooked and maybe taken for granted (some considered his hiring a “safe” move and that’s not necessarily a criticism), his work here is fast and loose and quite stimulating from a pure entertainment perspective. The mountainside heist sequence is large-scale and thrilling, with Howard generally investing in speed for the first half of the movie, keeping the story moving as characters and new locales are introductions. If anything, “Solo” is journeyman work from a veteran filmmaker who’s been in the business all his life. Call it safe, call it vanilla, for what it’s worth, it’s Howard’s best movie in years.

The story Howard is working with is somewhere between serviceable and good (albeit with a few jokes and call backs that don’t quite work), with the Kasdan’s unfortunately spending more time maneuvering some of these new characters around rather than focusing on the dynamic between Han and Chewie. The dynamic is there, right from the great first encounter between the duo, but I wanted more time with them, but supposedly we’ll get that more movies with these two. Right after the press screening of the movie, I started hearing rumblings from my peers that indicated my opinion of “Solo” would be in the minority. Fine – except that one of the complaints I heard was how this wasn’t the Han Solo will know. Knowing what this movie is doing, that kind of response really makes no sense to me.

The Kasdans aren’t going out of their way to include all of Han’s behavioral quirks since this isn’t yet the smug and salty heroic character we know so well. They’re laying an emotional foundation for the character, presenting us with a guy who just wants a better life with his girl beside him in a fast ship, which is quite refreshing since it adds new dimension to the character. They still write him into situations where he’s in over his head, where quick-thinking is needed and Han responds with a surprised look or a smirk and, well, that’s Han Solo.

But, the big question is how Alden Ehrenreich is in the boots of this iconic role. No one wants someone doing a young Ford impersonation, even if that person looks exactly like Ford pre-1977. Having really liked Ehrenreich’s previous work  (see “Hail, Caesar!” and “Rules Don’t Apply”), I can attest his work here is good and a proper fit for the lived-in character. Ehrenreich finds the bewilderment, frustration, and lopsided charms of Solo, giving the character an appropriate air of ambition and mischief to support the beginning stages of this reluctant rebel. Ehrenreich has solid chemistry with pretty much every character he pairs up with, especially Suotamo’s Chewbecca and Glover’s dead-on Lando Calrissian, yet something just wasn’t right between him and Clarke’s Qi’ra and maybe that’s because I felt she was playing the character such more reserved than his approach. That makes sense for most of the movie, since she has something to hide and maybe opening the movie with them already together and in love didn’t quite convince me of their status.

From the moment Lando is introduced, Glover all but steals the movie. You can see why he wanted this role from his opening lines. If you closed your eyes and just listened to him delivers his lines, you would think it’s Billy Dee Williams, and from there we see Lando in his smoothness, someone who has an eye for the ladies and an affinity for a good wardrobe. The fact that he has a whole closet in the Falcon dedicated to fancy capes says it all. Glover was just great working off everyone here and I wouldn’t mind at all seeing more of him. The inclusion of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s L3 as his mechanical partner adds a nice spark to the second half of “Solo”, bringing a new energy and comedic touch to a movie that’s obligated to Easter eggs and connections to what we already know.

 

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As for the posing threats in the story, Bettany’s Dryden Vos is the main one, I suppose, although I was never quite sure what he or this Crimson Dawn crime syndicate were all about. Bettany does a decent job at playing a straight-up villain with very little nuances, moreso jerky escalations of threats and a visible glow in his eyes and face when he gets really riled up. Much more interesting was Qi’ra’s character arch, who comes to serve as the femme fatale, playing her true feelings and motives close to the vest. When her ties to a greater villainy are revealed within the last fifteen minutes of the film, I rolled my eyes thinking it was a dumb move on the writers part (since it nudged viewers-in-the-know back to the previous prequels) and a missed opportunity to expand the universe and not revert to what we’ve seen before.

As expected, the visual effects of “Solo” are top-notch, with practical and CGI creatures spread throughout the movie, giving the tale a fully-realized feel, but what struck me the most was the cinematography. Kentuckian Bradford Young has done a stellar job in films such as “Selma“, “A Most Violent Year”, “Arrival” and the recent “Where is Kyra?” with an approach that makes use of available visual light. It’s going to be strange, even off-putting for some, but I found myself transfixed with his use of minimal light, opting shadows, fog and smoke to convey environments fitting for scenes inhabited by dubious characters. When Young shoots using daylight, he shoots right into it, but ultimately he’s a cinematographer who knows how to get out of the way, servicing the moment and the atmosphere. The end result may not feel like a typical Star Wars movie and that’s one of the reasons I like his work here.

Another aspect of the film I was impressed with was John Powell’s soundtrack. The composer worked with longtime Star Wars composer John Williams, who composed and conducted two pieces for the film, which resulted in the theme, “The Adventures of Han” for the film, but the rest is all Powell. I really liked how he used previous music by Williams and incorporated it into this own thing, yet still identifiable to those familiar with those iconic soundtracks. For example, you can definitely hear “The Asteroid Field” from “The Empire Strikes Back” during the Kessel Run, which is fitting because both scenes require the Millennium Falcon to maneuver through perilous situations. Powell’s score is both rousing and intimate where it needs to be, offering distinctive touches to set it apart from the other Star Wars movies, yet all his own.

I’ll admit that Star Wars becoming a brand has made Star Wars movies less special. Since “The Force Awakens” we’re no longer wondering if and when there’s going to be another Star Wars movie. It’s a guaranteed annual thing. If “The Last Jedi” taught us anything though, it’s that a Star Wars movie doesn’t have to check off everyone’s little boxes for what a Star Wars movie has to be. In fact, fans would do best to get rid of their checklist altogether. “Solo” is closer to becoming the standalone movie Lucasfilm has promised and should deliver, definitely moreso than the prequel that “Rogue One” turned out to be. After all, these “A Star Wars Story” movies should present the opportunity for an exploration of this supposedly expansive universe. Time will tell if that happens.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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***If you’d like to hear how I felt about “Solo: A Star Wars Story” mere minutes after attending the press screening, click here. ***

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