Home » At the Multiplex » Solo: A Star Wars Story
         

Solo: A Star Wars Story

There’s a reason the EU supplemental material exists, folks.

With regards to Star Wars, there’s a reason why so many stories were better told through novels and comics. For one thing, it meant that we could experience the stories with our own visions of the characters, without the need for casting or recasting. The different medium also brings the potential to tell more stories without the need to cram everything into two hours or the need to recoup millions of dollars by maximizing ticket sales.

But perhaps more importantly, the old EU set-up had a more egalitarian feel to it. Even if George Lucas was ostensibly the primary storyteller, his approach to managing the franchise was pretty laissez-faire. He handed down the movies, and everything else was more or less open to interpretation by any number of talented storytellers, generating metric tons of material that fans could talk about and co-navigate.

But then Disney came along and predictably rejiggered the whole franchise with a top-down approach. There used to be this massive universe that the fans could explore together, and while that aspect of Star Wars is still kind of in place, we’re seeing less of that and more of LucasFilm taking us by the hand and guiding us through it. Granted, this does have the benefit of making a universe that’s less convoluted and contradictory (see: The multiple different stories about stealing the Death Star plans before Rogue One came along). But it also has the potential drawback of films that come out not because movies are the best medium for the story or because these stories are wanted or needed by the fans, but because there’s money to be made.

So here we are with Solo: A Star Wars Story, the origin story for everyone’s favorite smuggler/nerf herder. It doesn’t seem to be a movie that anyone asked for, and judging from the box office returns so far, it’s apparently not a story that too many people were eager to pay and see. Of course, it also doesn’t help that Disney famously took the unprecedented step of firing their directors halfway through production, which further gave the strong impression that nobody had any idea what to make except money.

(Side note: Phil Lord and Chris Miller were obligingly given exec producer credits for their efforts.)

That may seem like an odd statement to say, given the project. After all, an origin story for Han Solo (with Alden Ehrenreich inheriting the role) should have a pretty straightforward mission statement. In practice, however, there’s a surprising amount of subtlety that’s necessary in knowing precisely what to depict.

This is, after all, a sprawling science fantasy universe that operates on its own rules. Not everything needs to be explained. Why does the Millennium Falcon have that notch in the middle? It just does. How did Han Solo get his blaster? He could have picked it up anywhere. How did Han Solo get his last name? Are you seriously fucking kidding me? Alas, no — we get an answer to every single one of those questions that precisely no one was asking.

That said, it’s not like all the backstory here was entirely useless. We get to see how Han first met Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and their friendship is superbly developed here. The two work off each other so beautifully and save each other so many times that I could totally believe they would live and work together through so many years. We also get to see how Han won the Falcon from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and that little tale unfolds in a lot of surprising and satisfying ways.

Of course the centerpiece is the fabled Kessel Run, which is positively breathtaking. It’s a spectacular heist so epic in scope that it’s easy to see why Han cashed it in for bragging rights so many times. As a bonus, we can see for ourselves why the infamous “12 parsecs” line makes sense as a unit of distance rather than time. The filmmakers even went so far as to put The Maw into canon, loosely adapting a classic EU explanation in a move that I’m sure will appeal to longtime fans.

These three aspects of Han’s backstory are wonderfully satisfying. It’s everything else that holds the film back.

Let’s start with our villains for the piece. We have Lady Proxima (voiced by the great Linda Hunt), who runs an organized crime ring on Han Solo’s native Corellia. There’s Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman), who leads a gang of thieving marauders — imagine if the Tusken Raiders had speeders and you’d be getting close. And last but not least is Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), a high roller in the ranks of the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate.

Three crime bosses and barely a single distinguishing characteristic between them. I realize that this is the standard Star Wars MO, introducing characters with tantalizing glimpses so we want to look up the EU material, buy the toys, learn more about them, etc. (See also: The Mos Eisley cantina band, Boba Fett, Nien Numb, Darth Maul, Supreme Leader Snoke, Captain Phasma, the list goes on and on.) The problem is that this only works if there’s anything even remotely interesting about the character to begin with. These three offer nothing except hammy overacting and chewing scenery in place of personality or development.

So much screen time is put toward developing all these different syndicates, and I couldn’t tell you the first thing about any of them if I tried. And one of them is apparently connected to the Rebel Alliance in a move so labored, half-assed, and tenuous that I don’t even know why the filmmakers bothered. We also learn in a surprise cameo — presented with no setup whatsoever — that another syndicate is secretly being led by a long-neglected fan favorite character. So that’s… cool, I guess?

Of course, terms like “hero” and “villain” are a bit more grey where characters like Han Solo are involved. Especially in A New Hope, Han was really more of an anti-hero more interested in his own fortune and his own well-being than in some greater cause. The movie tries to capitalize on that, with a cast of characters so shifty and amoral that there’s no telling what they’ll do or whom they’ll align with. It’s an angle that falls flat for multiple reasons, not least of which is because the characters consistently choose the most predictable option.

