Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

“Everything you’ve heard about me is true.”

Justin’s rating: A delightful hairball

Justin’s review: I am really tired of Hollywood constantly going to the well of “prequels” and “origin stories” to milk whatever remaining drops of fandom and funds out of popular IPs. While I certainly liked the idea of Star Wars branching out into side stories that aren’t part of the Skywalker saga, nobody was asking for this. Nobody was beating doors down going “Give us young Han Solo and young Obi Wan and young R2D2 who just starts as a remote-controlled toy car for some reason!”

That said, I gave Solo: A Star Wars Story a fair shot because I do love me some smuggler action and really liked how Disney pulled off the Rogue One experiment. And while Solo ended up being such a financial disappointment that it brought the onslaught of new films crashing to a halt, I’m still glad it was made. It’s just that there was no real reason for it to be made.

As you might surmise from the name of the film, this is The Young Han Solo Chronicles, with Alden Ehrenreich stepping into the lead role and doing an uncanny impression of what we’d imagine a more youthful Han Solo would be. It’s his origin story, how Han managed to escape his downtrodden lifestyle by falling in with the gangs and scum of the universe and somehow ending up with a Wookiee best friend and the fastest ship in the galaxy.

Like Rogue One, this is essentially a heist movie, although it’s far more up front about it. So you’re going to get a lot of characters who may or may not be trust-worthy, a femme fatale, and a hero who takes more than a few licks but keeps on ticking. Probably my greatest problem with all of this is that the film seems hellbent on explaining the origin of every single detail of Han’s life — why his last name is “Solo,” where he got his dice, why the Falcon doesn’t have anything between its front wedges, etc. I don’t know about you, but for me that sort of pandering is very immersion-breaking rather than engrossing, and I wish they’d leave some details up to our imaginations. But that’s Star Wars for you — sooner or later, every detail about every character’s going to get dissected to death.

It’s a serviceable enough movie with some interesting environments, some funny lines (although not quite as many as I was hoping to hear from this scoundrel), and — wonder of wonders — not a lick of Force and lightsabers and Jedi. It’s so refreshing to have at least one movie that’s not about all that stuff, because Star Wars is really more than just Jedi being stand-in supermen.

What’s really interesting with Solo is that Lando ends up stealing the show completely. Lando in this early incarnation is played by Community’s Donald Glover, who clearly relishes the opportunity to play the flashy gambler. Lando got a really bizarre relationship going on with his revolutionary-minded droid that ends up spiraling into the strangest retcon of the whole franchise — the backstory of how the Millennium Falcon has an artificial intelligence that you never knew it had because this is literally the first time anyone’s mentioned it.

I’m sure that Solo has plummeted to the bottom of many people’s “New Star Wars” movie lists, which is a shame. It’s much better than Last Jedi or Rise of Skywalker, in my opinion, and a refreshing look into a different slice of the Star Wars universe.

Sean’s Rating: A solid medium. Not quite Wookiee-sized.

Sean’s Review: (Borrowed lovingly from The Intermittent Critic, and updated)

Remember, once upon a time, when the Star Wars universe consisted of three movies (and a few terrible TV shows, and a bunch of books)?  That state of being lasted sixteen years between the release of Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Phantom Menace (1999).  The Galaxy was a smaller place back then, wasn’t it?

Flash forward to 2020, and we’ve gone from three, to six, to eight, to ELEVEN Star Wars movies (with a guaranteed minimum of three more on the way), plus a couple TV shows (and at least one more of those on the way, too).  So it’s starting to feel more than a little weird that we’re still exploring the same characters over and over again, over a fifty year time span.

Predictably, the trend has not abated.  Solo: A Star Wars Story (hereafter referred to as Solo) is stuck somewhere in the middle of the timeline, set after the Prequels, but before the Holy Trilogy.  (it’s not immediately clear if it’s before or after Rogue One, but I have to imagine it’s before – Han seems still just a little too young to be Han we meet at the Mos Eisley Cantina in A New Hope)

And so we’re left with the question – how many more Star Wars movies can we digest as a movie-going public?  Or, at a minimum, how often can we digest them?  And are they of high enough quality, or just muddling through, trading on past goodwill to earn their keep, instead of pushing the envelope?

