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You’re going to need a nickname, cos I ain’t saying that every time.

Movie

Solo: A Star Wars Story
(2018)

 

I had an agreeably good time with Solo: A Star Wars Story, having previously gone from considering it a straight-up terrible idea when first announced, to cautious optimism with the signing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, to abject pessimism with their replacement by little Ronnie Howard, to cautious optimism again with the advent of various trailers and clips.

I have numerous caveats, but then, that’s been par for the course with the series ever since Return of the Jedi, whichever side of good or bad the individual entries end up falling. The biggest barrier to enjoyment, judging by others’ responses, seems to be the central casting of Aiden Ehrenreich; I actually thought he was really good, so the battle for my allegiance was half won right there. No, he isn’t Harrison Ford, but he succeeds admirably in making Han Solo a likeable, brash, smug wannabe scoundrel. Less so at being scruffy looking, but you can’t have everything.

It looks as if reactions to the movie will prove very mixed – less divisive than The Last Jedi maybe, but what isn’t? For my part, I’d say it lacks the highs of that episode but also manages to avoid the (extreme) lows. Solo has going for it, besides a pitch-perfect central relationship between Han and Chewie (Joonas Suotamo), a very solid meat-and-potatoes screenplay from Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan, refreshing in itself after a trio of movies at best only partially delivering on that score.

It’s also Howard putting it his best journeyman foot forward (so the guy who made RansomRush and Apollo 13, rather than the Da Vinci Codes or Russell Crowe Oscar bait); you wouldn’t be remotely aware of the production issues, if you watched it cold, and you wouldn’t recognise the work here as bearing any relation to the earlier Lucasfilm helmer, the one who delivered a leaden Star Wars-with-Lord of the Rings chainmail franchise non-starter in Willow (lest we forget, he was also offered The Phantom Menace).

If Solo loses its momentum a little during the middle act, there’s nothing that compares to the deal breaker of Canto Bight in The Last Jedi. The first forty minutes or so charge forward with commendable confidence (rather than as if they’re blundering about, hoping to seize upon some kind of narrative thread or purpose).

Sure, potentially infuriating motifs surface: how Han got his name – as someone pointed out, if you absolutely have to go there, it makes much more sense for him to brand himself as a loner through a false sense of bravado – got his gun etc. But for whatever reason, they weren’t intrusive to the point of distraction, any more than namechecking Bossk or having Paul Bettany’s villain Dryden Vos show off a prominent suit of Mandalorian armour in his den (because he once was one?) It’s a case of mileage may vary, I guess. I liked the circumstances of Han meeting Chewbacca and their almost instantaneous rapport (less keen on Chewie’s yen to free his people, as it feels like a futile attempt to bridge his unwise Revenge of the Sith presence with the Original Trilogy).

The opening scenes on Corellia are largely a success, complete with Jabba-variant crime boss Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt; instead of a slug, she’s a slithery mollusc thing) and a precursor scene in which Han tries to talk his way out of trouble.

Where things stumble amounts to one of the picture’s more pervasive missteps, signposted by the trailers and her more general career (I’ll grant her Me Before You): Emilia Clarke. If Bettany as Vos is a solid Blake’s 7 performance in search of a character (he has the occasional nice line – “Alright, let’s eat a little, drink a lot, and talk privately” – and I like how he greets Chewbacca, but he can only do so much), Qi’ra is a character with potential in search of a strong performance. Certainly, more potential than either of the saga’s other recent lead female characters (Rey and Jyn).

The Kasdans have set her up with a strong arc, omitting to reveal everything in a purposeful manner and leaving the door open for further conflicting loyalties and a sequel rematch. Unfortunately, I’ve no interest in seeing whatever Qi’ra gets up to next because Clarke is so unengaging. She’s not even actively bad; she’s just bland.

