Directed By: Ron Howard
Release Date: May 25, 2018
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover
I've seen Solo, the second entry in the Star Wars Story anthology series following 2016's Rogue One, twice now, and I've had to sit on my thoughts about it. I've been a Star Wars fan my whole life, having grown up on the original trilogy and lived through the prequel era of 1999 to 2005, so this new era of films that kicked off with The Force Awakens back in 2015 has been an interesting thing to watch unfold. As everyone knows, Disney acquired Lucasfilm - and, thus, the Star Wars franchise - a number of years ago, and Solo marks the fourth film to come out of said acquisition.
Up until Rogue One, Star Wars films had always been part of one saga, Episodes I through VII, so there was a lot of cautious optimism surround Rogue One, as it was the first time we were getting a Star Wars film on the big screen that didn't have a Skywalker front and center. Fortunately, though it wasn't perfect, Rogue One was a pretty solid film, and its success demonstrated that the appetite was there for more cinematic stories out of the massive Star Wars universe, as the sheer open-ended nature of it is one big sandbox in which tales could be spun out of any time or place.
So it's a little disappointing, then, that the second anthology film decided to play it unnecessarily safe, telling the origin story of everyone's favorite scoundrel with a heart of gold, Han Solo. There's a reason that the character is iconic and as inseparable in the eyes of pop culture from the series as he is to Harrison Ford, and in the original trilogy, we watched him grow from selfish smuggler to selfless hero; that is, all that needed to be said about his character and his arc was done, even before he was brought back for a send-off in The Force Awakens, and the idea of exploring his past felt redundant. After all, we'd already seen what exploring an iconic character's past in this franchise could negatively expose with child Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace, so the idea of that happening all over again was - to put it mildly - a little disheartening.
But Solo happened anyway, and it wasn't an easy production, as original directing duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired deep into filming, with Ron Howard brought in to salvage the picture, giving us the final product that hit theaters on May 25th. These very public production woes didn't help perception of the film, either, especially when it was hard to view the film as necessary. That said, it's finally here, necessity be damned, and there's only one question to be asked: Is it good?
Fortunately - and maybe even surprisingly - yes. It's nowhere near the disaster many were predicting it to be considering its issues behind the scenes, and yet it's also nowhere near the best of the franchise. (And for the record, Return of the Jedi is my favorite entry, so make of that what you will.) Instead, it sits comfortably in the middle, mercifully above what I would consider the "worst" Star Wars films, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. It's harmless, ultimately, and for many looking for something that feels adventurous and light, more in line with the original Star Wars film, A New Hope, especially following last year's darker, divisive The Last Jedi, Solo feels very much like comfort food.
For me, however, it needed to be something more. Something that felt integral to the franchise as a whole. It needed to bring something truly fresh to the table to justify its existence. And after having seen it twice and mulling it over, I can't say that it does.
Before I go any further, let me cover the plot: On the planet of Corellia, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) have dreamt of escaping their lives under the thumb of a gang lord, around a decade out from the events of A New Hope. When they finally get their opportunity, the two are separated just as their dream is about to come true, with Qi'ra left behind and Han joining the Imperial army under the belief he'll be a pilot and can one day find his way back to rescue her. Three years go by, however, his career as a pilot having failed to take off, the young man stuck fighting with his fellow troops on the ground.
It's here that he meets a trio led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who has infiltrated the army in order to steal one of their ships. Han chooses to desert the Empire and join Beckett, a choice that sets him down a path where he'll inevitably stumble into the lives of familiar faces like Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and reunite with Qi'ra, who has long since left Corellia and been indebted to Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), leader of the criminal Crimson Dawn syndicate, who Beckett has to settle a debt with.
For better or worse, Solo is a cut and dry story with a heist at its core, with all the twists and betrayals that come with it, one that starts to sag in the middle act to the point of feeling twenty minutes too long as it works to set the young hero up for where we first met him all the way back in 1977. It hits every checkbox one can think of in regards to the origins of everything we know about Han: How he gets the surname of Solo, how he meets Chewie, how he meets Lando, how he gets his blaster, how he gets the Milennium Falcon, how he did the Kessel Run, and so on. While it's ultimately not egregious seeing these things play out, they're also answers to questions we never needed to see answered, demystifying the character for the sake of running down a laundry list of items all in one big go, the plot sometimes serving the mandates instead of the other way around.
