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Saturday, May 26, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Given its widely publicized production problems, including the original directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, being replaced halfway through by Ron Howard, it's amazing just how well that Solo: A Star Wars Story actually works.  It may be overlong, and the plot is nothing much to shout about, but it has enough action and humor to itself to make it a satisfying Summer entertainment.

Yes, the movie does work in that thrilling cliffhanger kind of way, but what it can't do is shake the fact that the movie is entirely unnecessary in the grand scheme of the franchise, and exists solely to line the pockets of the executives behind the Star Wars name.  Screenwriters Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan have given us the origin story of a young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich, who fills the role well, even if he never quite stands out like he should), and how he got his name, how he first met and eventually teamed up with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and how he ultimately was able to get the Millennium Falcon in a card game with a young Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, very good here).  We also get some new background details, such as his love for a young woman named Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke).  As the film opens, the two are attempting to flee their home world, where they work together as street criminals.  They are separated during the process of their escape, and part of Han's mission is his efforts to reunite with her.

Eventually, Han meets up with Tobias Beckett (the invaluable Woody Harrelson), a fellow smuggler who is initially passing himself off as a soldier of the Empire in order to pull of a heist with his small gang.  Tobias will teach Han a lot of valuable lessons about being a rogue, the most important being to never trust anyone.  Given how much backstabbing, plot twists and character reversals will happen during the course of the adventure, it's good advice.  For the heavy in the film, we have Paul Bettany as the boss of a criminal gang known as the Crimson Dawn.  Bettany drips with plenty of mannered and articulate malice, almost to the point that his performance would be better suited for a James Bond villain.  Nonetheless, the performance works, and he seems to be relishing playing such an evil character.

There are a lot of characters here, and almost all of them are out to get each other for one reason or another, which does make Solo a bit more of a crowded movie than it should be.  The plot has everyone being after a rare kind of hyper fuel that is valuable, but also highly explosive and difficult to transport.  Everyone seems to be after it, and is willing to double or triple cross in order to get their hands on it.  To tell the truth, it can seem like a lot of hype over very little, as the entire plot ends up tying up very little to the overall Universe of Star Wars.  Yes, there's a fun cameo at one point, and a couple of sly references (Han mentions a gangster on Tatooine.), but the plot ultimately feels very small in the grand scheme of things.  Unless you've stayed up late wondering where he got the name "Solo" from, you won't learn much new here.

But what the film does do extremely well, and the reason why I am ultimately recommending it, is that the action and effects set pieces are executed extremely well.  The opening 30 minutes does seem a bit top heavy on the action, as it's literally almost one chase scene after another.  But once it slows down a little, and starts spacing out the action, it delivers on some fine sequences, such as a heist aboard a train transporting the valuable hyper fuel, and a chase in the skies between the Millennium Falcon and some Tie Fighters.  George Lucas always envisioned the series as a throwback to the old Sci-Fi movie serials from the 30s and 40s (particularly the Flash Gordon pictures), and of the recent films in the franchise, I honestly think this comes the closest to capturing that tone.  There's a sort of white knuckle intensity to the action here, and even though we know in advance what characters will make it out (this is a prequel, after all), it still manages to be thrilling.

I must point out one thing that did bother me, however, and that was the decision to film numerous scenes in murky darkness or what seems to be fog.  For a movie that is intending to be a grand space opera, this is just a curious decision.  It makes certain early moments not only somewhat hard to see, but also kind of lessens the impact that they may have had.  It's not enough that I could not tell what was supposed to be happening, or to kill the enjoyment, but I just found it to be an odd choice on Howard's part.  I understand that he was going for somewhat of a darker look to this film, but certain scenes just seem kind of muddy, or maybe not quite lit properly.  I admit, this may have been a problem with the projector used at my screening, but I sort of doubt it.

The best praise I can give Solo is that even though we did not need a Han Solo origin story, at least we have one that can be a lot of fun.  This is a movie that could have easily been an unsalvagable mess, given its lengthy shoot and change of tone from light and funny, to dark and more serious.  Regardless, despite its faults, the movie still does come together to create a thrilling, but not exactly memorable, experience.

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