Tuesday, June 05, 2018

"Solo: A Star Wars Story": review

[NB: spoilers!]

Let's get this out of the way: "Solo: A Star Wars Story" isn't a horrible movie. There were parts of it that I thoroughly enjoyed, but there were other parts of the story that didn't add up, or that failed to connect with me on an emotional level. The million-dollar question is: is it worth seeing a second time? To that, I'm afraid the answer is a clear no. "Solo" isn't horrible, but it also isn't particularly inspiring, and part of the reason for that is, as many other critics are saying, it adds nothing of substance to the story of Han Solo.

Here's a quick rundown of some of the "mysteries" that "Solo" solves for us:

1. We find out how Solo got his surname.
2. We find out how Solo got his gun.
3. We find out how Solo got the Millennium Falcon.
4. We find out why C-3PO complained about the Falcon's onboard computer's weird dialect.
5. We discover, kind of, the origin of the "twelve parsecs" claim.
6. We find out how Solo met Chewbacca.
7. We find out how Solo met Lando Calrissian.
8. We find out whether Solo is the type to shoot first.

The movie is directed by Ron Howard, who took over after the dismissal of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, two directors who normally work in comedy, and who approached the script of "Solo" with an emphasis on hilarious improv, which angered the scriptwriters—a power team composed of Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan Kasdan. "Solo" stars Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton (pronounce it "Tandy"), Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, and Paul Bettany.

We begin on the planet Corellia, where Han (Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi'ra (Clarke) eke out an existence by thieving and working for the local crime boss, Lady Proxima. Solo steals some refined coaxium, also known as "hyperfuel" for starships, which is volatile but highly valuable. After escaping the clutches of Lady Proxima, Solo and Qi'ra try to get off-planet, but Qi'ra is caught while Solo escapes. He promises to come back for his lady love, but to do so, he thinks he needs to become a pilot. In a bid both to fulfill this dream and to escape the gangsters pursuing him, Solo impulsively joins the Imperial military. It's not obvious how much pilot training he gets; we see him in the infantry, but we find out soon enough that he has sharp piloting skills. Solo is imprisoned at one point, and while in prison, he meets Chewbacca (Suotamo). Solo and Chewie quit the battlefield with a gang led by Beckett (Harrelson) and his wife Val (Newton), getting involved in an operation to hijack a trainload of coaxium. This operation goes south—and Beckett loses his wife—when a band of Cloud Riders shows up and attempts to steal the same coaxium. Neither side obtains the volatile substance, which gets loose and explodes powerfully enough to destroy a mountain.

Beckett had been trying to steal the coaxium for his boss, Dryden Vos (Bettany, with claw scars on his face), who is most displeased with Beckett's apparent lack of progress. Han, Beckett, and the remaining crew propose a dangerous alternate plan to steal unrefined coaxium, which is even more unstable than its refined form, from the spice mines of Kessel, a slave world that sits near a cluster of black holes called the Maw. At Vos's massive, tower-shaped yacht, Han meets Qi'ra, who left Corellia years earlier and fell in with Vos and the crime syndicate that Vos belongs to: Crimson Dawn. Qi'ra now wears a brand on her wrist that symbolizes her commitment to Vos. Vos commands that Qi'ra accompany Beckett and Company on their Kessel mission. The mission itself proves successful after the crew approaches Lando Calrissian (Glover) about a ship, which turns out to be the Millennium Falcon. While on Kessel, Lando's droid, L3 (Waller-Bridge), starts a droid rebellion as a distraction (but also because L3 sincerely believes in droid rights); during the firefight, the droid is irreparably damaged and Lando is shot (the Falcon doesn't belong to Han yet, which is why Lando is on the mission with Han et al.), but the crew manages to get the coaxium to the planet Savareen, with the goal of quickly refining the hyperfuel and presenting it to Vos.

The movie's final act is a quick and unintentionally funny series of plot twists and double-crosses. Earlier on, Beckett had advised Han never to trust anyone: "Assume everyone will betray you, and you will never be disappointed." This philosophy suffuses the final reel, and we find out that Qi'ra, who has been trained to be a cold-blooded assassin since her initiation into Crimson Dawn, doesn't actually work for Vos: she works for Darth Maul (Ray Park, looking older and thicker), who has a brief cameo as an angry hologram. Qi'ra kills Vos; Solo shoots Beckett (who had been planning to shoot Han), and Han and Chewie give the now-refined coaxium to Enfys Nest, the Mad Max-ish leader of the Cloud Riders, who has been organizing a rebellion against the Empire. Solo doesn't end up with the girl, but he does have a new buddy in Chewbacca, and as the film ends, Han plays a crucial game of sabacc against Lando and wins the Falcon. With that, he and Chewie fly off into the galactic ecliptic to meet up with a "big-time gangster" on Tatooine who is organizing a crew.

