Solo: A Star Wars Story – First Reactions

Trust that every review has spoilers, and you’ll never be disappointed.

I’ve blogged about the music and the concept art for Solo: A Star Wars Story.  But I found that when it came time to review the film, I ran into some personal roadblocks.  It has nothing to do with the movie.  It’s just one of those things where growing up with Star Wars really starts to hit a point where so many levels collide.  It’s hard to focus sometimes.

You see, I’m an old school fan.  I was there at the beginning in 1977.  With the notable exception of The Last Jedi, I have been always been entertained on some level at the very least and over the moon in love with the magic of it all when Star Wars is at its best.  As much as I appreciated and championed the complex genius that I saw in play through the prequels and the era of The Clone Wars, there’s a part of me still longs for the simplicity of “the good ol’ days,” before the trilogy was complete, and before this “everything is canon” nonsense shot the sense of fun and story continuity in the foot.  I got nostalgic for pulpy adventure stories that hearkened back to the vision of matinee serials that George Lucas originally envisioned, and to the pulpy novels that those original films inspired.  I’m talking specifically about these novels:

I loved these stories when I was a kid.  In the days before home video was ubiquitous, when you couldn’t simply revisit the films until they hit the theater again, you reached for soundtrack scores and novelizations.  Tie-in novels such as these confirmed those unspoken ideas that the characters on screen had other adventures.  I’m horribly overdue to revisit them, and a part of me knows they will never live up to my memories, but it won’t stop me from enjoying them all the same.  That sense of nostalgia kicked into overdrive after the disappointment of the last film.  There was a realization that in the wake of George Lucas’ retirement and the sale to Disney, Lucasfilm is trying to find its footing, opening new avenues of storytelling and trying to find that magic formula that will work with ever-splintering audiences.  There are some things that will appeal to certain demographics, and some that will appeal to others.  Fandom is divided now.  That fracture began, according to some, during the original trilogy era, continued through the prequels, and is now irreconcilable in the sequel era.  I don’t know if that’s true, but sometimes it feels that way.  Sometimes it feels that way with everything in the world now, but that’s another discussion altogether.  All I know is that, as with any long running franchise — and I follow a number of them — there comes a point where I won’t like every installment.  When one misses, I’ll look forward to the next one.  Like it or not, I need to make peace with that idea.  I’ve been spoiled by a lifetime tutelage into the storytelling mastery of George Lucas.  Whether I want to admit it or not, the Lucasfilm Story Group has storytellers in it, but mostly they are storykeepers, and there is not one master storyteller holding things together with a collective vision anymore.  They could give that job to George’s padawan, Dave Filoni, and I would be satisfied on this front that the vision is in good hands.  But there are still too many moving parts in a corporate environment, and I won’t pretend to understand them all.  I only know when the end result feels like Star Wars.  It’s more than brand recognition or lightsabers or any of the other surface elements that make the saga recognizable.  It’s about the message, the heart, the soul, ultimately conveyed through the characters and situations.  This film — Solo: A Star Wars Story — feels like Star Wars.

Solo was designed from the ground up to appeal to multiple generations of fans at different levels by holding fast to the traditions found in the characterizations and in the galaxy as a whole.  The foundations we see in Star Wars and Empire, which made those original Solo and Calrissian novels fun, are found in this movie.  For that reason, it was predestined to appeal to me.  I just had to get past the initial worries and rumors caused by the lip service of such claims in the sequel films as well as by the production problems this movie faced from the outset.  Solo was running over budget due to the improvisational style of the original directors.  The cast and crew felt directionless.  Ultimately, Ron Howard was brought on board to take the reins and bring this film to the screen.  Re-shoots ensued, and as with Rogue One before it, this film was given new life in post-production by a unified vision of what it needed to become.  I still worried like a fussy protocol droid, but I need not have.  If anyone understands the sensibilities of George Lucas and the vision he gave us originally, it’s Ron Howard.  And if anyone understands the character of Han Solo, it’s Lawrence Kasdan.  Kasdan and his son Jonathan teamed up for the script, which turns on all of the character charm.  The end result is a smart, funny, fast-paced heist film with a heart of gold.  It’s far from perfect, but it’s a lot of fun.  That really is the name of the game here, as the sort of adventure we’d expect from Han, Chewie, and Lando.  And in the tradition of Star Wars, just because we have expectations, that doesn’t mean there won’t be some surprises along the way.

