Solo (2018) Review

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Solo (2018)

~Review by Grawlix (June 2018)

This review contains minor spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

   It has to be tough to make one of these sidequel/prequels, especially in a universe as lush and expansive as that of Star Wars. They have to balance staying true to established canon while offering something new. Too much of the former and they just come off as a pandering repeat of things we’ve already seen before. Too much of the latter, and they’re just a generic sci-fi movie with no attachment to the source material. Solo, somehow, manages to be both of these things. Many of its callbacks to the original films feel like derivative retreads while much of the original elements feel bland and stale.

   Solo begins with Han (Alden Ehrenreich) eking out a living on the squalid streets of the planet Corellia, a petty criminal in a den of thieves which also includes his ladyfriend Qi’ra, played by Emilia Clarke. They dream of an escape to a better life, but when a scheme to get off world ends with the two separated, Han ends up joining the Imperial Navy vowing to come back for her. Suddenly, it’s three years later, and Han is trudging through some backwater planet in the Star Wars equivalent of trench warfare, having apparently washed out of the pilot program due to his attitude. So much for motivation. Looking for a way out of the Empire entirely, he links up with a cadre of mercenaries that have managed to infiltrate his unit on a job of their own, but it’s not long before their own plans go sideways, shaking things up again.

   This is a persistent problem during Solo. The story often barely has time to establish its narrative footing before it changes things up and we’re off to somewhere else with a new scheme and new motivations (and often, new personnel). This also leaves many of the characters woefully underdeveloped. Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) is introduced as Han’s mentor in the ways of smuggling and underworld navigation. His primary lesson is to trust nobody, although too often it seems that the characters in the film trust one another way too easily, until the inevitable double cross of course (and there are plenty of those to go around) when, too often, at least one character has the gall to act surprised. Harrelson does what he can to manage the twists and turns of the plotting, but even he seems stymied more often than not as to exactly how he should be interpreting the character.

   Qi’ra also suffers from this rollercoaster storytelling. When she inevitably reenters the story, she insists she’s not the same person Han once knew, but we never knew who that person was in the first place or, for that matter, why Han cared so much about her (granted, the fact that she looks like Emilia Clarke is good enough for me, but then, I don’t look like Alden Ehrenreich). When she ends up pulling a few schemes of her own, it elicited little more than a shrug.

   Even the vaunted appearance of Lando Calrissian, played, with much fanfare, by Donald Glover, underwhelms. Now, don’t get me wrong, Glover does possess a charisma that practically leaps off the screen (and looks all the stronger by comparison, if you know what I mean), and his committed adoption of Billy Dee Williams’s mannerisms and speech pattern is uncanny, but a lot of the time he’s in scenes where he doesn’t really do anything. Probably his most significant moments, in terms of the story, are when he gambles against Han, but it’s difficult enough to add drama to a card game, much less a fictional one with undefined rules. *

   One of the few truly memorable characters is L3-37, Lando’s droid companion and co-pilot, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. L3 is spunky and opinionated with some progressive (in-universe) ideals and never hesitates to share her thoughts on a given situation. Ironically, Lando laments his reluctance to simply give L3 a reboot and remove her more irascible qualities, lest he jeopardize the vast repository of navigational data stored in her memory banks. But when it comes downs to it, L3 moves the plot along a lot more than most, relative to her screentime, and makes a solid impression while doing so.

   And, of course, there’s Chewbacca, Han’s constant companion, who is introduced early in the story. Chewie, naturally, has no actual dialog, but his function as Han’s sounding board, as well as his own mannerisms and interjections, give him a welcome steadfast consistency. He’s not comic relief, but the fact that he often behaves as a walking, growling id does add some much-needed color to some of the movie’s more tedious sections.  

   So, yeah, I guess it says something when, of all the characters in the film, it’s the robot and the Wookie that end up being the most relatable.

   The credits list Ron Howard as the director, but that doesn’t tell half the story. The originally attached directors were Phil Lord and Christopher Miller whose previous work included Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie, and both Jump Streets. Apparently, they got several months into production with something like two thirds of the film complete before falling out with Disney, supposedly over the amount of comedic content in the movie, and ultimately being dismissed. Howard was then brought in to get things back on track, reportedly reshooting upwards of 80% of the film. Now, I have nothing against Ron Howard, and, in fact, I’ve enjoyed a good amount of his work, but he does have a reputation as something of a by-the-numbers director not overly prone to experimentation. Given the circumstances of his assignment, it’s no surprise that the resultant film moves through its scenes and beats capably, but without much verve or flair. One can almost imagine him getting the memo from home office with a checklist of things they now expect to see, and a reminder of what happened to his predecessors should he consider deviating from the plan. Thus, do we end up with yet another sequence of the Millennium Falcon being pursued by Tie fighters, fending them off with the ball turrets (this is, what, the third movie they’ve done this?), a narrow escape due to a timely jolt of liquid schwartz (much like the end of Empire), a risky run through space obstacles including a giant stellar monster (Empire again) and even a scene that recalls the Rancor fight from Jedi. They’re competently executed, sure, but it’s all just so damn… safe.

   It’s apparently an unpopular opinion, but my favorite Star Wars movie of recent memory was Rogue One. And one of the coolest aspects of Rogue One, to me, was how it brought the story right up to the beginning of A New Hope (something I thought Lucas’s prequel trilogy should’ve done more of, but that’s a whole other discussion). I guess I went into Solo hoping for more insight into what brought things to the point in Mos Eisley where Han agrees to ride a few yokels out to the intergalactic sticks before blasting Greedo under the table. And there is a little of that, the expected stuff like Han’s meet cute with Chewie, his acquisition of the Millennium Falcon, and even the oft mentioned but never before seen Kessel Run. Solo even cleverly fixes a gaffe from A New Hope when Han seemingly refers to parsecs as a unit of time instead of distance. But so much of Solo feels like it could’ve been about anybody. Han talks a lot about being a good pilot, for example, but we never see him actually becoming one (they really should’ve had some scenes of him in Imperial flight school). There’s no bounty hunters. No swoop racing (Didn’t a swoop accident create Dengar? Hell, I don’t even know what’s canon anymore.). And all the talk of trusting no one does finally build to a head at the end, but even that moment falls kind of flat. Several things don’t even get resolved at all, seemingly to set up yet another sequel. There was also an unexpected character cameo which was pretty cool for the surprise but made progressively less sense the more I thought about it. How they expect to square it all with the new continuity is anybody’s guess.  

   Solo isn’t a bad movie, but it isn’t all that great either. Most of the characters are flat and lack personality, and the action scenes are decent, but aren’t anything we haven’t seen before (in other Star Wars movies, in fact). If the initial problem with Solo was too much comedy, then they seem to have overcompensated too far in the other direction. The end result is a sci-fi yarn that’s watchable, but hardly memorable.

Final Grade: B-

Star Wars is kind of like pizza, even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. And Solo is… okay, I guess, but also cold, kinda stale, and really could have benefitted from some better ingredients and more care in its preparation. It’s fair enough as science fiction, but mundane and disappointing as Star Wars.

*Yeah, look, I know that technically there have been rules for Sabbac floating around out there for a while but if you have them memorized then you’re probably not the kind of person that cares what someone else thinks about a Star Wars movie.


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