One might make the case that her obviously-wrong-for-him presence helps underpin Han’s future disenchantment and cynicism, eventually turning him into the Harrison we know, but it’s more impactful if we can appreciate why he feels so much for the woman who betrays him in the first place (also on the debit side, it’s true that their reunion on Mimban is a coincidence screaming for some kind of valid explanation, but I was honestly more relieved that we didn’t have to go through a “return to Corellia for the girl Han loves” number).

Han’s embarking on fully fledged outlaw career has fewer encumbrances, mainly because Woody Harrelson is effortlessly winning as quasi-mentor Tobias Beckett. It’s also a nice touch that Han’s been serving in the Empire for two-and-a-half years before he absconds (much more daring in itself than Finn’s five-minute flirtation with the First Order). And those “Join the Empire” promo reels are marvellous, taking their cues from Starship Troopers satirical bent. Ehrenreich and Harrelson bounce agreeably off each other, and the Kasdans set up the various twists and double-crosses with aplomb.

True, Jon Favreau’s multi-armed pilot Rio Durant leaves little impression, and Thandie Newton’s Val Beckett is entirely underserved (particularly her self-immolation for no good reason). But the Vandor train heist is excitingly staged, and if Han’s honourable side winning out occasionally strays across a fine line into over-emphasis (having Qi’ra and Tobias extol as much at various points is unnecessarily on-the-nose), the Han-does-the-right-thing aspect generally goes the only way it can for the movie.

After all, he doesn’t break off his mission to help Chewie in the revolt on Kessel. And he isn’t such a good guy that he doesn’t shoot Beckett first; you can bet that’s (Larry) Kasdan saying “No way are you getting away with that Greedo retcon, George”.

That he opts to aid the Cloud Riders is a bit of a bitter pill, to the extent that their characterisation is on the winsome side (while it isn’t wholly Erin Kellyman’s fault that Enfys Nest is utterly unmemorable once unmasked – the reveal a call back to Boushh? – it doesn’t help that she’s entirely without presence). But it’s consistent with that Han/Indy late-70s/ early-80s Ford characterisation, and very much Temple of Doom meets Beyond Thunderdome in its anti-hero aiding the kids and downtrodden. It’s also a pill that goes down better for the plot elements thrown into the mix in tandem – the ruses and strategies.

Lando? Donald Glover’s so hot right now, and he undoubtedly makes a fair Lando, albeit the character’s possibly even more limited in presence than he was in The Empire Strikes Back. I was honestly more impressed by Ehrenreich (most responses have it in reverse, that Glover entirely eclipses him). Glover isn’t as smooth as Billy Dee Williams, although that’s quite possibly intentional (he fancies himself as the Lando he’ll become, hence dictating his memoirs and telling braggy stories), but he and Ehrenreich play well of each other, which bodes well for the future (Lando storming off with “I don’t ever want to see you again” followed by Han’s perfectly timed “Never?“) I liked almost everything the Kasdans give him to do, from cheating at cards to leaving Han stranded, to having an entire closet full of capes. Almost…

What really, entirely, uncontestably does nott work in this movie is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s L3-37. It’s an attempt at contemporary humour and delivery as jarring as those podrace commentators in The Phantom Menace (one element Rogue One got contrastingly right was making it’s droid actually funny – and affecting when it sacrificed itself).

None of her jokes land (many laced with off-beam sexual innuendo), and the performance lergely feels as if the producers knew this wasn’t working tonally but were afraid to add it to the litany of busts littering the production’s history; certainly, if this was representative of the approach Lord and Miller were taking, we dodged a bullet when Kathleen Kennedy called time.

Consequently, nothing related to the L3 carries weight, including her initiating the rebellion on Kessell and most importantly, her relationship with Lando. It’s impossible to see what he’s getting worked up about when she croaks, which in succession to the demises of Rio and Val means the movie’s on a par with Rogue One for seeding indifference to the deaths of its characters. Except that, in L3’s case, I was actively relieved.

