There are three things about this movie which I absolutely adored, but the problem is I can’t discuss all of them for fear of entering spoiler territory. So, two of them will have to wait until a later time. That’s what makes a non-spoiler review so tricky, the few things this movie gets right and the few things this movie gets wrong, I can’t talk about!
What I can discuss however is how Solo: A Star Wars Story is the most serviceable Star Wars film to date and balances enough little references with a general euphoria that should please, but not elate, most people.
The second standalone film in the new Disney era finds us swimming in familiar waters, even if you’re just a casual Star Wars fan. Anybody who’s anybody has heard of Han Solo, Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon and lucky for them, there’s plenty of all three in this film.
The synopsis can be found anywhere online but this film employs a two-pronged approach. It's equal parts an origin story for everyone’s favorite Corellian smuggler and an intriguing heist film involving many thrilling sequences and moving parts.
Something made very clear early in the marketing; is that all the greatest hits are there from Han winning the Millennium Falcon (sort of), to his first meeting with Chewbacca, to the famous Kessel Run. Bring your scorecard if you want to play along in this first ever interactive Star Wars spectator sport. And that’s really the fun part about this film, without looking at the camera directly they’re telling us, the audience, we are all aboard the Falcon as co-pilots, so buckle up.
The major issue for me was while they deliver these classic moments from Han’s life, they don’t present them with any gusto or feeling. In fact, the lack of emotion throughout the entire film was a bit disappointing. It’s as if these inclusions were merely writers checking off mandatory boxes, not by Star Wars devotees like the Kasdans, who you think would treat these moments with a little more respect and care rather than a wink and a smile. The whole film tonally finds a comfort zone but ends up feeling flat footed thanks to the lack of overall sentiment.
Nevertheless, like the film, there are things we need to cover here. While much has been made about Alden Ehrenreich’s lack of “chops”, and although I was initially uneasy about the casting choice from early trailers, I’m happy to say he takes to the role nicely. Once your brain adjusts and you acclimatize to the fact that it’s not Harrison Ford on screen, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how likeable and effective Alden is in the role. Personally, Han Solo was never my favorite character, not even close, and any “charisma test” Ehrenreich was supposed to pass was irrelevant to me. I don’t want a parody type performance; I just want a good one. Other than being too short, Alden is not the worst part of this film by any stretch of the imagination.
This film essentially belongs to two characters, and two characters alone, Lando Calrissian and his droid co-pilot L3-37. Calrissian played by Donald Glover and L3 played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, are truly great together on screen and it’s no coincidence the film really picks up at the point these two are introduced to us. It’s these characters and their relationship that sparks my curiosity and wonders what a Phil Lord and Chris Miller version of this film would have looked like. These two flying around the galaxy getting into and out of trouble would be a delight.
Moments like L3-37 talking about her and Lando’s relationship with Qi’Ra was one the most enjoyable things for me on screen this year and serves as sort of an ice-breaker for the gang. If you love droids like I do, then Waller-Bridge’s sometimes funny, sometimes emotional performance will delight you. And the mini-revolt L3 causes amongst her brothers and sisters is pure joy.
Glover was anointed as the MVP of this film some time ago and that claim holds true. He comes as advertised and Glover takes to the role famously. We’ll be talking about this performance for a while whether he gets a spin off or not. Again, it’s the personal character minutiae where you get to sink your teeth into this character. We’ve all heard about his cape collection and sometimes mysterious attaché past, but I most enjoyed his interactions with Han, where he displayed a level of annoyance rarely seen.
The rest of cast is unfortunately only serviceable including Emilia Clarke’s Qi’Ra and Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett. Both play vitally important roles in Han’s life it’s just that they don’t necessarily depict that in the best way they could have. Paul Bettany’s portrayal of baddie Dryden Vos is derivative and not entirely appealing, in fact, he might be one of the worst Star Wars villains in recent memory. After consecutive Star Wars films that gave us Kylo Ren, Supreme Leader Snoke and Director Orson Krennic, it’s a bit of a letdown really. Equally unforgiveable is the general malaise surrounding Thandie Newton’s character Val, who was entirely wasted in what should have been a foreground character instead of the disposable allegory they made her out to be.
One character I thoroughly enjoyed and who will surprise fans the most is Enfys Nest, the leader of the Black Cloud Gang. She’ll likely be familiar to you if you’ve seen even just one of the trailers and she plays folly to Han and his gang throughout the film. She’s a wonderfully complicated villain who on the surface appears to have the same agenda as the others, but luckily for us, there’s more to her than meets the eye. It’s no spoiler to say that the lack of character description and casting details reveal a great twist by the films end which I think everyone will enjoy, I know I did. It’s also one of the things that helps tie this film into the greater Star Wars universe, should they choose to exploit it.
