Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

I liked this new Star Wars film, but it seems a lot of people are giving it a miss. It’s only five months since the release of the disappointing previous installment The Last Jedi, so perhaps some people are suffering from Star Wars fatigue.  It doesn’t help that Solo: A Star Wars Story has a well-publicised troubled production history, with the original two directors being fired and replaced by Ron Howard, two thirds of the film needing to be reshot, Disney forcing the lead actor Alden Ehrenreich to take acting lessons during the production, and a supporting actor Michael K. Williams being replaced because of scheduling conflicts due to the reshoots.  Consequently the cost spiraled to a jaw-dropping $300 million, and based on the opening weekend box-office takings, there are fears that it might not even break even.

All this doesn’t bode well, but I was still amazed that there were several empty seats at my screening at the IMAX a mere five days after the release date, a huge screen where blockbuster films usually sell out weeks in advance.

This is a pity, because Solo is a well-made, entertaining film that for me captures some of the magic of the original trilogy.  The production problems are not really apparent on-screen.

Solo Solo
Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo

As an ‘origin’ story, there’s a lot of box ticking: it seems that virtually every hint of Han’s backstory in the original films is covered.  His origin on the planet Corellia, learning to fly at the Imperial Academy, saving Chewie’s life and partnering up with him, and winning the Millennium Falcon from Lando in a gambling game.  We also see him doing the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs (the anomaly that parsecs is a unit of distance not time is neatly explained), and going to work for Jabba the Hut.  It’s pleasurable to see these incidents, and their inclusion doesn’t seem heavy handed.  Solo doesn’t feel predictable, even as it’s ticking off the stuff we already know.

Just as the original film A New Hope referenced 1930s sci-fi serials and Japanese samurai films, so does Solo take its inspiration from classic movies.  The initial scenes set on Corellia are reminisicent of David Lean’s Oliver Twist, complete with narrow streets, child urchins and a Fagin-like gang-leader Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt, Dune). Shortly after, we are thrust into the World War I trenches of All Quiet on the Western Front, with fatalistic generals, gunmetal grey sky, muted military uniforms and lots of mud. Later, Han is part of a gang attempting to steal the valuable cargo of a futuristic maglev freight train in a thrilling scene shot in the unmistakable mountain splendour of the Italian Dolomites; this sequence resembles the (great) train robbery in many a western.  Westerns, both their spaghetti and American variants, are referenced frequently, not least in a scene near the end that hints at a high-noon gundown.  Despite all these borrowings, the film wears its influences lightly.  There’s none of the ironic post-modernist winking that so many films employ to signal their detached cleverness.

Solo train
High jinks in the Dolomites

Solo also has a Hitchcockian Macguffin in the form ‘coaxium’, a highly explosive and valuable fuel.  This luminous blue liquid gold is enough to buy Han’s passage to escape Corellia, and in larger quantities it represents the life-changing potential to pay off debts and buy freedom.  Much like in The Treasure of Sierra Madre, it is the cause of the in-fighting, shifting allegiances and betrayals that drive the plot forward.

The film explores a theme of trust vs betrayal.  Han’s criminal mentor Beckett advises young Han to trust no-one so he’ll never be disappointed; Han rejects this advice of course.  Almost everyone in this film is primarily looking out for themselves.  If that means deceiving or double-crossing their allies, so be it. This happens to Solo several times, and these experiences probably explain the cynicism in Harrison Ford’s Han.  This slipperiness keeps us interested in the characters throughout the film.

Solo Chess
Beckett teaches Han and Chewie to think two steps ahead of their opponent

The film has a straightforward, simple structure and maintains a momentum to the end.  It’s written by Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back, and his son Jonathan.  Unlike The Last Jedi, there’s nothing about Solo that feels unnecessary, and its 115 minute duration races by.  The many action scenes are thrilling and well made.  There may not be the beautifully-crafted visuals of the other recent Star Wars films, but the landscapes and set pieces are still impressive.

Thankfully, there is absolutely nothing in this film concerning The Force.  The recent films have been increasingly bogged down by hokey mysticism and so this absence is very welcome.   The film might not have so much of an epic quality, but the compact narrative works in its favour.

All of the characters including the new ones are interesting and you feel they have a back story.  The titular hero is central to the story, of course, but this is as much about Chewbacca and their genuinely touching friendship.  And of course, the Millennium Falcon.

Solo Falcon
Chewie and Han: A Bromance

The film balances the well-loved characters with new faces. This appears to be the first Star Wars film not to feature favourites Artoo and Threepio, but I can’t imagine how they could have been shoehorned into the plot without breaking credibility.  Instead, we meet Lando’s droid co-pilot / navigator L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a comic character who doesn’t outstay her welcome.  The relationship between Lando and L3 is surprisingly tender and loving, although unrequited as L3 sadly acknowledges that the robot and human are ‘not compatible’.  Later she triggers a robot revolution with an obvious anti-slavery parallel; her character’s headstrong sense of righteousness brings this classical film up-to-date.

Solo QuRa
Emilia Clarke’s Qi’Ra is curiously guarded and detached from Han, who by contrast wears his heart on his sleeve

Alden Ehrenreich does a great job at playing the lead, a thankless task as he is inevitably compared to the definitive Harrison Ford.  He captures the charm, smile and roguishness of the original, but with less cynicism.

Emilia Clarke, best known as Daenerys in Game of Thrones isn’t as bad as I had feared she might be.  In GoT her acting is generally wooden and she is one of the dullest of the lead characters in the tv series.  She exhibits much of the same detachment and flatness in Solo but that’s an understandable element of the character she plays. In her earlier innocent scenes she is convincing as Solo’s love interest Qi’Ra, and she carries that through the rest of the film.

Donald Glover is great fun as the self-regarding young Lando, with a presence that threatens to steal the movie whenever he’s on-screen. Paul Bettany, as gangster villain Dryden Vos, is captivating but has far too little screen-time and perhaps his character is a victim of the reshoots.  Woody Harrelson is effective as Tobias Beckett, a criminal who becomes Han’s mentor and adversary combined.  Thandie Newton is wasted as Beckett’s wife Val: the character disappears too early and I did wonder if the role was more significant in earlier versions of the script.

Solo is officially a Star Wars Anthology film, like Rogue One before it; they are meant to be stand-alone accompaniments rather than the main meal.  The two are very different and Rogue One is the better film, but for me they are both more successful and satisfying than either The Force Awakens or The Last JediSolo is an exciting adventure, straightforward, compact and very enjoyable.

The next Star Wars film, Episode IX, will be released on 19th December 2019.

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