One of the movie's best points is the Han-Chewie dynamic. I enjoyed Han's first encounter with Chewbacca, which occurs in prison: Chewbacca is known to his human captors as "The Beast," and the guards regularly feed the angry Wookie all manner of humanoid prey, the bones of which lie scattered in the cell. It turns out that Han can speak some Wookie (something never revealed in the original trilogy), and he convinces Chewbacca to help him escape from their cell. Chewbacca is, in fact, quite an important character in this film, and for my money, he's probably my favorite part of "Solo."

The other main characters are a mixed bag. Alden Ehrenreich, as Han Solo, gets some of Harrison Ford's mannerisms right, but he lacks both the physique and the sonorous voice to make the role work. Donald Glover, by contrast, does an excellent incarnation/impression of Billy Dee Williams's Lando, but the character isn't in the movie for very long. Lando's droid L3 (full name: L3-37—get it?) is a bit of a puzzle; she seems to be under the impression that her owner/master Lando has the hots for her, but she's decided that a relationship could never work. Lando, for his part, becomes extremely distraught when L3 is shot, leading us viewers to believe the droid might not have been speculating idly. It's a weird and somewhat creepy dynamic, but given how there may have been a potentially gay undercurrent in the relationship between Chirrut and Baze in "Rogue One," why not hint at the possibility of a human-droid romance? It's Star Wars, now omnisexual for 2018, so anything goes. Emilia Clarke's Qi'ra is a character who reveals her true powers and skills (and maybe her motives) very late in the film; I was left wanting to know more about her, and if there's a sequel, I have to wonder how Qi'ra might evolve. Woody Harrelson plays a subdued version of himself (as he has in several recent movies, like "The Edge of Seventeen" and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri") in the role of Beckett. Paul Bettany, recently seen as the ill-fated Vision in "Avengers: Infinity War," is smooth and malicious as Dryden Vos, but like Lando, Vos doesn't enjoy much screen time.

So no one in the cast was atrocious. If I have no desire to re-watch the movie, it's not because of the acting: it's because the story—in style, tone, and content—had the cobbled-together feel of a movie that has undergone script rewrites and major changes at the helm. Going from the comedic team of Lord and Miller to Ron Howard was a seismic shift, indeed. Howard is a capable director; when he's on fire, he's one of the best, as his "Apollo 13" demonstrates. Unlike Lord and Miller, however, Howard isn't as interested in suffusing the story with comedy. He's more of a skilled-but-straightforward storyteller who inherited an already-messed-up situation. You can see and feel the problems: there are times when "Solo" wants to be a chase movie; there are other times when it wants to be a heist flick, and other times when it wants to be more like a spy film in which major characters reveal themselves to have been double agents all along. Some of the comedy has been left in (L3 is the designated comic relief), but leaving the humor intact in certain places only adds to the general feeling of tonal unevenness. Certain emotional beats make no sense, e.g., when Beckett loses his wife, then never mentions her again. Certain characters (like the insectoid Lady Proxima, who gets maybe a minute on camera) are trotted out for a moment, then we cut away from them, and they're swept under the rug as the story grinds forward. There are logical problems as well, such as when Dryden Vos acquiesces to the new plan to rob the unrefined coaxium because the crew has no direct, traceable connections to him. After giving Han and Beckett the go-ahead with this plan, Vos suddenly insists that Qi'ra, who is his closest lieutenant, accompany Han and the gang—thereby nullifying the crew's untraceability to the crime lord.

