A long time ago, as the story goes, there was a scruffy-looking space smuggler. Well, this story is about that beloved scoundrel, only younger and he had yet to herd nerfs. So goes Solo: A Star Wars Story. Aside from being a film people may have wanted (but audiences didn’t need), you might have heard stories about directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller leaving the project (from a script by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan) and Ron Howard coming aboard. Yup, creative changes certainly abound when putting together a Star Wars story these days.
The good news is that the film is steeped in reverence, and a lot of fun. And more so than other SW prequels/one-offs.The bad news is that there’s a lot of bad news. First off, everything feels extremely rushed. Not 50 minutes in and Han has thrust upon him every piece of hardware and friendship that has made him iconic for the past four decades. It’s tacked on.
But that’s material. What about the narrative, huh? That’s worse. It’s a lot to handle when the main character is given a love interest (Clarke), a pair of best friends (Suotamo and Glover), a stand-in father-figure (Harrelson), and an antagonist (take your pick of them, really). And he’s not the new CGI character with four hands! Sure sounds a lot like a little known sci-fi property from ’77, but that’s the problem. It’s the same format, just with a different main character. As if we wouldn’t notice.
You can’t fault the re-use of those archetypes, but the cornucopia of all-too-brief personalities is little more than a vehicle to, let’s face it, sell toys. The team(s) mean well, sure, but the narrative is simply weak. If we were to go out on a limb, Solo has echoes of what M. Night Shyamalan originally wanted to do with Unbreakable. While that was, loftily, planned as a trilogy, it worked better boiled down to one story. One as streamlined as it is unforgettable.
With Solo, it’s clear that someone wanted a nice three-picture arc, full of roguish delight. But it’s ambitious to a fault. Is Alden Ehrenreich charismatic enough to carry three stories? Is there enough story? What’s left to earn after a blaster, a sidekick, and the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy? Not much, because most of that ground is covered just past the first act. It’s not earned, it’s convenient. Did anyone watch Abrams’ Star Trek at least once? It really pays off when characters have a real backstory for what is trademark about them.
Sure, Luke was just given his father’s lightsaber early on…but it was his father’s. Solo is not canon – it’s fanboy fan service. And there’s a lot of it in this film. You almost need the Star Wars equivalent of a flyswatter to bat away the references, Easter eggs, and nods to the universe. Therein, it’s got a, somewhat, enjoyable aspect going for it. But the narrative is not a hearty meal. It is, at best, a light snack.
Solo has a very lived-in ‘70s vibe to it, and, as far as looks, it seems that Howard or Lord & Miller are a little too in love with Blade Runner because this film is dark. No, not content, many of the sets lack essential illumination. You get daylight from windows, but you’re missing task lighting, ambient lighting, hell, even cheated/artificial light. Thanks, Bradford Young.
Part of what made Star Wars so appealing, was the unknown quality to a majority of the cast. When you saw Peter Cushing or Alec Guinness, they were in sizable but still secondary roles. The main cast was comprised of up-and-coming and unknown talent. It makes it easier for the audience to let them be their silver screen surrogates. Here, the big league talent, while it makes for good cosplay, puts an intangible barricade between us and the likes of Woody Harrelson.
Right or wrong, this film learned one thing from Rogue One: it’s ok to have expendable characters. You do care more about certain characters if they’re not going to be around a while. Don’t you? Well, what does that say about the eponymous lead and his carpeted friend?
Now there are noteworthy components, and paramount among them is Donald Glover. He seems to have been infatuated with Billy Dee Williams since birth (and props to the Kasdans for the nods to two of L. Neil Smith’s ‘Lando’ novels) because he plays the role exceptionally. And you really have to give it to Ehrenreich for giving it his best Harrison Ford even if he’s only kind of channeling Han Solo. The ending is fairly good, and the scenes with the Falcon are quite thrilling, but this doesn’t keep at bay that nagging subject of needs vs. wants – people have always wondered about the Kessel run, and how Han won the Falcon, etc. but let viewers fill in the blanks.
What makes these characters interesting and iconic is that you don’t have the backstory. That’s what makes it so fascinating. With a blank page, anything is possible. When you give the audience something definitive, some may like it, some may not. Let’s just hope that, inevitable merchandising haul notwithstanding, this does something to deter the studio from more prequel one-offs. Imagine the same thing happening to “flesh out” Toshiro Mifune’s titular Yojimbo. Yeah, I shuddered, too.