REVIEW – ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’

When Walt Disney acquired Lucasfilm and furiously began laying out their seemingly endless plans to deliver new Star Wars sequels and prequels for the next several years (or decades), there had to be plenty who were wondering if origin films were all that necessary, especially for a mysterious character like Han Solo. Do we really need to know where this cocky, brash anti-hero came from? Would an origin story ultimately enhance our experience of meeting him for the first time in the original Star Wars film? With Han Solo: A Star Wars Story, there’s certainly a concerted and admirable effort to do just that. Whether it’s a success or not will likely depend on how badly you felt you needed this information. Or this film.

Disney’s first Star Wars prequel, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story filled in plenty of narrative gaps, gave us a moving portrait of sacrificial heroism and was an exhilarating thrill-ride to boot. Solo doesn’t have such grand plans, seemingly existing only to deliver bucketloads of wink-wink references to Han’s future, explain endless plot points of who he is and where he came from and set the beginnings of the heroic Rebellion against the Empire. It’s unashamedly fan service, but this franchise has been intrinsically linked to its fanbase for over four decades, so this should come as no surprise.

We first meet young Han Solo (an impressive Alden Ehrenreich) on his home planet of Corellia, a filthy mining planet covered with industrial slave labour camps, overseen by the nefarious and cruel Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt). But Han and his childhood sweetheart Qi’ra (a disappointing Emilia Clarke) long to escape Corellia and journey off into the stars, fulfilling Han’s dream of becoming a starship pilot. When Han comes into possession of a small vial of coaxium, a highly valuable mineral used for fuel, he sees this as his chance to bribe his way off Corellia for good.

Naturally, Han’s plans go awry, and the pair of lovers are separated, leaving him no choice but to enlist in the Imperial Navy as a way to one day return to Corellia for his beloved. Jumping forward several years, we now find Han deep in the trenches of the war-torn, mud-bound planet of Mimban. Engaged in a pointless and neverending campaign against the local inhabitants, Han still seeks the chance to escape the battle and return for Qi’ra. That opportunity arrives in the form of a band of smugglers, made up of Tobias Beckett (the ever-reliable Woody Harrelson), his hardened wife Val (Thandie Newton), and their multi-armed alien pilot Rio Durant (Jon Favreau).

After a chance encounter with the imposing Wookiee Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Han and his new furry friend charm their way into Tobias’ favour by offering their services with the smugglers’ daring plan to rob a high-speed elevated train packed with cases of coaxium, by order of scar-faced fearsome crime boss Dryden Voss (an underused Paul Bettany). When the heist goes pearshaped, the group head to Dryden’s floating fortress to beg forgiveness and find a way to appease the sadistic gangster with an equally foolhardy plan to attain more of the valuable mineral from the planet Kessel.

But, in desperate need of a ship, Han and co. must first cross paths with the suave hustler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, stealing the entire film) and his trusted sidekick L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a “stay woke” robot who longs for equal droid rights and seeks freedom for her oppressed cyborg brothers and sisters. Yes, you heard that right. When the pair is also thrust into the daring plan to make it rich, the gang will all pile into the iconic Millennium Falcon and zoom off at lightspeed for one epic intergalactic, madcapped caper.

Key to the success of Solo was always going to be the casting of the titular character. The choice of relatively-unknown Ehrenreich (please seek out his brilliant work in Hail, Caesar!) certainly raised a few eyebrows, given he doesn’t look or sound anything like Harrison Ford. Taking on a genuinely iconic role like this is an unenviable task, and the performance Ehrenreich ultimately delivers is admirable. He successfully captures Han’s smug confidence and brash swagger. He’s immediately likeable and inviting. And there are several times when his dialogue delivery is pitch-perfectly matched with his predecessor. Even if he doesn’t quite nail the likeness overall, Ehrenreich makes the performance his own, and that’s perfectly fine.

But you can’t help but feel like something is a little off, and the illusion of watching someone else attempt to recreate Ford’s performance never quite effortlessly falls away. It’s not exactly desperate imitation territory, but it’s not far from it. By comparison with Ewan McGregor’s stellar performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the prequel trilogy, it’s rather disappointing. McGregor somehow inhabited Alec Guinness’ original performance so innately, you quickly forgot you were watching another actor play such a beloved character. The same can’t really be said for Ehrenreich, despite his utmost attempts. Perhaps this will be easier to swallow if there is to be a sequel. But, Ford casts a mighty shadow, and it was always going to be tough for any actor to move into the sun.

