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Non-Review Review: Solo – A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story is perhaps remarkable in how it is unremarkable.

That is not exactly fair. Most obviously, despite being the tenth theatrical release with a Star Wars brand, Solo: A Star Wars Story is still something relatively novel for a franchise; it is a big-screen outing that consciously and overtly marginalises a lot of what audiences have come to expect from the franchise. There are a host of familiar elements here, but often in minuscule amounts; either token gestures or sly continuity nods. Without confirming any of these elements are present, Solo certainly has fewer Jedi, Death Stars, representatives of the Empire, officially designated rebels, or lightsabers than most Star Wars films.

The Wookie and the Rookie.

More than that, the film’s production was notably troubled, which is striking for a production company as efficient as Disney and Lucasfilm. Original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller finished shooting their version of the film, and were fired during the editing process. Reportedly, seventy percent of Solowas reshot by Ron Howard. Given the schedule demands of the actors involved, the complicated mechanics of the set pieces, and the budget of the film, this was no small undertaking. On paper, Solo would appear to have more in common with a film like Justice League or Suicide Squad than even the troubled Rogue One.

With all of that in mind, it is a credit to Howard that Solo turns out as well as it did. Howard is an efficient and often underrated director, one with a clean eye and with a clear storytelling style. Howard’s films tend to be unfussy and uncomplicated, a director who never gets in the way of the story being told. This is something of an underappreciated virtue, with Howard’s films often maintaining a firm grasp on the fundamentals of storytelling. Howard’s characters tend to have clear arcs and tangible motivations, with very little getting lost in the shuffle. Howard’s direction is unobtrusive, which likely made him such a good fit for this particular film in these particular circumstances.

On the cards…

Watching the film, there is little sense of competing tones or contrasting visions. There are moments over the course of the film when the cast are noticeably more playful, their banter a little more conversational and the comic rhythms a little more pronounced. However, Solo never misses a beat, never turns to sharply, never transitions too jarringly. There is a strange sense, watching Solo, that absolutely everything has ended up right where it was supposed to be with a minimum amount of fuss. There is absolutely nothing about the finished product screams “troubled production.”

At the same time, nothing about Solo screams anything at all.

Going Solo.

In Howard’s hands, Solo is a clean and competent production. It feels safe, particularly when measured against the decidedly provocative ambition of Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. There is certainly nothing in Solo that could be considered an affront to cherished childhood memories, no plot point or character arc that could be read as a subversion or deconstruction of the core of the franchise.

Indeed, if fans weren’t so militantly opposed to the fact that Alden Ehrenreich opted for performance over impersonation, Solo would seem to be the perfect balm for a fandom that sees itself as burned by Last Jedi’s (admittedly compromised and half-hearted) innovations. Solo is nothing more than what it claims to be, housing nothing that might be considered a Trojan Horse. There is perhaps something reassuring in that, particularly given the film’s troubled production history and the contentiousness of recent films in the franchise.

A driving ambition.

The plot is fairly straightforward. Solo forsakes a lot of the conventional Star Wars trappings to instead construct a genre piece within the established Star Wars universe. Solo is, by turns, an extended science-fiction homage to The Great Train Robbery, The Wages of Fear and The Magnificent Seven. And it dances between these frames relatively smoothly, maintaining a tone somewhere between a heist thriller and a western adventure; pistols sit in holsters, dusters billow in the wind, trains carry precious cargo.

Solo is mostly elevated by an enlivened cast. As the title character, Ehrenreich channels New Hollywood. This feels like a canny decision, given Star Wars‘ cultural position as a bridge between seventies movie-making and modern blockbusters. Understanding that a direct comparison would flatter few actors, Ehrenreich deliberately avoids directly emulating Harrison Ford’s performance, instead pitching his version of the character closer to a softer Jack Nicholson from films like Chinatown.

Flights of fancy.

It is a smart approach to a new interpretation of an iconic character. There’s a convincing argument that Han Solo is the only complex and fully-formed character in the entire Star Wars canon, the only figure who is developed into more than just an archetype, and so it makes sense to approach the smuggler as more than just a collection of mannerisms or a set of vocal rhythms. Ehrenreich imagines Solo as a charming hustler who is constantly out of his depth, but who longs for the universe to make sense in ways that he knows it can’t. He captures the romance of the character.

Donald Glover’s interpretation of Lando Calrissian veers closer to impersonation, albeit with a conscious emphasis on the idea of performance; Glover’s choices suggest that Billy Dee Williams’ distinctively smooth pronunciation is a practiced affectation, hiding a more human character underneath beneath a polished veneer. Glover gets away with the impersonation that Ehrenreich largely avoids because Lando is a supporting character, rather than a lead. Lando is a character who can support a joke about how his walk-in wardrobe is filled with capes.

This performance really Landos.

The supporting cast is charming and engaging. Paul Bettany plays a suitably ominous gangster whose mood alternates within relatively neatly defined parameters. Jon Favreau plays a talkative member of an elite smuggling crew. Thandie Newton demonstrates that she is one of the most valuable supporting actors of her generation. Woody Harrelson finds himself in the role of a cynical and experienced mentor to the young smuggler, a role that uses Harrelson very well without necessarily pushing him.

Solo moves smoothly and efficiently through its first two acts, avoiding potential problems by controlling its ambition. There are very few surprises in the first two thirds of the film, which play like a talented cast working their way through a very linear beat sheet. The narratives for the first two-thirds of Solo is interesting of itself, neither the mythic journey associated with the franchise nor the episodic mini-adventures that made Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back so charming. This is a much more conventional film; action, reaction, all in service of a larger plot.

“You’re playing three-dimensional chess?”
“Wrong franchise.”

