Movie Review: Solo
J. Don Birnam
May 16, 2018
A long time ago in a galaxy far away from you and me, one of the most iconic movie franchises in history was born with a simple film called Star Wars. Over 40 years and nearly a dozen features later, the monster has grown larger than the universe it embodies. The temptation to milk the cow for another drop worth a cool billion or so is too great. This has nevertheless led to many good things, including the exciting and scintillating latest trilogy, of which The Last Jedi is sort of a triumphant, middle episode. It also includes the surprisingly gripping standalone film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. But now, enter what is most accurately described as an origin film, that of its titular star, and you have a somewhat less satisfying film. Worse, a less interesting film, Solo: A Star Wars Story.
The focus of the movie is obvious from its title - the intrepid, gun-slinging bounty-hunter known as Han Solo. Have you ever wondered how the daring pilot, originally embodied by young Harrison Ford, got his name? When and how he met his high-pitched groaning sidekick Chewbacca? What the deal is with the strained relationship with supposed pal Lando Calrissian? And, what on Earth is the “Kessel Run” and in how many “parsecs” did Han’s ship, The Millennium Falcon, do it? Fans always hungering for more about their beloved characters will get their wishes and have plenty to digest, devour, and ceaselessly obsess over.
But “be careful what you wish for” may be applicable words of warning. Too much of even a good thing can be a bad thing. Not even the Star Wars universe is exempt from such fate, as the much-maligned Episodes I-III attest. I am a lifelong fan of this franchise, and admit I always jump at the opportunity to see another offering in their library. Solo: A Star Wars Story was no different. Even the faint tunes here and there of John Williams’ iconic score make it worth it to me.
Despite this, even diehard devotees may find themselves scratching their heads at what exactly the point of this exercise was. Without spoiling: we encounter an intrepid young Han (played here with uncanny Harrison Ford resemblance by Alden Ehrenreich) before he was Solo. Slowly, the pieces of the puzzle whose picture you already know come together. Solo discovers a group of bandits led by Val and Beckett (Thandie Newton and Woody Harrelson). Han befriends them in order to further his lifelong ambitions to be an intergalactic pilot. There is a girl, naturally, and her name is Kira (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke). Paul Bettany plays a grotesquely scarred baddie. And the movie also features a young Lando (Donald Glover) and the Wookiee companion (Joonas Suotamo).
To distill to a nutshell the problems that plague Solo: A Star Wars Story, look no further than the aforementioned Rogue One: A Star War Story. There, a completely unknown group of characters, none of whom were seen in any previous film, have a task of gigantic proportions. That task is the very mission that is the launching point for this entire movie world. It is hard to conceive, in retrospect, a welcomer setup for a filmmaker. The resolution of the plot is designed; the plot itself is of great interest. Meanwhile, you have complete artistic freedom to take these unknown characters themselves in whatever direction.
Solo: A Star Wars Story offered sacrificial-lamb director Ron Howard (the movie went through extensive reshoots) the exact opposite. In Solo, you know the key players well, what makes them tick, and what their futures are. Meanwhile, there is no plot to speak of; nothing that happens in Solo’s life before we meet him in Episode IV is magnificently consequential. Solo is perhaps Star Wars’ most beloved and rewarding character, but his past does not scream intrigue like Luke or Leia’s.
And so it is that Solo is hamstrung without any fault of its own into this impossible scenario. With severe constraints on what it can do to the characters, it has to check through a series of boxes. Some are not even interesting ones (did you really wonder how Chewbacca became “Chewie”?). The movie thus quickly devolves into a series of Han engineering plucky escapes from gangsters, warlords, and imperial stooges. It uses many of the Houdini-like escape talents you know he possesses, but which simply seem repetitive and unoriginal here.
None of this is to say that Solo: A Star Wars Story is a bad film - it is not. It is simply not a good one. But fans looking for redemptive qualities will look foremost to Ehrenreich’s superb performance. He nails Ford’s mannerisms, smiles and grimaces, and even body gaits, all to perfection. Glover is wonderful as the self-involved Calrissian. The dynamic duo relationship between Solo and Chewbacca has transcended the ages because it naturally works. Two super exciting extended scenes - one involving a high-speed train, the other the legendary Falcon and a maelstrom - provide the kind of heart-pounding big screen action that takes us to the movies in the first place. The dialogue is among the least offensive in this galaxy.
It is surprising, then, that a film about a character with a larger-than-life personality is missing gumption and a tone. The movie seems confused about what its plot or purpose is. At times it hints at galaxy-altering conflicts for the fate of humanity. Other times it just goes through the motions of explaining every random reference about Han you heard about.
The soundtrack for Solo: A Star Wars Story, contains strategically placed notes, phantasms of the well-known music everyone adores. It tingles the senses to hear these notes, though their existence highlights what is not necessarily immediately obvious. The rest of the score is pedestrian and forgettable. It is, indeed, a fitting analogy for how to evaluate the film in its entirety. Hints and specters of the original tales will warm a fan’s heart, but only to leave him with the cold realization that the rest of the story is nothing but that, a replica of a familiar tale with ghost-like qualities, fading eerily, a pale version of its own self.