I realize that I already sound like I’m complaining, so let me back up and summarize: I did indeed like Solo.  It’s fun, punchy, moves along at a good pace, and feeds Han Solo (the character) through his young adulthood and into his roguish trappings.  This is how he becomes the Han who meets up with Obi Wan and Luke Skywalker, without feeling like the events we see are a complicated series of interlocking, badly designed set pieces (the cardinal sin of the Prequels).

When we pick up, Han is a young man in indentured service to Lady Proxima, a wonderfully designed but weirdly underused gangster, on his home planet of Corellia.  He’s hopelessly in love with Qi’ra (who, in a refreshing break with tradition, loves him back), also part of Proxima’s gang, and they plan to sell some stolen hyperspace fuel (conveniently now compact enough that you can carry enough for a jump in your pocket) and escape together, sailing into whatever passes for the sunset in outer space.  Unfortunately, fate separates the pair, and Han elects to join the Empire with aspirations of becoming a pilot, deserting (!), and going back to rescue Qi’ra in a ship to be procured later.

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The expression I believe you’re looking for is; “WOOOOOOOOOO!”

If this sounds like a bit of a slow start… well, you ain’t wrong.  The opening on Corellia is a bit of a slog, and it’s not until Han has signed up as an Imperial, been assigned as a ground trooper, and then blackmailed his way into an outlaw gang that the movie finally takes off.  He plans to run one big job, buy a ship, and then go back for Qi’ra, and is desperate for his new boss to pick him up for that job.  He finally agrees, and from there on out this is a really fun movie.

We see Han meet Chewie, we see Han reunite with Qi’ra, we see Han meet Lando, and we see Han pull off the famous Kessel Run (in 12 parsecs, no less, but you’ve got to round down).  The bases, they are covered.

The main strength of Solo is undeniably its cast.  So where to start?

You know what?  I’m going straight to my favourite thing about Solo – Chewbacca.

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I hope these two settle down one day.

Chewie is hands down the beating heart of this movie.  I’ve heard people describe this film as the best Chewbacca movie they’ve ever seen, and they’re absolutely right.  I’ve always loved Chewbacca, but I’ve never actually thought of him as being particularly dangerous.  He’s always referred to as strong and tearing people’s arms off, but we actually haven’t seen much of him do this stuff in the movies we already know – it’s always intimated, never displayed.  Peter Mayhew as the original Chewbacca famously had a really bad back, so while he was indeed a huge figure for Harrison Ford to stand next to, he actually couldn’t do a whole lot.  That’s why most of Chewie’s action scenes to date have consisted of him firing his crossbow at people.

Not so here!  Joonas Suotamo as the new Chewie (since The Force Awakens) makes Chewbacca a legitimate threat to his enemies.  I never, ever used to think of Chewbacca as scary, but his introduction in Solo (which I won’t ruin here) is actually mildly terrifying.  Then we get to see him kick ass and take names for the rest of the picture, and all the while Suotamo really nails all those little head tilts and gestures that make the character who he is.  He is super well done, and a delight to watch.

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Charming AF. (No, no, the one on the right!)

Next up is Donald Glover as Lando.  Everything you’ve heard about him is true.  He’s a charming, smooth SOB, able to glibly smile his way from scene to scene, just like Billy Dee Williams did in Empire Strikes Back.  Although Glover’s Lando is not an impression, per se, you can really see him not only paying homage to Williams’ performance, but also adding the extra twist of what that Lando would have been like as a younger man – powerful but still vulnerable, slick but still finding his way.  It’s a great performance, and I liked it a lot.

Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra is actually a welcome surprise.  I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about a Han Solo love interest that wasn’t Leia, but Clarke does a great job selling Qi’ra, first as a naive, lovestruck survivor, and then as a much more hardened but smooth career criminal, who hasn’t quite gotten over Han, but is doing a good job at trying.  Also truly well done.

The rest of the cast is all great.  Woody Harrelson as Beckett the outlaw and Paul Bettany as the scar-faced gang lord Dryden Vos are both solid.  Frankly, I’d watch Harrelson do just about anything and enjoy it, so no worries there.  Even Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3-37 is pretty dang great, providing a lot of substance to yet another Star Wars droid character. Her social justice warrior droids rights activist is a unique turn in this world, and it’s fun.

That leaves us with Han himself, played by Alden Ehrenreich.  I’ll say this – the movie does a better and better job of selling him as Han Solo the longer it runs, but Ehrenreich’s performance in and of itself never really quite hits the mark for me.