The Kessel Run sequence, with its Lovecraftian space squid – Harrelson’s scream on seeing it is one of the movie’s funniest moments – is fun but unremarkable for such a famous element of lore. You could argue it as a reflection of Han’s “you should have seen the one that got away” boasting, but mostly it’s a problem with the time vs distance definition of a parsec. Whether a parsec in Star Wars is a reference to one or the other – officially, it’s the latter, and played out here accordingly – it’s largely received by casual viewers (non-ardent fans), and Han himself in A New Hope, as the former, making the run something of a disappointment when set alongside the (splinter of the) mind’s eye’s image of the race he was in. Nevertheless, the stacking of elements – the raw coaxium that will explode if they don’t get it processed in time – amounts to a solid foundation for the scene.

Random observations. John Powell provides a serviceable score, but it’s only really lifted when familiar Williams cues filter through. Bradford Young’s photography offers a strong sense of mood, burnishing an appropriately lived-in universe. The reheated design elements fit well, particularly the pre-grunge Falcon. Chewbacca is evidently a handsome Wookie, as the other main one we meet in the mines resembles Harry from Bigfoot and the Hendersons. I didn’t catch Anthony Daniels and didn’t realise Warwick Davies was playing the same character as in The Phantom Menace (to equally underwhelming effect). As for Darth Maul…

On the one hand, it should be depressing that Lucasfilm is so enfeebled, they can’t envision a Star Wars movie without the Force (or Imperial forces). But that isn’t really what bothered me. I naturally assumed this must be some weak-sauce generational thing, paralleling Kylo obsessed with grandpops; Darth Maulson out to avenge pappy’s dismemberment with his recovered lightsabre etc. That it’s actually Darth Maul is about as depressingly fanfic as it gets (which is very fanfic, given it’s prequel trilogy fanfic). It’s the kind of thing you used to get with Darth Vader surviving the end of Return of the Jedi or the Emperor being cloned. You know, the product of a mind exhausted of any creative avenues (the sort of mind that comes up with the First Order or Starkiller Base).

So I hadn’t realised Maul surviving had the precedence of The Clone Wars– meaning it was presumably Lucas endorsed – and Star Wars Rebels. That he found himself a pair of robot spider legs and then some normal robot ones (did he get himself some robot intestines too?) Or that he had numerous rematches with Obi-Wan Kenobi. Disappointing – to me at least – that the distinctive tones of Peter Serafinowicz weren’t reemployed along with Ray Park, and that it was his cartoon voice Sam Witwer instead. Apparently, those series are canon, so I guess we’re unlikely to see Maul’s second death at Ben’s hand in the mooted Obi-Wan movie, as it’s already been done.

As much as I was underwhelmed by Rogue One – and its clumsy intrusions of continuity, complete with eyesore virtual doubles – I left Solo moderately enthused. Crucially, Howard remembers that the Star Wars movies ought to have moments of enthralling uplift and abandon amidst the serious business, something the Disney era generally seems to have forgotten. Whether it’s enough to make Solo the hit it might have been, had it been released pre-The Last Jedi, will become clear soon enough (its modest hype levels and predicted opening weekend are definitely a sign of a shift, and it can’t just be put down to brand overexposure).

We’ve just had a Boba Fett movie announced (to replace the Josh Trank one that didn’t even get to that far), helmed by James Mangold, a sign Lucasfilm is taking the safe pair of journeyman hands approach we saw with Howard here, rather than resting hope on chancy new blood and fresh takes. But it should probably be more of a surprise Kennedy wasn’t doing that anyway, given the conservative storylines that have informed the Disney era. Even Rian Johnson has been more characterised by what he reacted against than what he introduced.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is clearly setting up a Solo 2 (Han off to create a rift with Jabba), but if this one stiffs – by which I mean, makes under a billion, particularly since, cost-wise, they filmed it twice – we could find plot elements transferred into the mooted Lando spinoff. Which, and I’d never have countenanced this back when I had a bad feeling about Solo, would be a shame.

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