- Movie Rating -

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

| May 26, 2018

Most people attending Solo: A Star Wars Story will do so this weekend more out of curiosity than anything else.  Han Solo is arguably the most popular character in this series’ overstuffed cannon, but his origins are his least interesting aspect.  Does his background really matter?  Do you care where he came from?  Do you really care about his prepubescent lineage?  This is not a character whose best attributes come from his background.  Rather, they come from his personality.  He has a hip-cool swagger, a masterful use of a blaster and a skill with negotiation that leaves a lot to be desired.  Mostly though, we like his upfront vulnerability which he tries and fails to hide behind a lot of transparent machismo.  He may not look like much, but he’s got it where it counts.

This was, of course, the role that made Harrison Ford a movie star, so no one would envy 28-year-old Alden Ehrenreich the task of trying to play the character in his early years.  Ford made this role his own (and admirably did it through Lucas’ woodcut dialogue), and so any actor taking this role would fall under accusations of attempting to copy him.  For the most part, Ehrenreich doesn’t do that.  If his performance was an impression of Ford then the movie would fall apart right at the starting gate, but he takes the smarter route of trying to create a character rather than an impression.  Ehrenreich does a fine job.  He’s a good actor who doesn’t make the mistake of giving us knowing nods at Solo’s trademark personality tics (that’s mostly in the dialogue).  He doesn’t much look like Harrison Ford anyway.  If anything, his looks and body language remind us of a young Kurt Russell.

The story of the early days of the galaxy’s most famous smuggler are less interesting then our expectations.  We want to know three things: 1.) How did he meet his fur-bearing best buddy Chewbacca?  2.) How did he get his sweet ride?  And 3.) How did he ever hook up with his frenemy Lando Calrissian?  You will get satisfying answers to all three of these things, particularly the way in which he first meets his furry companion – there is a development in their first scene that answers one of the most pressing questions of how they communicate with one another.

Fortunately, while this is a checklist movie, it reveals some of the most famous aspects of this character with some style and panache.  Anyone who remembers Attack of the Clones will observe how a checklist prequel can get things completely wrong by smacking us over the head with fan service.  Solo has those moments, but they are integrated, for the most part, with a sense of fun.  Our first task, of course, is to witness the birth of his partnership with Chewbacca.  It is cemented from the moment that they realize that they are on the same page.  Their few connective moments together are touching and real and give loving indications of a friendship that will last a lifetime.

Actually, it is also the only solid relationship that Solo is allowed to have.  The movie tosses him into the middle of a group of outlaw reprobates whose allegiances are always in question.  He joins up with a former Imperial captain Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) but can he be trusted?  He has a romance with a childhood friend Qi’an but can she be trusted?  And of course, he runs afoul of the smooth talking Lando Calrissian, but we KNOW he can’t be trusted.

The newly minted characters are, to be honest, a little forgettable, save for one.  Harrelson and Clarke are good actors stuck in underwritten roles.  The better human role goes to Paul Bettany as a slippery mobster who could have come out of Goodfellas.  He has a genuinely tense and scary moment late in the film in which we really aren’t sure if someone is going to die by his hand or not.

The best new character though is Lando’s female droid companion L3 whose lively no-jive spirit is probably the most fun part of this movie.  She may be made of metal, but she’s got a revolutionary spirit that I found infectious.

Donald Glover as Lando is terrific.  He’s not playing Billy Dee but is trying to show us a younger version of Lando who makes mistakes and is easily snookered – he’ll learn.  It also establishes, in the tiny corners of the movie – Lando’s playboy lifestyle, his adeptness at the gaming tables and his fondness for capes that borders on becoming a fetish.  He’s got it together – maybe he and L3 should get their own movie.

The story, oddly enough, is kind of a snore.  It has the kind of pacing and character interaction of one of those expanded universe books.  Han has to help steal volatile a substance for a criminal overlord – it more or less serves as the glue to get us to the interesting parts.  One of the frustrating things about these prequel movies is that the larger and more interesting story is still to be told, forcing these films to feel a bit unfinished.

The movie takes place maybe 10 years before Rogue One and we can see that the oppression of the Empire has scattered the wayward and the hopeless into a world of scum and villainy.  Solo is, in many ways, a bi-product of this.  Despite the inevitable criticisms that will befall this movie (and there will be many) no one can say that director Ron Howard and his team haven’t worked hard to put together a great looking movie.  That’s clear from the opening on Han’s home planet of Corellia, a dehumanized industrial complex so covered in soot and grime that he might as well have come out of a Charles Dickens novel.  That’s appropriate due to the fact that the number one industry here seems to be industrial production and forced labor.  It is a bi-product of the Imperial takeover.  Everything at this point a bi-product of the Imperial takeover.

We aren’t privy to Solo’s early life (that’s a good thing), we meet up with him as he’s outrunning someone whom he has either scammed or escaped from.  He joins the Imperial Navy more or less as a place to hide and to stretch his muscles as a pilot.  Naturally, he ends up in the infantry stuck in the middle of a trench warfare campaign that looks like it was lifted right out of All Quiet on the Western Front.

It really just gets us from one place to another.  We don’t care about what is going on, but rather we are interested in how it get to some of the most familiar bits of Solo’s personality.  Largely the movie balance of the movie is the interesting and uninteresting.  The interesting are the relationships between the existing characters – Han, Chewie and Lando.  The uninteresting is the belabored story that the movie is trying to tell.  There’s a romance between Han and Qi’ra that, honestly, I didn’t care about.  Yes, she’s beautiful, but she seems oddly unaffected by the Dickensian waste all around her.  Nor did I care about his association with Becket.  It is that old dusty you-can’t-trust-anyone-in-this-business kind of nonsense.  Tell us something we don’t know.

Solo: A Star Wars Story cannot have been a fun movie to write.  This is not an easy character to deal with on his own.  The tapestry of the original Star Wars trilogy was such that the further the characters get away from the force, the less interesting they become.  Han, in the original trilogy, was fun but he wasn’t much as a full-blooded character (Force Awakens would finally give him an arc).  Han is best in this film when he is building his relationship with Chewie and when they finally get into their respective seats on the Millennium Falcon, it feels like giddy fan service at its very best

Perhaps the best way to deal with this character might simply have been to toss out the story and just show he and Chewie on different assignments and different adventures – that’s why I’ve always championed a television series for him.  That way we get to see him learn from  his mistakes (or not).  This is not a great Star Wars movie but a good one.  It’s an appetizer while we wait for the larger parts of the story to be told.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.