1 June 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story review

There never should have been a Han Solo prequel movie. Before we can talk about Solo: A Star Wars Story in any meaningful way, this is a fact we simply have to accept - not only is it a really boring, tired idea for a film (who the hell cares what Han might have been up to before meeting Luke and Obi-Wan in Mos Eisley?), it's also continuing the franchises inability to look beyond the original trilogy in any meaningful way, falling into the same trap of the prequel trilogy by assuming that the more details we know of a character's backstory, the better. Coming just a handful of months after Star Wars: The Last Jedi dared to do something new with the franchise, that can't help but feel like a huge step backwards - but around the clumsy references and eye-roll inducing nods at the audience, Solo: A Star Wars Story is at its core just an excuse to see some characters you know and some you don't on a mostly standalone and refreshingly small-scale adventure, and from that perspective... well, it's not bad.

At the very least it's more entertaining than you might expect, especially once you take into account its more than just troubled production. For those not in the know, original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller had been filming Solo: A Star Wars Story for four months before they were unceremoniously fired and replaced by Ron Howard, who went on to reshoot approximately 70% of the film. That the end product isn't a complete and utter mess is nothing short of a minor miracle, one only made all the more impressive by the film somehow feeling more cohesive as a movie than Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (which had a significantly less troubled production) ever did.

Which isn't to say that it doesn't suffer from some of the same problems, of course, merely that they don't affect Solo: A Star Wars Story to such a high degree. Both films open poorly thanks to rushed and messy first acts that fail to draw the audience in or engage them on any meaningful level, but where Rogue One: A Star Wars Story doesn't settle into itself until the finale rolls around, Solo: A Star Wars Story gets there much sooner. By the time Han has joined a criminal gang and teamed up with Lando Calrissian in order to pull off a virtually impossible heist, Solo: A Star Wars Story has found its rhythm, and while it never aims for something not easily within its reach (this might actually be least ambitious movie ever made), it's also rarely outright unenjoyable.

And I recognize that's maybe the mildest praise ever given to any film ever, but in this case it's praise nevertheless. You're not going to walk out of Solo: A Star Wars Story with a new favorite film by any means, but its 2 hour 15 minutes running time passes surprisingly quickly thanks to the simple fact that it never really stops moving, imbuing the film with a breezy, lightweight, feel-good sense of easy-watching that's hard to be all that offended by. The stakes are low, nothing more than a few thieves trying to worm their way out of a sticky situation, and that can't help but feel pretty refreshing for a franchise in which every other film sees the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance.

That's doesn't mean that it isn't capable of being quite exciting though. You might never be under the illusion that these characters are in real danger thanks to the aforementioned light and easy tone, but the originality of Solo: A Star Wars Story's set pieces alone means they're pretty fun, which is to say nothing of how well some of them are filmed. This, I think, is where the behind-the-scenes troubles seem most obvious, albeit in a good way - a lot of Solo: A Star Wars Story is shot in a fairly pedestrian way, yet every so often there will be a really impressive, kinetic shot or two that seemingly come out of nowhere. I have no way of knowing if these shots are ones left over from when Lord and Miller were directing or shots added in by Ron Howard (I suspect the former, but I wouldn't be hugely shocked to find out the latter), and in truth I really don't care - all that matters is that they're very good, adding a sense of weight or urgency or scale to a scene exactly when it's needed most.

And while a lot of Solo: A Star Wars Story's characters are various degrees of underwritten (some shamefully so, especially those who don't stick around for long), the eventual main cast are pretty good in their roles at worst and downright excellent at best, adding a lot to the film through performance alone. Woody Harrelson is perfect as the rough around the edges mentor figure Tobias Beckett, who feels very much like if someone took his character from The Hunger Games and put him in space; Emilia Clarke imbues love interest Qi'ra with a very calculated charm that always seems to be hinting that there is more under the surface than we know - this is easily her best big screen performance, and the first that hasn't made me question if she's actually any good on Game of Thrones or not; Paul Bettany seems to be thrilled to have the opportunity to really ham it up as main antagonist Dryden Vos; and Donald Glover is naturally fantastic as both versions of Lando that we see, the smoother than smooth facade he presents to people throughout most of the film and the more vulnerable, human version we glimpse at times. Even Chewie gets a few moments in the spotlight, for the first time feeling like a genuine character rather than just Han's pet, and a... sassy? robot named L3-37 played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge steals most scenes she's in.

When puts Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo himself in the awkward position of being the only cast member who seems... wrong. Not because he's a bad actor by any means (in a vacuum he's fine in the role), but realistically no one was ever going to be able to fill this particular set of boots - there's only one Harrison Ford in this world, after all, and his is a charisma that few, if any, have been able to replicate. If Solo: A Star Wars Story does generate the sequel it seems to be hinting towards, I hope it isn't in the form of Solo 2: A Star Wars Story but instead either a movie that embraces the ensemble nature of its cast a little more, or one that follows a different main character (Lando? Qi'ra? Someone new?) altogether with Han relegated to side-character status. This is where he first started, and it's clear now that it's also where he belongs.

All of which adds up to make Solo: A Star Wars Story not a would-be great film with a lot of noticeable flaws or a bad film with some saving graces but a very OK film that's unlikely to inspire an all too strong reaction from many people in either direction. It's entertaining in a very gentle way, never expecting too much from its audience and hoping its audience don't expect too much in return, and by and large succeeds on its own terms. Ultimately your mileage may vary, but in spite of everything I was mostly entertained by Solo: A Star Wars Story - and at the end of the day, that's nothing to grumble about.

3 stars

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