SOLO – A Star Wars Story, a review

Coming hot on the heels of the recent December release of Episode 8: The Last Jedi, Disney has debuted its second spin off live action release from the almost unstoppable Star Wars franchise. Emphasis on the ‘almost’ part, as box office returns have not been so fruitful this time around, leading to a bit of a fall off.

This is in part due to franchise fatigue, with the previous film release in the franchise being only about six months earlier, and is also heavily due to the stiff competition the movie released alongside at the end of May 2018, with the box office juggernaut of Avengers: Infinity War, and the more recent Deadpool 2. And with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom releasing about a week or two later, the film was always going to have trouble finding a footage and keeping it’s audience. But there is also a darker undercurrent to audience relation to the movie. Besides many fans feeling the concept for the film is a bit throwaway and ‘unnecessary’ there is also a major blowback of a significant proportion of fans disappointed by The Last Jedi, the interactions with representatives of Disney, and the generally hostile climate fostered on line by flamewars, trolling and rant videos – often tending to very cursorily examine the issues and complaints about the topics involved.

Also, if I see the word ‘Soylo’ used much more, I may vomit. Apparently, soy products contain large amounts of estrogen, according to our oh-so well informed brethren on the internet – and ignoring the fact that soy substitute brand often contains far more of it! But I digress…

The idea of exploring the early years of Han Solo, memorably played by Harrison Ford, has been toyed with by George Lucas and others for many years, back to when he was unsure what direction Star Wars should go in following it’s initial success as a single film in the late 1970s. Lucas toyed with the idea of other directors or writers telling stories, whether on TV, film or print. And he even authorized author Brian Daley to write three short novels about Han in the period of 1979 to 81, confusingly released under the banner of ‘From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker’. The three titles were Han Solo At Star’s End, Han Solo’s Revenge, and The Lost Legacy. They stuck to the basic concept of Han as a hero with rough edges, who pretends to be above altruism, and even first hinted at Han’s past as a Imperial military recruit and budding pilot. Further spin offs were to follow, particularly L. Neil Smith’s Adventures of Lando Calrissian, based around Han’s charismatic old friend played by Billy Dee Williams in The Empire Strikes Back. The Lando adventure books get the privilege of being almost directly name-checked in the new movie itself, albeit with a hint at unreliable narration and boasting by Lando himself…

Originally to be directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street) the two were replaced by Lucas’s old friend Ron Howard, and the writing was conducted by Jonathon Kasdan and his father Lawrence, who had co-writing privileges with Lucas on both the original Star Wars sequels, and as main writer on J.J. Abrams The Force Awakens, the first movie to be released since Disney’s purchase of the Franchise. Kasdan regards Han Solo as his favourite character of the series to write, and had been quietly pushing for a chance to explore the character more. Having written Han’s own death scene in The Force Awakens, Kasdan was now free to return to this idea. However, his heavy workload of recent meant that he ceded primary control of the reins to his son Jonathon, who would also bring more of a youth perspective. They toyed with various ideas about Han’s past that had been teased or suggested over the years – that he was an orphan, grew up on the streets, fell in with gangs and went to learn to fly under an Imperial military academy. Ideas Lucas himself had suggested in 2005, when he considered having Han cameo in the third prequel movie, as a child living alongside his hairy future co-pilot, Chewbacca, were hitherto dropped though.

Han’s past had been explored in spin-off Star Wars material previously. The Daley books were just a set of other adventures Han and Chewbacca had been on in the period shortly before they became part of the main saga, but the growing roster of Lucasfilm authorized books printed by Bantam in 1998 included a Han Solo trilogy written by the late Ann C. Crispin. The Paradise Snare explored the same basic concepts of a young orphan Han, swept up in street gangs before making an escape, and dreaming of becoming a pilot or a respected officer. During the course of the story, he also learns to speak the language of the Wookiees from a sympathetic member of the species, that later enables him to bond with Chewbacca, another Wookiee who he rescues prior to the start of the second book, The Hutt Gambit. A friendship/rivalry with young Lando Calrissian results in him winning his tricked out spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, off of him in a card game a few years later, and the two heroes later break a record flying the dangerous Kessel Run past a set of black holes – even shortening the amount of distance they have to cover (thus clarifying a statement to Alec Guinness’ character Obi Wan Kenobi, that seemed like erroneous bragging). All of this material had been sitting around for a while, potentially ripe ground for anyone exploring Han Solo’s background, or indeed, merely the shady areas of the Star Wars world, onscreen. Disney’s purchase of the franchise in 2013 meant that prior spin off material was no longer considered binding to new directors and writers, but the basic bag of tricks and locations was still available under intellectual property law.

