Going It Alone, But With Your Friends
The Star Wars franchise has occupied a significant place in the cinematic and pop-culture landscape for more than forty years, ever since the premiere of the eponymous first feature in 1977. Across the ensuing decades, books, comics, video games, collectibles, toys, television movies and specials, animated series, and of course, theatrical films have contributed to the entertainment juggernaut created by writer-director-producer George Lucas. As with any extended storytelling endeavor, it’s fair to wonder whether additional entries will bring something new into the mythos, in terms of either content or production. In the case of Solo, the answer is yes, in a small way—but mostly no.
The film marks the tenth live-action silver-screen release set in the Star Wars universe. It mixes elements both familiar and not, focusing on the younger years of the title character while recasting Alden Ehrenreich in the role Harrison Ford originated. Similarly, Joonas Suotamo takes on the mantle of Chewbacca, first portrayed by Peter Mayhew, and Donald Glover assumes the caped figure of Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian. Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Thandie Newton, and Paul Bettany introduce new characters and round out the main cast.
Helmed by Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard, the actors all turn in solid performances. Though limited to a voice and motion-capture role, Phoebe Waller-Bridge distinguishes herself as Lando’s right-hand droid and would-be love interest, L3-37. The gangly, disc-headed robot suffers gladly neither fools nor the notion that organic beings possess any inherent superiority over her kind simply by virtue of their natural origin. Ms. Waller-Bridge brings a humanity—or should that be droidity?—to L3, captured by both her persistent sarcasm and her earnest desire to free manufactured beings from their servitude.
In their roles as the youthful versions of Han and Lando, respectively, Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover deliver impressively well. The pair bring a much needed freshness to a film series that has grown senescent, if not shopworn. Neither Mr. Ehrenreich nor Mr. Glover fully imitate the actors that preceded them, but they manage to imbue their characters with nuances—the manners in which they carry themselves, the cadences of their speech, the attitudes they project—that evoke their forebears. Similarly, Joonas Suotamo gives recognizable substance to Chewbacca, although in his case, the actor’s full-body Wookiee suit may help considerably.
But while the actors newly stepping into the shoes of Han and Lando confer a newness to the Star Wars milieu, too many other aspects of the film—props, settings, characters, situations—are ubiquitous within the decades-old franchise. Speeders, blasters, and TIE fighters; a frenetic city bustling in three dimensions, frozen snow-covered terrain, and a sandy desert; stormtroopers, Darth Maul, and outsize puppets masquerading as malevolent aliens; conflicts with criminals, with the Galactic Empire, and with the Resistance—all appear in Solo in ways that make those details not only consistent with the earlier films, but derivative of them.
At the same time, the filmmakers clearly intended the echoic feel of some aspects of the film. In many ways, Solo functions as an origin story for Han, but fan service weighs it down. The intertextuality with other Star Wars features is both blatant and extensive: This is the moment Han first encountered Chewbacca. This is how Han met Lando. This is when Han initially laid eyes on the Millennium Falcon, and this is how he came to acquire the Corellian freighter. This is when Chewbacca acquired the bandoliers he wears. When in the first film Han mentions Wookiee’s ripping people’s arms out of their sockets, this is the incident to which he refers. Far too much time is spent explaining details that do not require explanation. It is overkill, death by a thousand cuts, but the technique is also wielded like a bludgeon.
One scene reveals how Han came by his surname. While audiences likely assumed he’d inherited it from one or both of his parents—if they’d considered the matter at all—it turns out that’s not actually the case. Is the explanation necessary, or even mildly interesting? Not enough to merit the setup and the few lines of dialogue given over to it, all of which feel calculated and gratuitous.
A more egregious example involves the “Kessel run.” In the original Star Wars, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) seek to charter a spaceship to transport them to the planet Alderaan. When they meet Han, he shows them the Millennium Falcon, with which they are not impressed. Desperate for the commission, Han tells them, “It’s the ship that made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs.” The claim seems preposterous on its surface, since parsec—a contraction of the astronomical term parallax second—defines a unit of distance, not time. Did George Lucas make a mistake in the dialogue he wrote? Or did he intend Han’s assertion to sound like an obvious lie? Whatever the case, a tremendous amount of story and explanation are unfurled in Solo to demonstrate to the audience that neither Mr. Lucas nor his character blundered, that they meant to use the term parsec in that context.
Apart from the concerted efforts of screenwriters Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan to craft Solo as tracts of backstory for previous Star Wars installments, the film has its moments. The tale begins in media res, with criminal elements chasing Han through a squalid section of city. Interesting action sequences pepper Solo, from a more elaborate landspeeder chase, to a futuristic train heist, to the liberation of slaves during another daring theft, to a shoot-out for a stash of volatile coaxium hyperfuel—not to mention the Millennium Falcon’s race through the Kessel run.
Along the way, cinematographer Bradford Young captures beautiful, sweeping vistas, both of the natural and computer-generated graphic variety. Still, the color palette stays oddly muted throughout Solo. Many scenes are dimly lighted, monochromatic in composition, and muddy. It seems a peculiar choice for a larger-than-life space opera, though the simpler, duller tones may be an attempt to inject a note of realism into the images. If so, it does not entirely work.
That criticism—that the cinematography does not entirely work—applies to the film as a whole. The actors are good, the characters are likable or hateful enough, and the story moves with action and a sense of humor, but the overall finished product does not add up to more than the sum of its parts. Solo plays out as a lark, without enough interesting character development or story for its players. If you’re compelled to see it because you love Star Wars, don’t force your friends or family to see it. Go solo.
**½ (out of *****)
©2019 David R. George III