One of my biggest fears about Solo was the main character himself. As I mentioned earlier, Harrison Ford is Han Solo, no way around it, and thus poor Ehrenreich had a huge uphill climb ahead of him when he was cast. Miraculously, he succeeds, and without doing an outright impression of Ford. From the way certain lines are delivered to the way he swaggers up and leans against a wall while talking to Qi’ra, he captures the essence of Ford's interpretation of the character, of the man he'll grow into, and though it takes a while for it to click, Ehrenreich does an admirable job in bringing a naive youth to the character that allows his performance to stand both apart from and in line with the older Han Solo we know and love. It wasn't an easy task, but he pulls it off. Even better, his rapport with Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) is a highlight of the film, the equally-iconic Wookie getting more to do and say here than any other film he's been a part of, and Solo is all the better for actually taking advantage of him, even if he unfortunately gets sidelined a bit by the third act.
As for the rest of the cast, everyone does good work here, but in most instances, the writing undermines the performances. Donald Glover's Lando is a pretty solid imitation of Billy Dee Williams' cocky, flashy Lando, but he's not as active in the film as I personally expected him to be, similar to Jon Favreau, who voices a multi-armed alien named Rio that steals the show early on with a wealth of personality before exiting the film far too soon. Harrelson and Bettany are good as well, but simply aren't given much to work with beyond merely filling the archetypal "mentor" and "villain" roles, while Phoebe Waller-Bridge voices the franchise's latest sassy droid, L3-37, a character who may work for some but sometimes feels at odds with the era within the film as we've known it through the original trilogy.
Sadly, though, what should've been the heart of the film - that is, Emilia Clarke's Qi'ra - is undercut by a severe lack of characterization. Clarke herself is fine, but for as important as she is to the plot and to Han, she spends far too much time being an object rather than a fully-fledged character. Until she reenters his life, she's "the goal," which is fine, but even once they're reunited, she doesn't actually get anything of real substance to chew on, the character relegated to being a mere pawn in the game of Dryden Vos, and a big, late-game reveal about her feels out of left field simply because her personality and her motivations were kept too in the dark for us.
And speaking of the dark, the lighting within the film is often far too underlit, with scenes cast in so much shadow that it detracts from being able to fully appreciate and enjoy Solo's otherwise great set design, costuming, and practical effects work. There really is something to be said about those aspects here, as the film definitely feels more in line with the original trilogy than the green-screen-laden prequel trilogy. But because of how poorly lit the film tends to be, many people are going to overlook just how vibrant the world Solo inhabits truly is, I feel, and that's not a good thing.
Not to mention, this very world takes great strides to connect with the franchise as a whole in a way that both casual fans and die-hard fans will undoubtedly appreciate. Direct references abound in dialogue, in background details, and in-person appearances of characters from comics, the other films, and even the popular animated series The Clone Wars and Rebels, one cameo in particular sticking out as a huge bombshell reveal that almost mandates that casual viewers dig deeper into the franchise beyond the films for answers surrounding it. It's also a testament to just how important John Williams is to the Star Wars franchise, too, as the most memorable parts of John Powell's score come from citing Williams' work from the saga films, a shadow under which all future composers who work on Star Wars films will continue to have to live under once the legendary composer officially retires from the series after next year's Episode IX.
In the end, that's representative of what Solo itself is: A project destined to live in the shadow of greater Star Wars films. Despite the rocky road it took to get to the big screen, Solo admirably didn't fall flat on its face, but at the end of the day, it still feels like a gift no one asked for and one that doesn't ever justify us actually needing it. It doesn't strive to be anything more than a fun ride, one plagued with faults, and captures a bit of the pulpy fun of what made the world fall in love with Star Wars in the first place, but if it didn't exist, I'm not sure I'd miss it, as it feels neither vital or boundary-pushing, which is an unfortunate thing to say about a film in a franchise I’ve loved my entire life.
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