And much of that does end up making it’s way on to the screen in the finished product, making the movie seem bright and breezy, but maybe a little bit over-stuffed. It all flows together pretty well with the serviceable plot provided, but does seem at times like too many boxes are ticked, leaving little for Han and Chewie to do for nearly a decade leading up to their meeting with Luke Skywalker, and Han’s future wife, Princess Leia. The Millennium Falcon features prominently in the film, a smarter looking and somewhat more sleek little cargo transport, that undergoes significant punishment during the film, including an escape past a black hole, that leaves it much more battered and closer to it’s deceptively junk-like appearance in the original 1977 movie.

Harrison Ford, who was 34 when he first shot scenes as Han Solo, is replaced for the new film by Alden Ehrenreich, and up and coming new actor in his late twenties, who had previously appeared in the gothic romance/soft horror film, Beautiful Creatures (2013) Ehrenreich snagged the role against a small selection of other contenders, but was an early favourite with the directors and writers. Anthony Ingruber, an actor who had previously appeared alongside Harrison Ford in The Age of Adaline (2015) playing a younger version of the same character together, was passed over early on. Likely this was due to not wanting a too conscious imitation of Harrison Ford’s mannerisms and performance. Alden is instead pitching his performance as more of a naïve and optimistic young try hard, who still has the improvisational daring of Han, with a lot of lucky escapes. His main human co-stars are Woody Harrelson (Cheers, The People vs Larry Flynt, The Hunger Games) as Beckett, a hard up criminal trying to pull off one last big heist, and Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) as the quirkily named Qi’ra, a childhood friend and love interest of Han’s, who he has to abandon in his escape from the run down sewers and factories of his home planet, Corellia. Harrelson gives a dependable but not that stretched performance as the cynical Beckett, whilst Clarke adds a little nuance to the evasive Qi’ra as she transitions into a gangster moll figure. Joonas Suotamo, a Finnish actor and basketball player, returns to play Chewbacca again as in prior Disney released installments, having replaced the retired Peter Mayhew in the fur-lined costume. Donald Glover almost steals the show as the suave Lando Calrissian, bedecked in eye-catching shirts and capes, and Phoebe Waller Bridge adds some comic relief support as his temperamental droid copilot, L3-37 (and no, this internet based textspeak joke is not really spelt out onscreen, leet users). Paul Bettany (A Night’s Tale, Avengers: Age of Ultron) lends a mixture of charm and simmering menace to the role of gangster Dryden Vos, who sets the plot in motion with a planned heist.

A jump cut takes Han from signing up at an Imperial recruitment desk – motivated by trying to raise cash and return for Qi’ra – to a muddy, war torn battlefield on planet Mimban (introduced in one of the very first Star Wars spin off novels) which resembles World War One, with touches of Vietnam era American camps. Han gains his eponymous surname un-ceremonially from the recruiter he speaks to. A somewhat pat way to explain his slightly unusual moniker (and also a somewhat sad blow to fans of Han’s only living relative in the old spin off books, the ruthless cousin Thrackan). Han, washed out of pilot training for insubordination, struggles to make it as a peril-beset infantry man, and bumps into Beckett and his small gang of crooks, impersonating Imperial officers. Falsely labeled as a deserter, Han is thrown into a filthy underground bunker with a grumpy Wookiee prisoner, naturally, Chewbacca. The two plot an escape together – although the long time background detail of the latter having sworn a life debt to Han for his safety is never explicitly acknowledge in the film. Han also struggles to speak Wookiee, but clearly has some knowledge of the language, another issue not directly addressed. Chewbacca had been captured whilst looking for missing members of his tribe and of his family, who had been taken into slavery by the increasingly oppressive Galactic Empire that had arisen in the prequels, overthrowing the Jedi and going into propaganda overdrive as an engine for bringing peace and technology progress to the galaxy. The two attach themselves to Beckett’s gang, convincing him of their useful skills in a planned heist Beckett has been roped into by Dryden Vos.