And what about the Wookiee you say? Chewbacca is in fine form here and really makes a strong case for his own film, but since there’s no chance we’ll get a Chewbacca standalone film, this will have to do for now. If you’ve seen the trailers, then you’ve seen pieces of most of his finest moments but one thing this film does very well is add texture to the Han/Chewie relationship. While they really drop the ball on their first encounter, they form a good enough partnership the rest of the way. But as I said, here’s something fans of these two have wanted to see on screen for quite some time, their first meeting, but they opted for humor instead of earnestness.
One relationship, or lack thereof, that was disappointing however was the mistake made by not giving Chewbacca a more poignant interaction with another Wookiee. By making the only other Wookiee he speaks with be “Sagwa” who is described by the writers as a “stoner”, is sort of ridiculous premise and does a disservice to Chewie and his backstory. His wife Mallatobuck is part of canon and they should have found a way to include her in some small way.
I won’t comment too much on the costuming as I’m working on separate pieces for that subject, which includes interviews with designers David Crossman and Glyn Dillon. What I will say is that Solo is right in sync with the franchise when it comes to costuming, especially for the leads. Yes, Lando Calrissian gets to do the heavy lifting in the wardrobe department but Qi’Ra, Val, Dryden Vos, each of them has unique, if not sometimes understated fashion moments. The catalogue is most definitely in the mail. And Solo has its obligatory fancy party moment where the designers really get to stretch their legs and come up with a nice variation of multi-cultural fashion.
Bradford Young’s cinematography, while not his best (see Arrival) was mostly good, but I can’t help but feel his talents were wasted a little. We do get the occasional good look at the terra firma of several planets including Mimban, Savareen, Kessel and of course Corellia. The direction and photography on Vandor is fantastic and the Conveyex heist sequence is up there with the all-time greats.
Young employs a lot of tricks as he plays with shadows, and smoke and low-light in a way that creates wonderfully moody and atmospheric environments. There’s a real Blade Runner type feel which sustains that timeless quality Star Wars does so well. No doubt about it, this film looks great. A special shout out to Pietro Scalia who’s editing is seamless, especially during the just mentioned train heist and the Maw bits as well which in someone else’s hands could’ve been messy.
An odd choice for me was not naming the planets as we travelled to them on screen like Rogue One, something I enjoyed quite a bit. And we don’t get a sense of how big the galaxy is at all in this film as we’re rushed off from planet to planet. There’s no real sense of size or vastness in this film as we mostly go from cockpit to surface level. And when the camera does pull back to reveal some often times nice scenery, the characters and the action remains in the middle of the screen, so it gets lost.
The one thing which didn’t wow me on the first viewing was John Powell’s score. While admittedly it’s tough to produce a score that will play alongside John Williams classic Star Wars motifs, it just didn’t resonate with me the way Michael Giachhino’s Rogue One soundtrack did on first listen. This score though reflects, for me anyways, an overall lack of emotion which will likely keep the overall audience score down a tad and repeat viewings minimal.
Considering the dark clouds that circled over this film, it’s a testament to all involved that they were able to pull up their boot straps and get this thing across the finish line. Ron Howard reportedly re-shot 80% of this film, so in my books that makes the responsibility of its success or failure all his.
If it’s true and Ron Howard used the exact same Kasdan script that Miller and Lord had, then I’m not sure even they could have made this spectacular. The ingredients aren’t there to make it an all-timer but in what is the best compliment I can perhaps muster, it’s highly re-watchable. But it’s no surprise after seeing the film that Miller and Lord were accosted for straying from the script. As writers themselves, I’m sure they desperately wanted to add a little pep to the exposition which sometimes feels a little tedious.
There’s certainly more good than bad in Solo: A Star Wars Story and I very much look forward to seeing it again soon. One thing Star Wars movies do, regardless of the previous two or so hours of film, is end well. And Solo has some amazing bits at the end including a surprise which made my heart soar. The details of this event are making their rounds on the internet so be careful if you don’t wish to be spoiled. Just know that for me personally, it’s something I never thought I’d see and is quite alarming.
In the end, Lucasfilm is only left with good options going forward here. They’ve signed Ehrenreich to two more films should they need him to come back, but I suspect that prospect will depend heavily on the box office performance of this film. An Obi-Wan Kenobi standalone film seems all but assured at this point but the enigmatic Donald Glover and his exciting portrayal of Lando Calrissian could have something to say about that. And a couple of other things that occurred in this film, which I won’t reveal, certainly imply a larger picture at work.
The age-old question of where it ranks is tricky because it’s not like any Star Wars entry so far but it’s not The Last Jedi either, not by a long shot. I suppose it will fall in the bottom half of most people’s lists but, with 11 films and counting, perhaps it’s time to do away with the rankings all together?
Till next time…MTFBWY.
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