Thankfully, this is not the case with Glover, who, unsurprisingly, is undoubtedly the best thing about Solo. It’s painfully clear Lando deserves his own stand-alone film, especially with how sparingly he’s used here. Glover perfectly captures the essence of Billy Dee Williams’ original performance but somehow makes Lando even more dashing and debonair than ever. It’s an intoxicating turn which further cements Glover as one of the most exciting talents in the industry. He instils such blustering bravado to Lando, making you ache for his return whenever he’s not on-screen. And, while his chemistry with Han is enjoyable, it’s his surprisingly deep connection to L3-37 that’s the film’s true heart.

The same can’t be said of the chemistry between Han and Qi’ra, which is practically non-existent. Perhaps it was a mistake to have the pair already in a relationship when the film begins. We’re simply asked to blindingly accept their connection, rather than see it actually develop. There’s nothing wrong with this if the pair of actors has immediate spark. But Ehrenreich and Clarke never seem to create such a reaction together. Clarke is terribly miscast here, bringing plenty of her stonefaced Daenerys to a role which doesn’t need it. Her character is ludicrously complex, but none of it ever seems to make much sense, and Clarke seems completely bewildered with how to accurately portray Qi’ra.

The main problem with this grand love story is knowing full well the two are obviously not destined to be together, given the future of Han and Leia we know is to come. And that’s a huge problem with Solo overall. When Han, Chewie, or Lando are placed in danger, we know they will make it out alive because they appear in the original trilogy. It creates a jarring lack of stakes that’s hard to ignore. An audience is always required to give some suspension of disbelief when a titular character is placed in harm’s way, but you can’t expect that to occur when the end result is entirely predestined. This was why Rogue One was such a triumph. It was filled with new characters we didn’t know the fate of. There are obviously characters akin to this in Solo, but none of them makes much of an impact for us to really care.

Coming into the production late, after Disney fired original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller five months into filming, Ron Howard has to be commended for pulling together something which could have been a total disaster. From all accounts, he had to rebuild this film entirely, and what he’s ultimately delivered is still entirely enjoyable and entertaining, even if it errs a little on the safe and familiar side. It’s interesting to prophesize what this film may have looked like under Lord and Miller, but it’s a result we’ll never know. Howard steers away from the light-hearted and comedic take these two likely would have delivered, which is fine, but far from groundbreaking and maybe even a little dull and forgettable.

As with all Star Wars films, Solo is visually spectacular, filled with dazzling set pieces and lively special effects. The worlds these characters inhabit are typically breathtaking, and cinematographer Bradford Young does a remarkable job at capturing the marvellous landscapes and surroundings of jarringly juxtaposed planets. From bleak industrial harshlands to eye-catching snow-covered alps, it’s a visual treat for the eyes, made all the more glorious by John Powell’s impressive score. It’s another production home-run for the franchise that more than makes up for the film’s narrative disappointments.

For fans of the saga, there’s obviously plenty here to enjoy. It’s hard not to be entertained from learning how Han and Chewie first met or the original of Solo’s surname. It’s laced with references for the hardcore fans, and while that’s easy to dismiss as fan service pandering, it’s all but necessary for a prequel like this. It may fall a little hard on this as a narrative formula, but the film knows its audience and caters to everything they could want. You can’t fault screenwriters Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan for crafting Solo as such, but deviating a little from expectation wouldn’t have gone astray. Then again, Rian Johnson did such with The Last Jedi, causing a fan revolt that clearly kept this film to be safe rather than sorry.

And that’s the one perfect word you can summon to describe this piece of cinema. It’s entirely safe. It takes few risks and prefers to deliver what’s entirely expected from its viewer. We get what we came for, and barely anything more. Some may find that disappointing. Some may find that completely satisfying. Films like this are never going to please everyone, and you can’t blame filmmakers for sticking close to home. Solo still begs the question if this film even needs to exist at all, but it’s congenial enough to allow that ponderance to disappear by the film’s decidedly intriguing conclusion.

Mixing all sorts of film genres from sci-fi to western to heist thriller with some delightful hints of buddy comedy, Solo: A Star Wars Story is ultimately an engaging experience. There are enough thrills and spectacles to capture your attention, and Ehrenreich and Glover provide the skill to recreate two characters audiences have loved for decades. It’s a formula the franchise has understood since the beginning and Howard delivers a competent addition to the cinematic universe Disney are so desperately attempting to create. It’s just a shame you may well forget the entire experience fairly quickly after exiting the cinema.

★★★☆☆

Distributor: Walt Disney
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe-Waller Bridge, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau, Linda Hunt
Director: Ron Howard
Screenplay: Jonathan Kasdan & Lawrence Kasdan
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, Simon Emanuel
Cinematography: Bradford Young
Production Design: Neil Lamont
Music: John Powell
Editor: Pietro Scalia
Running Time: 135 minutes
Release Date: 24th May 2018 (Australia)

Advertisements