My notes on Solo A New Star Wars Story.
Solo A Star Wars Story (2018)
A long long time ago in a galaxy far far away and a bit before Star Wars …
The last bye-blow from the Lucas-spawned serial, Rogue One, filled in a bit of the plot skipped over in the opening crawl of Star Wars … this gives us the early years of lastingly popular outlaw Han Solo, which theoretically offer swashbuckling adventure and roguery but turn out to be rather gloomy-looking and predicated on all the new characters getting fridged or sidelined to free the hero to go off and do all the things he does in the main Star Wars movies. So … mentor Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a character name which sounds more like something from an 18th century picaresque novel than a Star Wars film, can’t stick around to poke his oar in anywhere else in the series … love interest Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) has to have an arc that takes her out of Han’s life (two obvious ones are available) so he can be free to get together with Leia and father Kylo Ren … and when baddie-of-this-month Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) mentions early on that even he has to answer to someone it’s almost as if he’s signed his get-out-of-the-series certificate and set up a late-film cameo from your fifth or sixth guess as to who that big bad might be.
There’s a bit of fuss about Han’s relationships with Qi’ra and Beckett, which knock him about a bit to put him in the cynical yet romantic place he needs to be when to segue into Harrison Ford in Star Wars. Characters we know will last – Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), who gets more to do here than in all his other appearances rolled together, and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) – are more easily accommodated, with bits of misdirection as things we were told about years ago are either depicted or teased. And at least as much emotional heft is invested in the Millennium Falcon and Han’s dangly dice as in any human relationship. A troubled production even by Star Wars standards, this has wound up being directed by Ron Howard (back in Lucasland after Willow) from a script by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, and is as middling as any franchise entry has to be these days. The Han Solo of Star Wars was one of George Lucas’s John Milius figures – cooler than the hero, but arc-free – and here we get a pretty needless insight into his early sufferings before he falls into what is essentialy an outer space Fast and the Furious film. A prologue has young Han separated from young Qi’ra after petty criminal scrapes, and his motivation in becoming a pilot/adventurer/smuggler/crook is to come back and rescue her – though she turns up early in the second act doing quite well for herself in a criminal syndicate thank you very much.
Han serves in the imperial military in a space Vietnam that allows for another quote from Apocalypse Now (a frequent Lucas/SW touchstone) and a hook-up with Beckett and his crew – including Val (Thandie Newton) and a four-armed CGI pilot voiced by Jon Favreau – for a raid on a speeding train ferrying a highly explosive and desirable fuel mcguffin which is brilliantly designed if clumsily thought-through and proves conclusively that greenscreen and a computer can’t generate a tenth of the excitement of the practical stunt and effects work of even a midlist 70s action film like Breakheart Pass or The Great Train Robbery. After that goes south (with a decent implosion effect), Beckett has to agree to steal even more blowupium from a faroff planet of slave mines … and the element is so volatile it’ll need to be brought back to where it needs to be to get refined in record-breaking time, setting up a hectic dramatisation of that throwaway 1978 line about the Kessel Run that is just about worth it for the big tentacly deep space beastie and a cynical Kasdan punchline. Though it takes a while to warm up – and its drab palette puts a dampener on any rip-roaring fun – the film finally comes together with a camp Calrissian and his activist droid pilot love interest (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and a rather sweet joke about the space mack’s collection of natty capes. At last, some colour – in several senses – splashes into this murky-looking picture – which generally makes you miss the bandes dessinees gorgeousness of, say, Barbarella, or, failing that, even Avatar, John Carter or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
A general franchise problem – especially in this series – is that no story can be unimportant … it all has to foreshadow and add up to part of the epic. For a while, it seems as if Solo will be interestingly the first small story told in this universe, but eventually galactic forces come into play and this emerges as an origin story for more than just a second banana hero. That’s actually a pity. Ehrenreich, so good in Hail Caesar!, does his best to play a younger Harrison Ford and just about gets away with it – frankly, he’s better now than Ford was circa Journey to Shiloh – but it’s a straitjacket role, and his best moment is a reaction to something insightful someone else says about his character. Everyone else is fine, but pretty much coasting – Woody Harrelson and Emilia Clarke join the ranks of those who’ve been in a Star Wars film for no particular reason – except Glover, who definitely ought to get his own Pansexual Space Pimp spinoff. Unlikeliness Department: following Avengers Infinity War, this is the second franchise biggie from Disney this year to feature a space villainess called Proxima. I doubt that’ll be among the most popular baby names of 2018.
An addendum – the element which will stir debate once we’re out of the spoiler period is that a key moment in the climax of Solo suggests that in the current continuity of the saga the original theatrical version of Star Wars should be taken as canon … not the Lucas-fiddled-with special editions.
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