The plot moves to the snowy mountains of planet Vandor, to hijack an Imperial train, in arguably the standout action piece of the film. Teaming with Thandie Newton as Beckett’s ‘wife’ Val, and Jon Favreau as quirky four-armed alien Rio, they fly a stolen Imperial cargo ship to try to latch onto to a train car and detach it, as the machine careens along a cogged monorail and tilts alarmingly from side to side, nearly to ninety degrees. The raid is interrupted by a rival gang riding flying ‘swoop bikes’ (a concept first appearing in the Brian Daley novels) The heist is ultimately a fiasco, leaving an irritated Beckett to take Han and Chewie to try to sweet talk Vos aboard his personal yacht – a large, vertically-towering spire of a craft, that serves as mobile headquarters and saves on location shooting. Here Han is reunited with Qi’ra, who had worked her way off of Corellia and been recruited into the shadowy Crimson Dawn, a growing crime syndicate Vos is a senior member of. Han pours on the charm, but Qi’ra attempts to caution him as to how she has done things she is not all that proud of. Vos appears and take’s Han’s measure, congratulating him for getting out of a ‘sewer like Corellia’ (a bit of a snub to the more photogenic portrayals of the planet) Together, Han and Beckett improvise a new scheme to recover the product Vos had been demanding earlier – Coaxium, a powerful, unstable and very explosive fuel used by the most powerful hyperspace engines, that Han had attempted to barter for passage off Corellia at the film’s opening, in very small amounts. Unrefined Coaxium is prone to explode violently, making a mission to steal it in that form a ticking clock scenario. Hence, they need a very fast vessel.

Which brings them to Lando, as played by Donald Glover (featured in The Martian, by Ridley Scott, and with his own online music persona as ‘Childish Gambino’) Glover sports a beard and sideburns to go with Lando’s trademark mustache, and also has somewhat longer and mussier hair. He’s shown blowing his own trumpet a lot over prior exploits (which include allusions to the dated L. Neil Smith novellas) and also accepts Han’s offer to a game of cards (Sabacc, a game introduced in those same novellas) Lando defeats the young challenger, although we see he had a hidden card-spring mechanism to hand. Lando fans might be a bit upset at the idea that the proclaimed master gambler cheats at cards, but Lando can also go from riches to rags quite quickly, and is likely to have fallback tricks – particularly when his own ship has been placed into the stakes. Lando is currently a smuggler, who moves contraband and restricted goods around – though he has ambitions to be a ‘sportsman’ – a professional gambler. With persuasion, he agrees to join the heist anyway, in exchange for twenty five percent of the profit. His droid L3 is introduced – an idiosyncratic robot with self-awareness and a growing, self-advertised agenda of droid liberation and equal rights; fans annoyed at how political issues seem to be tacked onto many genre movies these days will probably be relieved that this trait is played mostly for laughs, and is only touched on a couple of times. L3 also jokes to Qi’ra – in the straight-faced way a robot with no face can – that Lando has serious feelings for her, leaving the young woman uncertain if she is being messed with. Phoebe Waller Bridge, a comedic actress, delivers a flirty but boisterous vocal performance, rebuking Lando for ‘flirting’ with Han when playing up his piloting skills, or snapping rejoinders about her usefulness to him. Presumably it’s just friendly banter.

And so that brings us to another major controversy of the movie, regarding Disney’s public relations and it’s flippant decision to claim that Lando was being written with a pansexual attitude in mind – a word that is usually meant to connote surface attraction and flirtation, but has undeniably confusing undertones to many conservative audiences. Attraction and arousal are not always directly related to each other, but vague wording or poor understanding of the concept can lead to anxiety or panic among parents and other viewers – and Disney’s decision to have this be emphasized in some of the promotional material may have had negative side effects in terms of audience interest. In the end, the issue is pretty much negligible in the finished film, with Lando’s charm and ego making it hard to tell when he might be ‘flirting’ or not, with Han or others – and L3’s tendency towards joking around the topic clarifies things no further.