I mean, I don’t hate him.  I don’t!  This new, younger Han is still a fun character, and Ehrenreich turns in a solid performance.  There’s nothing wrong with it at all.

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Close enough?

But the whole point of this movie is to spend more time with Han Solo, and this just doesn’t quite feel like him.  It’s not far off, and it gets closer and closer to the target the nearer we get to the credits, but it’s just not quite there.  I appreciate very much that Ehrenreich wasn’t doing a Harrison Ford impression (I  think that would have been a serious mistake), but it’s not different enough to be a wholly new thing, either.  Does that make sense?  It’s been days since I saw Solo and I’m still wrestling with this – I like the movie a lot, but it’s got this one thing at the center of it that’s not a problem, but isn’t quite right, either.

His chemistry with the new Chewbacca is off the charts, however, as is his awe and immediate (and obvious) lust for the Millenium Falcon.  You can see in every frame how very easily he’ll line up for the character we know and love in A New Hope onward, and that’s a real treat.  Hearing him speak shyriiwook for the first time is an unexpected laugh (I knew he could speak it!), but it doesn’t break anything further down the timeline, because it’s just fun, not crucial to the plot of future movies.  Han can understand Chewie, Chewie can understand Han.  That’s truly all you need.

As I mentioned before, my biggest problem with the Prequels (and I have lots of them) is the fact that so often George Lucas created more questions than he answered with them.  Young Anakin built C-3P0… so why do we never see him recognize him later?  Yoda barely loses one fight to Sidious… so he exiles himself permanently to a swamp planet?  Obi Wan was once the greatest lightsaber duelist of his age… so when he meets up with Vader on the Death Star, he can barely wave his weapon back and forth?  There’s all kinds of this stuff.

The screenplay for Solo manages to avoid most of these snags, and in fact trades pretty neatly on some great muttered lines and in-jokes that foreshadow the future nicely (hearing Lando grumble about how much he hates mining colonies is a great line, knowing he will one day operate Cloud City).

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Almost always good news for the Falcon!

If there’s anything that runs the risk of not making much sense later, it’s the fates of Enfys Nest and Qi’ra.  These are pretty odd characters to have pop up now and never again.  But it’s not show stopping, just the old, grizzled nerd in me having my say.  (Oh, that and never having the Empire appear to give a damn about a deserter.  As is so often the case in Star Wars, it makes no sense that he would keep using his real name.)

Look, I am the Star Wars target market.  Granted, Disney isn’t going to sit back forever and bank on just forty-something white dudes with a teensy bit more money than sense, but up until now I’m pretty much the prototype fan.

But even I can admit when I’m getting tired.  Comparisons between this and the Marvel Cinematic Universe are becoming inevitable, but the MCU has something going for it that Star Wars actually doesn’t – diversity of storytelling.  The MCU is home to war adventures, space operas, spy thrillers, Shakespearean dramas, heist flicks, buddy comedies… there’s something for everyone, even as it purports to be one gigantic, amorphous blob.

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Quickdraw McSolo.

Star Wars really has that space opera thing down, and arguably better than almost anyone else out there, but that is its best, and often only, face.  A chunk of Solo passes for a pretty good Western (heist from a moving train, gun drawing showdowns, and very colourful characters), but for the most part, this is a pretty fixed universe.

If Disney doesn’t find a way to start broadening out the Star Wars offering, fans will definitely tire, especially at this pace.  You can’t release one or two films a year if they’re all the same, with the same characters and backstory.  It’s already looking past time that Star Wars moves on, leaving the Skywalkers and Solos behind.  The Rian Johnson trilogy that’s coming in the next few years is rumoured to be set in the Old Republic years (a thousand or more years before these movies), so there’s new stuff to look forward to.

Solo was a good romp, and lots of fun in parts.  I’m not sorry I saw it, at all.  But will I come back to it, over and over again, like I do with Empire Strikes Back?  I honestly doubt it.

It’s strong in its cast, even with a lead actor who consciously chose not to attempt to resemble his predecessor.  It moves along from scene to scene at a pretty good clip and provides laughs and thrills, without logistically breaking much of the storyline to come.

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Looking forward to more?

I’ll put it this way: I liked it, but this is the first Star Wars movie I ever saw where I was just not convinced we actually needed it.  Which, for me, is a pretty big deal.

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