Let's talk about the Maw for a bit. The Maw is actually quite familiar to fans of the Star Wars spinoff novels, which were stories set in what George Lucas called an "expanded universe" (or EU). Kevin Anderson, in his 1994 Jedi Academy series, came up with the idea of the Maw, and it appears that, twenty-four years later, no one saw any way to improve upon or embellish Anderson's original concept. The Maw is a cluster of black holes, and in the Jedi Academy novels, the planet Kessel sits alongside, not inside, the Maw. The various gravity wells warp space enough to make navigation in that sector extremely dangerous. Smugglers taking spice from Kessel's spice mines try to find the shortest route out of the area to their destinations, but it's Han Solo who—with the help of the now-disembodied-and-uploaded L3 acting as navicomputer for the Falcon—manages to find the shortest possible route out of the area. Whereas no one before Han has ever found a route shorter than twenty parsecs, Han finds a route that is around twelve. The Maw was Kevin Anderson's way of repairing the apparent gaffe in the original "Star Wars": there's that moment in the Mos Eisley cantina where Han brags that the Millennium Falcon is "the ship that made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs." We normie viewers generally assumed Han was referring to time; nerdier viewers in 1977 probably heard Han's line and immediately thought, "But a parsec is a unit of distance!" Thanks to Kevin Anderson, the problem has been solved, and that particular plot hole is now closed. Unfortunately, "Solo" doesn't actually depict the Maw as a cluster of black holes: we only ever see a single black hole (it's referred to as a "gravity well," which is a sloppy use of language because any celestial object of significant mass possesses a gravity well) and the tentacled horror that lives near it.

And despite the praise I've given Ron Howard for his directorial talents, I have to say that there were times when he seemed to be doing a JJ Abrams impression. In the movie's more Abrams-y moments, we see characters running frantically through ship corridors in an attempt to reach a gun turret or inject a drop of coaxium into the Falcon's fuel lines.

Where does this leave us? We're left with a jumble of a film. The acting is fine, but (1) the plot holes are as wide as a bantha's asshole, (2) the tone and story structure are all over the place, and (3) the movie doesn't give us a story that adds much to the character of Han Solo. I offer special praise to Chewbacca and Lando for the life they bring to the film, but I feel some frustration that Qi'ra wasn't more developed (I think the idea is to develop her character over several films; she transitions so quickly from mere girlfriend to deadly assassin that we're left with a million questions). It's no wonder that "Solo" is currently tanking at the US box office, and before I conclude this review, I should mention the elephant in the room: Alden Ehrenreich seems like a fine fellow, and this is not really his fault, but he's no Harrison Ford. That fact, more than anything else, is what's killing this movie.


Charles said...

I went ahead and read your review because I never really had any intention of seeing the film. Now, having read the review... yeah, I pretty much feel the same way.

Kevin Kim said...

"Solo" might be worth seeing once, just to satisfy whatever curiosity you might have (granted, my review may have snuffed out any lingering curiosity). I hadn't intended to see the movie at all, but Jang-woong's boy was excited about it, and his mother (who acts as our ticket agent) bought tickets for the three of us to see it—Jang-woong, the boy, and me. JW's comment, after seeing the film, was "It would've been better with Harrison Ford." I think that's just about everybody's reaction. Poor Alden Ehrenreich was under a lot of pressure to portray a beloved, iconic figure, and there was just no way he was going to pull that off. Did you hear the rumor that they hired an acting coach to help Ehrenreich channel Ford's mannerisms more clearly? For an experienced actor like Ehrenreich, that's got to be its own special kind of hell.

Charles said...

I'll be honest: There was never any curiosity there in the first place. From the moment I heard they were making the film I struggled to muster any sort of interest, and nothing I have heard about the film has changed my mind.

I do feel a little bad for Ehrenreich, though, but he had to know what he was getting into. In fairness, I wonder if anyone could have pulled it off.

Kevin Kim said...

There might be two who could have.

brier said...

Saw the movie with Jr. Jr enjoyed it. I did too. I realized that Harrison Ford wasn't the actor and I was open to a new interpretation. After the railroad heist gone wrong I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Before that it was like shit on a shingle, good but maybe the cook could do better/different.

Nathan B. said...

Hi Kevin!

I see I'm somewhat late to the party. I felt that "Solo" was quite sexist. Did you have any thoughts on that?

Kevin Kim said...

Hey, Nathan!

Jenny Nicholson rips "Solo" a new asshole in her 49-minute review, which contains a pretty thorough discussion of sexism, sexuality, and slavery. Watch her video here. I generally agree with her criticisms, esp. re: sexism and the way slavery is handled in the film, but I came away somewhat more positive than she was about the movie as a whole.