Review – Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Well, another year has passed, and it’s Christmas time. You know what that means? Time for more STAR WARS…oh, wait. It’s not Christmas; it’s Memorial Day weekend. I just got my Blu-ray for The Last Jedi weeks ago, and I’m back in theaters for the next film. Fatigue may be setting in for many, but not for me. I’m having the time of my life with more Star Wars than I can handle. Still, I get it, and I think it would have served this film better to release further out in the year, away from the hype and hate of Episode VIII. Yet, here we are with the next episodic “Star Wars Story“, following the fairly self-contained Death Star focused war film, Rogue One. This time, we get to see the early days of everyone’s favorite scoundrel, Han Solo, as well as other familiar faces in his circle. His ship, the Millennium Falcon, has always felt like a character, and as such, this film is an origin story for it as well.

Originally helmed by directors, Chris Miller and Phil Lord, they left the project after behind-the-scenes issues, and veteran director, Ron Howard, was brought on to complete the film. While much of the film had been filmed, reportedly, Howard re-envisioned much of it, recasting characters and shooting new sequences, as he worked to deliver a final cut. How much is new and how much was there at production start is something only those involved will know, but despite production woes, did the film find a way of working within the confines of its own narrative structure and the larger Star Wars universe as a whole?

I would say yes. Much like the Falcon, everything doesn’t always land smoothly with this film, but it delivers exactly what is expected, for better or worse (which is a whole lot better than our smugglers usually do on their jobs). That said, there are pleasant surprises sprinkled amidst its occasional missteps. One might poetically say the film’s quality perfectly fits Solo, the character: rough around the edges, but there where it counts. Do you expect to see how Han (played here by Alden Ehrenreich) and Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) meet, or Han and Lando (Billy Dee Wil…wait, that was Donald Glover? Bravo.)?  You want to see the Kessel Run? Of course you do! It’s not spoilers to say they are all here. How could they not be? They are the undeniable reasons this movie exists.  Still, their meetings and that legendary run, no matter how thrilling, are expectations on our own narrative checklists, and seeing all of it play out isn’t nearly as exciting as the unexpected things brought about by new characters.

Our story starts us off immediately in introducing Han on Corellia, the industrial ship building world that doesn’t leave much room for aspirations. His penchant for speed and danger and no family to call his own beckons him to to find a life beyond there. We know he will become one of the best star pilots in the galaxy, but a distance from all things of the Empire; we see why. We know Han has a skeptical distrust of many and a penchant for dropping jobs and getting in deep trouble with gangsters; we find out why. We see him interact with Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrison), Val (Thandie Newton), L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), and Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, making every moment he’s on-screen worth it). Telling much more spoils the fun of the journey, so we’ll leave it at that. Let’s just say that it’s truly a ride filled with many twists and turns, whether it be said of the film as a whole or the flight sequences of the Falcon.

With almost instant derision to him being cast for a variety of reasons, I have to say that Ehrenreich impressed me. Does he look or sound like Harrison Ford? Only if you close your eyes and mute the volume. Still, he brings us a likeable lead once we get over the initial shock that he’s not interested in mimicry; he conveys the spirit of the character very well in his own way, and it feels very bold to do that in response to all the negativity he got online. Glover, on the other hand, proves imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. He didn’t have to mimic phrases to evoke nostalgia, because he is outright channelling Billy Dee Williams in his performance. Smooth isn’t even the word. There’s nothing childish about his skills on display. Joonas Suotamo has now fully inherited the role of Chewbacca, and it’s easy to look past his work. Still, he gets to convey raw physicality that has only been conveyed in conversation or comic book panels. It’s incredibly cool to see the power of a Wookie brought to life.

Clarke ably plays Qi’ra, as does Harrelson and others who team up with Han. Each was cast knowing what they could bring to the table. Predictable casting isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just…predictable. The highlight for me in this film was Paul Bettany. A late addition to the cast out of necessity, the original actor, Michael K. Williams, filmed his entire part in motion capture to be an alien villain; when he was unable to return for the massive amount of reshoots, Bettany came in, and the character was made human. This was a very smart decision, as so many characters in this film are aliens/droids (in fact, the film feels almost like a feature length “Cantina Scene”). Making him human forced Bettany to get your attention purely from performance alone, and he does. He conveys a dangerous feel, but it’s never showy. He’s only in a few scenes, but I loved every moment he has as the crime boss.

Musically, the score gives you all the hooks you know and love that are Han-adjacent, but it’s the ethnic sounds, unique to this film, that got my attention when certain new characters came on-screen. The marketing trailers had, frankly, cheesy renditions of the main theme playing and greatly lowered my expectations, so to hear new exciting sounds in the actual film impressed me.

It took me a bit to acclimate to this being a Star Wars film, and I love that. I want the films to branch out into new areas and tell stories that haven’t been told before. These “Story” films have the best shot at doing that, so when they don’t adhere to existed style, I appreciate it, even as I struggle to get a hold of it all. Howard frames shots in a more modern way than I was expecting (especially action shots), so there’s a visceral quality to the film that fits the character’s speed and cockiness. Seeing weaving speeders intercut with tightly focused eye shots gives the film a visual momentum that gives it it’s own distinction. To accompany that, expect the most Firefly film we are likely to get for years to come. Lawrence Kasdan, one of the screenwriters here, has been very clear for decades about his love of all things western, even directing a few films himself. Here, we see that love come out through the screenplay and Howard‘s framing of scenes. Han Solo is truly a space cowboy, and this film knows and shows it.

Content-wise, while the language is about standard for a Star Wars film in what is said, how often bad language occurs seems more often than other films in the series. Perhaps the seedy backdrop of it all should have made us expect it all, but just be aware if those things trouble you. Allusions to seedy behaviors are here, and gambling is a plot device throughout. Theft features as well. Weirdly, L3-37 (our soon-to-be target of criticism, I’m sure) and Lando share a weird relationship that frankly didn’t work for me on any level. I know I won’t be alone in that feeling.

From a Christian perspective, it was impressed upon me by this film that even though other individuals may be fallible and prone to disappointing or even betraying us, we are all imbued with a need for connection to others. Honestly, God made us to be in relationship with Him and each other. Things may not work out like we would like with others, and they may even send harm our way; still, we should extend grace to others, as God extends it to us, and never cut ourselves off from seeking relationships with others.

All in all, I enjoyed Solo. Was it an essential story to tell in a film? Probably not. Are there surprise elements that could prove important in future films and cohesion with future television/animation projects? Without revealing here what they are, I’d say yes. It’s interesting to see the little seeds planted here that could develop into bigger things elsewhere. No doubt, the film, as a whole, is unabashed fan-service, and that may hurt it in the long run. Still, I had a great time watching it and its own way of conveying the fun and feel of the original films, and if Ehrenreich came back again somehow in the role in a Solo sequel or something else, I wouldn’t complain. Knowing the fan base, as of late, there will be enough of that, no matter what is done. Buckle up, and enjoy the ride!

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