By Elias Savada,
In a galaxy far, far away, veteran multi-hyphenate filmmaker Ron Howard has directed Solo with a sure, reliable hand, cobbling together the second standalone Star Wars Story (following 2016’s Rogue One) for a bumpy journey into thousands of multiplexes. This Han Solo origin story (the first for anyone associated with The Force) is not a great film, but there’s plenty of action, adventure, mischief, and answers to the many questions that have supposedly nagged fans for decades. How did Han Solo get his name? How did he meet Chewbacca? How did he win the Millennium Falcon in that card game with Lando Calrissian? Other anxious folks may also ask: Will Solo, the latest Star Wars project with respected directors who have been jettisoned for clashing with the powers overseeing the Lucasfilm/Disney franchise, still manage to break away from a crowded Memorial Day Weekend box office and score a victory over the superheroes who have stormed the big screen of late?
Even as the continuing space western saga races past its 41st birthday, somehow the folks in charge of this ever-expanding legacy seem to have stumbled when the showrunners (particularly Kathleen Kennedy) made the startling decision to cut ties with directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who are given Executive Producer credits on the film) half-way through filming this heftily budgeted work. The freewheeling directors of the hip reimagining of 22 Jump Street and the insanely creative The Lego Movie were booted out and replaced by the pragmatic and prolific, award-winning producer-director who has successfully conquered serious subjects (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon, Apollo 13) and light comic fluff (Splash, Parenthood).
Most viewers may not spot many of these “creative differences” on the screen, because the screenplay’s blueprint by Lawrence Kasdan (writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, director of The Big Chill and Silverado) and his son Jonathan Kasdan left little wiggle room for straying from the core biopic plot structure. Yet, there’s a definite anarchy missing that probably infused the Lord-Miller approach, replaced by a pervasive connect-the-dots tedium that now infuses the film, despite the numerous action set pieces. I wanted and expected the old George Lucas excitement: Something original, something big, something passionate. All I got was big.
The film is set ten years before Harrison Ford first appeared in the original trilogy. The sarcastic wit and reckless bravado are two of the traits that connect Ford’s interpretation with that provided by Alden Ehrenreich, who gained critical attention in 2016 for roles in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! and Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t’ Apply, both generally underwhelming pictures from those directors. I still have an issue envisioning the growth from the new Solo to the old – there’s a four-inch difference between the actors. Ehrenreich’s eye twinkle doesn’t jive with all the Ford iterations. There’s no height (or acting) issue for Chewbacca, as Joonas Suotamo has now stuffed himself into that character for the third time since Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The plot, often set up to offhandedly answer those various questions of Han’s lineage, is set up when Solo’s girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is separated from him on the planet Corellia as henchmen of the White Worm syndicate leader, a marine centipede named Lady Proxima, and Imperial officers close in on the fleeing couple. It picks up three years later as the wily Han maneuvers his way into an association with Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (an underused Thandie Newton), a pair of thieves indentured to the film’s lackluster villain Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany, a.k.a. Vision in the Marvel universe). Qi’ra’s unexpectedly nearby; Han’s love interest, alas, is now someone else’s. The reunion is bittersweet. A train robbery goes awry, which leads to joining forces with Lando Calrissian (Atlanta‘s Donald Glover, providing new and improved dimension to the character played in the earlier films by Billy Dee Williams). The two Landos are swashbucklers seemingly cut from the same cloth, although Glover’s dramatic comic ability helps to lift Solo up as best he can.
Calrissian’s hilarious co-pilot is a kick-ass droid named L3-37, a rebellious mechanical suffragette voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag, Killing Eve). She is used to irreverently enlightened comic effect.
Production wise, there’s little to fault with the top-notch technical crew including cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival), joined by Star Wars veterans Neil Lamont (production design), Neal Scanlan (special creature effects), David Crossman and Glyn Dillon (costume design), among others. At 143 minutes, it would have been nice to have an editor who could have provided a little more cohesion to the wide-ranging story than spanned four other planets: the mud planet of Mimban, the snow-covered Vandor, the prison mine world Kessel, and the stark Savareen.
Ron Howard may be the person that Disney claims saved Solo, but it’s a salvage job that proves less than endearing.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).