I’ve heard the criticisms that this movie is too safe, it doesn’t bring anything new to the table, it doesn’t push any boundaries, and so on. I don’t necessarily agree — it’s not that the movie doesn’t take risks, it’s that the movie botches every risk it takes. My personal favorite example is L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a droid who is vocally and violently in favor of equal rights for droids. I hope it’s self-evident why bringing that up was a bad idea, because the whole issue of rights and free will for sentient AI is so thorny and complex that I don’t have the time or space to get into it here. It would take a whole movie — maybe even a whole series! — to give the topic a thoughtful examination in a way that’s compatible with the whiz-bang science fantasy of Star Wars. I appreciate the franchise trying to change with the times, but this is a hornet’s nest this franchise is not ready to go kicking, especially when the discussion has to take a back seat to high-flying spectacle, convoluted heist schemes, and the origin story for Han Solo.

Regarding the supporting cast, precious few deserve mention. The vast majority of them (particularly the characters played by Thandie Newton and Jon Favreau) have the life span of egg salad, here and gone in the brief span of time when they’re useful to the plot.

I remember being stoked as all hell at the thought of Donald Glover playing Lando Calrissian, and I came away so deeply disappointed. The spark just isn’t there, and I don’t know what the hell happened. I know for a fact that Glover has the charm, the charisma, and the screen presence to pull this off, but it looks like he’s floundering for want of direction here. Such a damn shame.

Then we have Woody Harrelson as Beckett and Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra. Beckett is supposed to be the proto-Han, the mentor figure who shaped Han Solo into the scoundrel we all know and love, while Qi’ra is the one who broke Han’s heart before he fell in love with Leia. Harrelson is in his element here, so of course he puts on a fine show even if he’s not nearly as affected by the onscreen death of his lover (see: Thandie Newton, above) as he probably should be. As for Emilia Clarke, she’s trying her damnedest and she does get a couple of kickass scenes, but her chemistry with Ehrenreich wasn’t nearly where it needed to be. It’s like the filmmakers didn’t realize that the romance’s breakdown was a foregone conclusion, which means that the characters and their romance had to be twice as compelling for us to give a damn that these kids weren’t going to make it.

Really, that’s the big problem with these two characters: I don’t remotely believe that either one of them had any kind of significant impact on developing Han as we come to know him in A New Hope. And to be fair, a lot of that has to do with Han himself. When we first meet him at the start of the movie, he’s hot-wiring a speeder, trying and failing to sweet-talk his way out of a debt to criminal scum, running away by the seat of his pants, and pulling all sorts of crazy piloting maneuvers to save his skin. So basically, he’s already Han Solo by the time we meet him, and not much has changed about him by the time the credits roll. So why bother with any of the other characters, or even with the movie as a whole?

(Side note: It’s not entirely clear when this movie takes place or where it falls in the timeline of the major Nine Episodes. However, Ehrenreich is currently seven years younger than Harrison Ford was when he made his Star Wars debut, and placing this movie seven years before A New Hope sounds about right. If you’ve got a better idea, please leave a comment.)

All credit to Ehrenreich, he does a stellar job trying to salvage what he can from what was always going to be a losing proposition. Nobody could ever truly emulate Ford in his signature role, and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of it than Ehrenreich.

On a similar note, I have to point out that Han Solo was notable for how many times he turned out to be the unluckiest SOB in the galaxy. I’m glad to say that this movie keeps with tradition and takes the piss out of Solo at every opportunity to hilarious effect. But before I give the writers (the great Lawrence Kasdan and his son, Jonathan) too much credit, the dialogue was flat awful through huge stretches. There’s a lot of clunky exposition to be found here, and more than a few bad line reads. Though a few recurring Star Wars lines get clever retouches here, and that was kinda neat.

Moving on to the miscellaneous notes, I was amused to see director Ron Howard leave his mark by way of a couple notable cameos. Last but not least, it’s worth noting that this has to be the first Star Wars movie in history without a single lightsaber, a single Jedi, or even a passing mention of the Force.

Ultimately, while Solo: A Star Wars Story is fun to sit through, the movie fails to justify its own existence. I love what it did regarding Han’s history with Chewbacca, the Kessel Run, and the Millennium Falcon, but that’s not enough to justify the greater majority of screen time that went to subpar characters and story points. It’s disappointing how this movie squandered so many potential avenues for world-building (the various criminal cartels) and faceplanted so hard in trying to develop others (social justice for droids). I dare say that a lot of these problems might have been fixed if these stories were told through novels, comic books, or any other medium that didn’t require so many years of backstory getting forced into a two-hour runtime.

If you go in expecting a fun science fantasy romp through the high-flying galaxy of Star Wars, the film does have enough excitement to make it worth your while. But if you’re looking for something to shed new light on the universe of Star Wars and the character of Han Solo — y’know, the promise inherently made in the very concept of a Han Solo prequel spinoff — you’re probably going to come away disappointed.

2 Comments

  1. Comment by Josh:

    Hmm, I wonder why you didn’t do a review of TLJ? Was it due to your break? Or was it also the talk surrounding it far too noxious, hostile and toxic since release to even consider a review of it? Because my god to even say this film was “divisive” is a serious understatement.

  2. Comment by Curiosity Inc.:

    Yeah, that probably would’ve been due to the hiatus. I did see the movie, though, and I don’t agree with the haters at all. Sure, it was bloated to the point where 15-30 minutes could’ve been cut with no problem, but it was nowhere near that bad.

Leave a Reply