The crew arrive at Kessel, a cadmium yellow coloured, dusty world, previously depicted in the Rebels cartoon series around the opening episodes. Surrounded by very thick cloud-like nebulae and ominous ‘space storms’ complete with lightning, it is a penal colony where prisoners and slaves dig up ‘spice’ (slang for narcotics, usually) as well as minerals and other resources – including the prized Coaxium fuel that is the subject of the heist. Bluffing their way in allows the team to get into a control room and start a riot, whilst Han and Chewbacca split up – Chewie being still eager to rescue fellow Wookiees, and L3 goes into full on revolutionary mode with a band of clapped out droids inciting revolt. Pykes – an alien species and crime syndicate introduced by Lucas in the Clone Wars cartoon – appear briefly to greet Beckett and Qi’ra.

Assorted mayhem unfolds until the gang escapes with their cargo, leading the film into one of the major set pieces as they fly the Millennium Falcon into the nebula clouds, to avoid forces of the Empire now in pursuit. The resulting chase is fairly wild, if perhaps overstuffed. John Powell’s music provides bombastic accompaniment, borrowing heavily from John William’s tracks, especially ‘The Asteroid Field’ from Empire Strikes Back, but also mixing in parts of the main series fanfare and Han’s own new theme, which is used frequently in the movie, beginning in the opening scene and chase, and later in the riot on Kessel. The theme has a bit of a John Williams feel, having been initially composed by him and rearranged by Powell. But there is also a fair similarity to Pirates of the Caribbean and the Superman themes as well. Chewbacca also gets his own, wind-instrumented theme in a few sequencers, and during the end credits.

Avoiding some spoilers, the final part of the film unfolds on the planet Savareen, a world of arid beaches, cliffs and blue seas, where all the remaining characters converge. The truth behind Enfys Nest, Dryden Vos and Beckett’s own intentions is revealed, forcing Han and Qi’ra to both choose a side. Han is able to finally display some of the savvy he has learned on his recent adventure, but whether Alden Ehrenreich successfully communicates this is up to the viewer. Although is physical range seems limited, I think he faired reasonably well.

A surprise cameo also occurs, which may be confusing to those who had not seen the Clones Wars animated show, perhaps. The scene does take some pains to spell out who it is and how they have changed, though not necessarily being able to resolve disbelief about their return. The character is not a large part of the story though, and has limited room for return appearances – but other spin off films are intended, with both a Boba Fett and an Obi Wan film being under discussion.

The film concludes with one more, somewhat predictable encounter with Lando (who one would expect to be pretty annoyed by now, given how trouble and expense he has just gone through) and Han and Chewbacca fly off together into future adventures that will last them many years. However, given the film is currently losing at least fifty million at the box office, the prospect of a substantial return for Alden is currently looking doubtful, although cameos in other anthology films are quite possible. Perhaps when audience issues and critical blowback has died down, more may occur. Concerning the critical response, whilst the film does not feel very dramatic or game changing, it does generally succeed at being a fun romp and a good way to experience a lighter outing in the Star Wars universe, after the heavy issues (and plotting) of the last movie. The comedy seems more reined in and under control, even if the drama is not as heightened. Besides Alden, Emilia Clarke has come under some criticism for underplaying her role and appearing a cypher – which is perhaps to ignore how much that is the point for her character, trying to appear invulnerable, manipulative and capable of staying alive amidst a set of ruthless employers. Woody Harrelson’s performance is generally familiar with prior appearances, but he does manage to hint at a certain degree of vulnerability beneath it. And Donald Glover makes the most of his scenes to project charm and a little dash of fun conceitedness. The film’s questionable release date so early in the year, and just before major summer releases, may be hard to bounce back from.

No new Star Wars film will be out until the end of next year with Episode 9, as yet untitled, some eighteen months away. In the meantime, a live action television series is rumoured to release around the end of this year or into next, and another animated series, Resistance, is set for release in the autumn, on Disney XD and other channels. Possibly future cinematic outings will allow new directors to branch out further in styles and a slight blurring of genres: Ron Howard and his cinematographers play with a Western style in the last part of the film, whilst other earlier scenes jump about a little in presentation and emphasis. It generally isn’t distracting, but can feel disjointed.

So those are my overall thoughts about the film, and my reaction is, whilst not blown away, still overall positive. As long as you don’t come in too hyped up or expecting a very deep character portrait, you’ll have an easier time seeing past surface flaws to the more positive aspects beneath. From the perspective of a fan of the old expanded continuity, this comes across more like a `greatest hits` and remix compilation, though still close to the original feel of those stories.

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