Again, this is not an especially damning criticism. Howard is a very capable filmmaker who produces accessible and straightforward films. Solo is very much “on point”, from beginning to end. The title is as much a statement of theme as it is the central character’s name, a visual metaphor that Howard reinforces repeatedly through shots of Han pushing back through waves of anonymous soldiers, or through the image of Han and Chewbacca literally chained together, but running in opposite directions. Solo is neat and tidy, to the point that it occasionally feels sterile.

Perhaps this is inevitable. There is a reason that Han Solo is the only primary cast member from the original trilogy to get his own spin-off movie, but it might also hint at the limitations of that preview movie. Han Solo had a clearly defined arc in those classic films, his own hero’s journey that was decidedly more nuanced and compelling than that of Luke Skywalker. Han felt like the only real character in the original trilogy, but he also felt like a completed character. Anything that adds to that inevitably feels superfluous, and exists outside of the already completed loop.

“What’s a girl like you doing in a galaxy like this…?”

Nevertheless, Solo comes close to taking off in its third act, when the film begins playing with its caper/noir/western trappings to provide a compelling genre fusion. As the film approaches its climax, the characters suddenly seem to come alive within the framework. They pinball around the narrative, encircling and ensnaring one another in gambits and schemes. Solo finds its pulse racing as it enters endgame, as the story manages something approaching dramatic and character stakes. Unfortunately, this excitement is offset by the distraction of fan service.

For most of its runtime, Solo feels removed from the demands of in-jokes and continuity that seem expected of modern franchise blockbusters. There are some nods throughout the film, of course. There are a few obvious music cues that remind the audience of important or fortuitous moments, such as when Han and Chewbacca take to the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon for the first time. However, these more obvious pandering nostalgic moments are offset by smaller choices like the rendition of the Imperial March as a recruitment jingle.

Falcon dressed.

Indeed, the entire plot arguably serves as one big continuity fix to a single (oft-debated) throwaway line from the original Star Wars. However, it seems like that big continuity reference is enough for Solo, allowing Solo to feel like its own thing for the first ninety minutes or so of its runtime. Most of the echoes and references within the opening two acts are thematic or character-driven, designed to provide a sense of emotional weight by suggesting dramatic irony or tragedy; there’s considerable emphasis on Han’s dangling dice, which took on so much meaning in The Last Jedi.

However, in the final third, that weight of continuity comes crashing down around Solo. In the final moments of the film, the important character beats are peppered with too many winking nods to established continuity, and too much dramatic pay-off is undercut by the intrusion of external elements designed to tickle the audience’s nostalgia receptors. It recalls the blatant fan service at the end of Rogue One, only to a greatly diminished return. The big late-film continuity pay-off is so mired in the spin-off continuity that it elicits a shrug of disbelief rather than a gasp of surprise.

Into the wild blue yonder…

As such, when Solo shifts gears out of the default of safe and competent in its final act, it bucks wildly in both directions. The film finds an energy that it is otherwise lacking, but it also becomes much more pandering and insecure. As with The Last Jedi, there is a sense that Solo is reluctant to take a big swing without the comfort of a safety net, to aspire to something ambitious without making sure that the audience will feel suitably comfortable.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Solo is what it says about the legacy of Rogue One and The Last Jedi. Solo is a much steadier and more stable film than those last two entries in many way. It is much more consistent, with fewer poor narrative choices to undercut forward momentum and with a very clear sense of structure. Solo is also a much less ambitious piece of work than either Rogue One or The Last Jedi, lacking the former’s cynicism and the latter’s insight.

Qira appear-a-s.

At the same time, Solo carries over traces of the introspection and observation that were so radical in Rogue One and The Last Jedi, suggesting that the Star Wars franchise has incorporated those aspects of the previous two films into its core DNA in a very profound way. Solo is a much safer film that either Rogue One or The Last Jedi, but it is also very much of a piece of them in terms of perspective.

Solo never belabours its politics, but it is clear that the film has devoted considerable thoughts to the mechanics of the Star Wars universe. Through the supporting character of L-3, Solo acknowledges that droids are effectively slaves within the Star Wars universe, sentient and self-aware creatures relegated to a life of service. Solo initially treats this observation as an eccentricity, but it follows it through to its conclusion. For all that The Last Jedi deconstructed Luke Skywalker, it never sincerely suggested that he was a slave owner.

Too bot to handle.

Similarly, the climax of Solo hinges on the idea of indigenous people who are being exploited by major powers. Star Wars has always been a tale of evil empires and heroic rebels, but Solo repeatedly returns to the idea of colonialism specifically as an evil within the franchise. On an alien planet, Solo tells his commanding officer, “It’s their planet. We’re the hostiles.” If the droids are treated as slaves, then Chewbacca is one of the dispossessed and the displaced.

The climax of Solo even very gently accuses its own hero of complicity in cycles of oppression and abuse, pointing out that his adventurous hijinks perpetuate this violence. There’s nothing as potentially challenging in this as the suggestion that Luke Skywalker might have made an error in judgement or that the hotshot pilot who can’t follow orders might be a liability or that the real heroes of the franchise are those anonymous people who sacrifice their lives without being anointed the chosen ones of a pseudo-mythic narrative. However, there is something there.

What a Han-some young man.

These ideas feel very much consistent with the slightly more cynical and nuanced approach to the Star Wars universe in both Rogue One and The Last Jedi, albeit approached in a much less dramatic or confrontational manner. This is perhaps analogous to how even mid-tier westerns now have to grapple with the legacy of colonisation of North America, with Hostiles focusing on the attempted genocide of the Native Americans. Solo is perhaps the safest and most consciously middle-of-the-road Star Wars film, and it is quite overtly “woke.”

It’s remarkable how unremarkable that is.

 

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