The plot of the film follows the early exploits of Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) ten years before the events of A New Hope.  An opening sequence set three years earlier establishes Solo as a rogue working within the Corellian underworld in order to win his freedom and earn his way into the galaxy as a pilot.  Orchestrating a means to do exactly that, he and his friend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) bribe their way through Imperial checkpoints, where they are ultimately separated.  She is captured, and he enlists in the Imperial Navy in order to use the Empire’s resources to find her.  In those three years, his dreams of piloting ships are quashed as he operates as a ground pounder in battles that visually resemble the Star Wars equivalent of World War I trench warfare as the troops go over the top and into hell.  It is here that Solo first encounters Beckett (Woody Harrelson), the smuggler and con man whom Solo would pattern himself after in his quest for personal identity.  Following a capture for desertion that leads to him befriending Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Solo joins Beckett and his team for an incredible action sequence involving a train heist.  Solo and Qi’ra are reunited when Beckett and his team have to strike an apologetic bargain with crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).  Qi’ra is Vos’ lieutenant in the Crimson Dawn organization, and it is she who arranges for Beckett and his team to acquire the fast ship they’ll need to pull off the next heist.  The ship in question, the Millennium Falcon, is captained by Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his revolutionary-minded droid copilot L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge).  This part of the heist ultimately leads to a droid rebellion and the climactic Kessel Run that fans have heard about since Solo was first introduced in ’77.  As with the previous action in the film, all of this is seemingly unrelenting.  If you’re looking at your phone or your watch during any of this, you’re doing it wrong.

The aftermath of the Kessel Run, the denouement of the film, is where the story takes a critical — yet somehow necessary — misstep.  It loses the pacing, swapping out action for suspense as questions of loyalty arise.  In the midst of this, a surprise cameo appearance — and I still can’t believe they kept a lid on this one — paves the way for new adventures and new questions while answering other questions as characters drop pieces into place.  Those who have only watched the previous films without the added hours of television plot will be left scratching their heads, while those who have kept up on Filoni’s animated efforts in The Clone Wars and Rebels will nod in understanding as eras are stitched together rather seamlessly.

There is so much about this film that lends to high level geek-outs.

The Kessel Run, of course, is the most notable one (aside from that cameo I mentioned) as it doesn’t play quite as we envisioned it over the decades, and it’s interesting to consider that the credit goes not to Han, but to the Falcon.  Why that is masterfully connects some interesting throwaway lines from the original trilogy without bogging us down in such winks and nods.  If anything, it maximizes the impact in a way that proves it can be done.  Abrams, Johnson… take note.  This is how you do it.

The sets and action pieces are stunning and dynamic in ways that push the visual storytelling language of the GFFA.  Every environment reflects on the characters, and every character reflects on the environment.  It’s subtle, and it’s nearly perfect in this regard.

Characterizations are almost perfect as well.  My one gripe on this front is when Chewie is angrily lashing out at the holographic pieces on the Falcon‘s dejarik table.  He’s a capable mechanic and engineer in addition to being a superior pilot and fighter.  He knows what holograms are.  Or do we not remember his cameo role in Revenge of the Sith?  As I say, minor gripe.  The scene itself is still funny and plays to those younger types who are maybe discovering Star Wars right here.  Every film is someone’s first, after all.

Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo… I do not envy this man, following in the footsteps of Harrison Ford.  Credit where it’s due, he stepped up.  He’s not playing Ford, he’s playing Solo.  Had he been playing Ford, it would have been an unmitigated disaster.  The character as we understand him to be is there right from the very opening shots.  I heartily enjoyed his performance, both on its own and in conjunction with Joonas Suotamo’s pitch-perfect Chewbacca.  Watching them onscreen together is an absolute joy.

Much has been said about Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian.  He inhabits this role in the same way Karl Urban channeled DeForest Kelley for Star Trek‘s Dr. McCoy in the Abrams reboot film.  Contrary to popular opinion, I won’t claim he steals the scenes he’s in, however.  Lando as a character most certainly tries to steal those scenes, and sometimes he even succeeds, but mostly Glover plays as part of the ensemble that makes this film work.  He’s a team player here, even if Lando isn’t.  It’s an interesting juggling act that speaks volumes of Glover’s abilities.  The fact that he had exactly the right amount of scene-chewing without overdoing it is one more acknowledgement of how talented this man is.

Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra… the best way to describe this character is simultaneously as both a proto-Leia and as an anti-Leia.  She’s caught in the web of the underworld, a survivor by necessity, a line that Clarke toes well in the spirit of “less is more.”  She’s a good foil for an early Han Solo.  I think her character’s truest potential, however, is only hinted at in the final scenes of the film.  Leaves the door wide open for more.  The chemistry these two have don’t have to compete with Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher.  Who could?  This chemistry works on its own, telegraphing what is to come later in Han’s life by showing what wouldn’t work as planned.  It’s that early bit of tragedy in Han’s backstory that helps to give him that edge.

Woody Harrelson as Beckett sets the tone for this movie as much as he sets the tone for how Han is to mold himself.  I liken his character to the guy in the opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade who thwarts young Indy and passes on his fedora.  It’s one of two Indy parallels in the film, in fact, the other being a slave rebellion that calls back imagery of The Temple of Doom.  Beckett is not only an incredible action-oriented character, he’s given a couple of throwaway points of dialogue that cement his reputation for those in the know (he killed Aurra Sing!).  Had Harrelson not given the performance needed to pull that off, it could have potentially undermined Beckett’s credibility.  What’s clear from the outset is that Harrelson enjoyed this role, which in turn means it’s hard for audience not to do likewise.

Seriously, I could go on and on about the cast.  Fact is, everyone played their parts, and they played them well.  Every moving part lends to the greater whole.  The end result is not one of the very best Star Wars movies, but it is a rock solid piece of that saga that, I think, will continue to find an audience long after box office is no longer a consideration.  That’s actually a point of concern, however, as box office is the only message the bean counters understand.  The thing I would stress is that box office is not a measure of who enjoyed the movie, but only of how many saw it.  It’s not the same thing.  A franchise like this means that a good film propels audience confidence in the next one.  With The Last Jedi‘s polarizing reviews, a lot of confidence was lost, and Solo is paying the price.  That’s unfortunate.  Not only does this film deserve better in my humble opinion, but the foundations of what it builds could potentially lead to far more underworld adventures that fans have wanted to see from the outset.  After Episode IX, for example, the Boba Fett anthology film is slated, and between whatever happens there and the references locked into place in Solo, there are plenty of ways to build on that.  It just requires Lucasfilm to find that cohesive vision in order to harness it.  I hear a lot of people blaming Disney.  That’s misplaced.  The creative direction is within Lucasfilm.  It is Kathleen Kennedy and her team that are in the unenviable position of having to figure it out in the wake of the Maker.  It can be done.  It just requires testing new ideas so the galaxy can grow and testing new talent at all levels.  Always in motion is the future.  Trust that they’ll figure it out sooner or later, and enjoy what you can, where you can.

For my part, Solo is a fun movie with a lot of potential that can be tapped if only the powers that be will do so.  My two Republic credits, for whatever they’re worth.