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Solo: A Star Wars Story is a good film. Now that may not sound like the most ringing of endorsements, but you have to take into account just what this production has gone through in order to reach our screens. Pressure was already on the film from the moment of announcement, notably from the fan outcry that this was a story that didn’t need to be told (the finished film just about justifies its existence). Personally I’m not a part of this growing group that seems to hate on all things Star Wars. The franchise has always meant something personal to me, it was the first collection of movies that I recall becoming obsessed over, but never to the point where I felt precious about it. Han shooting first was never a controversy I could see the point of (although I am pretty aggressive when it comes to the added “Noooooo” in Return of the Jedi’s last Blu-Ray release). The saga has recently become a hot bed of cynicism and petulant whimpering. Upon Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm and the subsequent announcement of standalone tales I felt this was a chance to explore more of the world that I loved and chose to ignore the potential for crass IP saturation. Star Wars has always been a world of optimism and hope, to think any less of the prospect of more from the universe goes against the very nature of what George Lucas founded in the first place. More than any other franchise Star Wars has had to fight against an army of fans who only see the saga in a particular way, scared stiff when things don’t go the way they thought (ahem The Last Jedi-which is terrific). Anywho this rant has gone on a bit…

Fighting against all that Solo came into another snag when halfway through production original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were removed from the film citing the ole “creative differences” line. The ins and outs of what truly happened are all out there online to see so I won’t go into them here, but not for the first time Lucasfilm had to turn things around quick (their first standalone Rogue One also faced major production woes-a whole reworking of the third act) bringing old hand Ron Howard to apparently reshoot 70% of the film. Remarkably watching Solo you can see no such signs of woe. Solo shoots along with nary a breath right from the off. We meet the scoundrel on his home planet, living on the streets and stealing to make ends meet. He does this with fellow street rat, and romantic interest Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke-solid if underutilised). Before you know it there has been a street race, shootout and an emotionally charged separation. Howard using that same narrative energy he so capably used in his last great movie Rush.

Narratively Solo is relatively simple. Joining the ranks of the Empire, Han falls in with a bunch of criminals led by the worldly Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), whom together set about a series of heists in order to pay back the ruthless criminal warlord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany-suitably menacing and charming). To be expected there are a number of beats screenwriters Lawrence and Joe Kasdan have to hit, after all this is a prequel. Han meeting Chewie, Lando and the Falcon, how Han got his gun etc. Sure not all of these questions needed answering, surely we didn’t need to know the origins of Solo’s name, but the Kasdans are shrewd enough to play around with fan expectations. Lawrence after all scripted The Empire Strikes Back. Events do not always play out exactly as you would think, and they capably tease at fan service moments without making them too overt. The first encounter between Chewie and Han especially stands out as a delightfully surprising moment. In fact the most important thing Solo gets right is its characters.

Across the board the population of Solo is made up of schemers, fighters and cocky criminals, with Lucasfilm continuing their talented eye for casting. Even little parts are given perky remembrance via charismatic performances. Thandie Newton makes an impression as one of Beckett’s gang, as does Jon Favreau in a typically loquacious voice role. Joonas Suotamo has a terrific physicality and truly owns the role after taking over from Peter Mayhew as Chewie. The interactions between him and Han are a strong highlight, their relationship building naturally from animosity to affection without the need to streamline it. As for the man himself Alden Ehrenreich does a terrific job. This was always a difficult gig. Harrison Ford made the role so iconic you’d be forgiven for expecting no one to take it on. Smartly Ehrenreich never tries to do an impersonation, choosing instead to hone into aspects of the character that will go on to form the Solo we know of old. His cockiness, that glint in the eye charm, the element of compassion underneath the tougher exterior, it is all there. And yet there are only smidgens of each, Solo tells of him in his younger days so he has a greater sense of idealism than the stuffy cynic we meet in A New Hope, albeit the seeds are planted to hint at how he might become that man (more on that later). He would be the highlight of the film if it wasn’t for two other faces amongst the ensemble.

Most of the raves amongst an otherwise weak marketing campaign fell on the coolness of Donald Glover as the fanciful rogue Lando Calrissian. I can confirm that he brings that effortless smooth talking into the whole film, nailing the dulcet tones and faintly smug air of Billy Dee Williams. If at first Glover appears to be just attempting a straight impersonation (wait until you hear the voice) all doubts are cleared away in the films latter stages as a number of turns allow him to formulate a fully fledged character, vulnerable and charged with emotion whilst still looking the coolest man in the galaxy (oh man so many capes). Paired with him is another of Solo’s unexpected treats, the droid L3-37. Mo-capped by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, L3 is a droid unlike any we’ve seen before. Trash talking, volatile and politically driven, Bridge absolutely sings in the role proving that, as in Alan Tudyk’s Rogue One machine, the robots are the real heart of things in this universe. The only pity is the both of them do not stick around long enough.

Howard backs these performances up with a pace that keeps things light, no universe ending threats here, and action scenes of immense thrills. An early train heist is suitably exciting, shot through with a sense of geography and patience that only a steady hand like Howards could provide. A mid film set-piece involving the titular Kessel Run is up there with the franchise’s best. All of this is shot through by Selma cinematographer Bradford Young with an absolutely beautiful eye. He graces the film with torturous greys, evocative darks and a slightly to the left realism that is simply breathtaking. Coupled that with the never better creature work and production design to conjure possibly the best looking Wars film we’ve had so far. Although it would’ve been nice to get some brighter colours from time to time. John Powell also provides a breezy, propulsive score, similar to Micheal Giacchino’s Rogue One sound in that you can hear the John Williams influence but it feels palpably its own.

There are downsides to using a firm hand like Ron Howard though, the film feels very safe. Most likely as a result of the last minute director change, Solo has gentle surprises but never becomes anything more than solid. Stylistic eccentricities are few, no Last Jedi style unpredictability here (which should certainly please those who found that film too different). I’m also surprised that despite Lord and Miller’s original involvement there is a distinct lack of true comedy moments. He also loses things a little in the final act. Bringing in larger themes of the plight faced by the little people (the Empire is nicely kept to the peripheral) as represented by new villain Enfys Nest, who looks cool but ends up a damp squib. It chimes in nicely with the wide eyed optimism this young Solo currently has, but doesn’t truly go anywhere beyond getting him where the plot needs him to be. Betrayals lead him down a path that nicely sets up where we know he’ll eventually be in A New Hope, but rather than leave us tantalisingly imagining it, the film decides to move things in place to set up a sequel. I for one would be happy to see more of this cast and world, thanks to its performers but from a narrative and character standpoint it truly doesn’t require it. The film awkwardly lacing in a surprise cameo that whilst cool is wholly unnecessary (not to mention most likely confusing for general audiences not up to speed with the surrounding SW media). Things are certainly not helped by the abrupt ending.

It is a shame as there is much to like in Solo. Despite its flaws it is never anything less than fun. The lower stakes of its story a nice palate cleanser after the heavy Last Jedi and mass murdering Rogue One. True it may do little to dissuade those who go in believing these spin-offs are just a studio milking a property for all its worth, but so long as they keep focusing on story, character and providing blockbuster entertainment I’ll happily spend more time in a world I love.

Verdict: Solo is not without its flaws, primarily in its lack of directorial verve and a flat third act, but involving characters and a bevy of thrilling set-pieces add up to a fun time at the movies. 

***

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