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Tuesday, July 03, 2018

A Solo without Soul: Solo, Reviewed

I've long maintained that fictional universes, if the worldbuilding is solid enough, can support an almost endless well of good stories, provided those stories are compelling. For that reason, I'm not against the idea of endless Star Wars spinoffs; I ask only that they be good.

Solo: A Star Wars Story isn't good. Neither is it terrible, but considering I was inventing a more interesting film in my head as I screened this one, coupled with the unfortunate fact that I dozed off during the spice mines "action" sequence, it's clear there's plenty of room for improvement.

We meet our titular hero, Han Solo, on the mean streets of Corellia, stealing and scrounging for a means of escaping the hardscrabble life he shares with his girlfriend, Qi'ra. They find the means within the first five minutes of the film, but they're tragically separated during the escape. Han makes it offworld and joins the Imperial Navy, hoping to become a pilot, but winds up as an infantryman on some anonymous muddy world instead. Another five minutes later, he meets Chewbacca and they escape that particular hellhole with a trio of hyperfuel smugglers.

The rest of the film is comprised of a series of capers as various bands of criminals and other interests steal the hyperfuel from each other. Naturally Han and Chewie meet Lando Calrissian along the way, and no prizes for guessing Han winds up in possession of the famous Millennium Falcon by the end of the film.

I will say this for the film: the action is competently staged, the performances are decent-to-good (with a couple of critical exceptions, which I'll note below), and director Ron Howard manages to slightly broaden the scope of the Star Wars universe with a couple of new planets and factions. The brief glimpses we see of the Empire are some of the most interesting in the film--but they come and go far too quickly.

I was also happy with Chewbacca's presentation; he steals most of his scenes, and maybe it's the nostalgia talking, but I found his presence comforting and familiar. I also thought Qi'ra had the film's only truly interesting character arc, and Emilia Clarke brought the character to vivid life. Finally, multi-armed alien Rio provides some necessary warmth and humour in the first act of the film.

That concludes the good parts. Three major flaws prevented me from taking the film seriously, or even really enjoying it as entertainment:

  • Performances. I'm a huge fan of Donald Glover, and I thought he'd be perfect as Lando Calrissian. But to my surprise, Glover's performance is so distant and disinterested that I started to wonder if he found the material beneath him. Frankly, if he felt that way, I wouldn't blame him; the screenplay reveals nothing particularly new about Calrissian, except that he once had feelings for a droid. I was also underwhelmed by Woody Harrelson's turn as smuggler Tobias Beckett, and, sadly, with Alden Ehrenreich as Solo, who's game for the considerable challenge of filling Harrison Ford's boots, but who I simply can't believe as a younger version of the icon Ford created. 
  • Story. Put simply, this is the laziest, easiest possible version of any backstory that could have been conceived for this character. Han starts and finishes the movie as a criminal, growing only in the sense that he trusts people a tiny bit less (but even this growth is undercut by seeding a countervailing appreciation for the nascent Rebellion). At its core, this is a static film. The Empire is ascendant, criminal gangs scrabble for the Empire's leavings, and people everywhere just struggle to survive. Moreover, the basic structure is: chase, escape, chase, escape, card game, chase, betrayal, chase, firefight, betrayal, escape, firefight, betrayal, card game. Each beat is ponderously predictable. 
  • Lack of ambition. This is closely tied to story, but aside from the writers failing to find an interesting backstory for Solo, they also make a point of explaining backstory that would have been better left as personal legend: to wit, the Kessel Run. It's the sort of thing that works better when implied rather than explained; seeing it takes the awe and wonder out of it. Similarly, there's a ham handed attempt to address a longstanding problem with the Star Wars universe: android rights. The droids, as depicted in the films, are clearly supposed to be sapient beings, and yet they're treated as slaves, even by the "heroic" Rebellion. Lando's robot in Solo is an outspoken android rights activist, but her concerns are played for laughs and quickly forgotten--another wasted opportunity, among many. 
I'm no storyteller, but even I can come up with some seeds that might have made for a more compelling film. Why not start off with a Han Solo unlike the one we're familiar with? What if Han was a Corellian child of privilege who idealistically accepted Imperial propaganda, and joined up with the intention of helping bring law and order to the galaxy? What if he did indeed become an elite Imperial pilot, and only gradually, through earned experience, began to question his actions and those of the Empire he grew up idealizing? What if those experiences made him the sarcastic loner we see in the original films? What if the heroic Han Solo we knew from those films had, even with the best intentions, done real evil to innocents and the Rebellion? 

Instead, as presented in Solo, Han seems to have been born a lovable rogue, essentially the same guy we know and love from our childhoods. It's a missed opportunity of galactic proportions. 

For a different take on the film, see my friend Steve's review


Stephen Fitzpatrick said...

Yeah, I can’t dispute anything you say here, and I clearly give the movie more than enough credit for being a salvage job by a competent but generic director. In the end though, it entertained me and was better than the prequels, so I stand by my assessment!

Jeff Shyluk said...

It think it was the TIE Fighter LucasArts game that established a backstory of Han as an Imperial officer, an ensign or a lieutenant involved with the capture of Kashyyyk. If memory serves, he was a shuttle pilot with Chewbacca as one of his prisoners. For whatever reason (there is one but I don't recall it), Chewbacca's plight causes Han to betray the Empire and they escape. I don't remember much of the backstory since it was presented in the written game manual and not in the game itself. I do recall a chilling but simply-rendered graphic of the Wookiee prisoners being fastened into sensory deprivation chairs on the shuttle, which is maybe not such a bad idea if your orders are to transport angry Wookiees.

In any case, the schism that catches up Han and Chewie becomes an Imperial civil war in the game, where your player character is forced to choose sides and you find yourself in the weaker faction. Eventually Darth Vader shows up to patch up the dispute (to put it mildly). I do recall what particular hell is released when Vader is your wingman and you try to give him orders...