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Sunday, May 27, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Wait, didn't we just have a Star Wars movie? This is going to take some getting used to.

No spoilers for anything here beyond the first act, incidentally, but I do get into that first act slightly more than some may prefer. From where I'm standing that whole section may have its own twists and turns but it's still mostly just setup for the meat of the film. Still, proceed with some caution but, for fairness sake, I have provided a slight spoiler warning for the paragraph(s) you may want to skip if you prefer to go in knowing as little as possible.

Just six months since the Last Jedi moved the Star Wars franchise in a fairly new and unexpected direction (much to the consternation of many fans - myself very much not included), here we are with a Star Wars movie that, once again, is all about looking back. It's a somewhat odd decision, not only because the prequels were generally not met with the utmost enthusiasm by fans but because it's the complete opposite to what Lucasfilm did the first time it tried to expand beyond the original trilogy.

The Star Wars Expanded Universe - which spanned novels, comics and video games from the early '90s until around the time Disney acquired Lucasfilm - was all about moving forward with the story that seemed to end with Return of the Jedi; going back thousands of years before the events of the original Star Wars or expanding on the much larger Star Wars Universe far beyond our favourite characters.

Watching Solo: A Star Wars story, the decision of the original Expanded Universe to live up to its title and actually expand the universe just looks smarter and smarter in retrospect. This is, of course, rather ironic since the Expanded Universe novels did actually have a trio of young Han Solo books that did more or less exactly what this film has set out to do. There is a difference, though. While those novels were just a very small part of a much larger publishing plan, aside for the numbered episodes, all the TV shows, movies, and books seem to be about filling in the blanks in areas that don't really need to be filled.

Unsurprisingly, the "secret origin" aspects of Solo are easily the worst part of the film but, rather ironically, it is nonetheless at its best when it ties into the larger Star Wars Universe, rather than when it plays out mostly like a less funny, less substantial and less innovative first draft of Joss Whedon's still brilliant Firefly and its feature film spinoff, Serenity - which, to keep the ironies coming, itself owes a huge debt to the original Star Wars trilogy!

(Light spoilers ahoy) Skipping largely past the film's notoriously troubled production except to say that unlike certain other films (*coughJusticeLeaguecough*), the seams between Miller and Lord's original work on the film (making up roughly 30% of the finished cut, apparently) and Ron Howard's late-in-the-game additions and reshoots are almost entirely invisible, Solo: A Star Wars Story starts off at a sprint as we meet our young hero on the street of Corellia doing his usual schtick of outmaneuvering more underworld types than you can count - though this time at the side of his young love, Qi'ra. Before you can say "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away", though, Han and Qi'ra are separated, Han joins the Imperial Navy (yup), abandons the Imperial Navy, meets Chewbacca and joins a group of misfit outlaws on a railway heist that goes badly wrong.

This is literally all setup and it moves at such a breakneck pace that it's frankly hard to care about any of it. It's not so much unenjoyable as is, by turns, horribly misjudged - the origin of Han's surname alone is enough to have even the most casual Star Wars fan rolling their eyes clear out of their sockets - and, sure enough, like a perfunctory and massively inferior remake of Firefly. It's not a good start but, fortunately, much like the similarly largely redundant Rogue One, the film improves exponentially with each passing section.

From the time we first meet Paul Bettany's enjoyably nefarious crime lord through the end of the suicidal heist that our plucky heroes need to embark on to prevent their grizzly death at the hand of said crime lord (hello, Firefly, once again), Solo becomes a very enjoyable heist flick that hits on a bunch of Star Wars touchstones, before pulling everything together for a pretty terrific final act that mixes heist cliches, Star Wars lore and western tropes to pretty excellent effect.

Along the way, there are some fairly unmemorable action scenes (visually, this may be the blandest Star Wars to date), comedy beats that must be left over from Miller and Lord but are fine for what they are and a particularly feisty Droid. Even at its most familiar and most inconsequential, it is buoyed up by an almost flawless cast with Donald Glover clearly having a blast as Lando Calrissian; Woody Harrelson being typically awesome in a role that was clearly written for him and Emilia Clarke lighting up the screen as a quite different sort of female Star Wars character.

As for Han Solo himself, Alden Ehrenreich is an interesting case. As he already proved in Hail Caesar, he is a hell of an actor and he's an undeniably charismatic screen presence here; easily holding the whole film together as its leading man. He's great but what's he's not, unfortunately, is Han Solo. He is pretty good at capturing the cockiness of the titular character and I do like the way he portrays Solo as a more naive and idealistic version of the man he is to become but there's a wryness to the character that the famously curmudgeonly Harrison Ford brings to the role that just isn't here. Perhaps Anthony Ingruber, who was so spot on as a young Harrison Ford in the Age of Adaline, would have been a better pick as a young Han Solo but, honestly, Ford is so iconic in this role that it's likely that Ehrenreich's Solo-lite performance is as good as it would ever get. That might just be true of the film in general, really.

At its worst, Solo: A Star Wars Story suffers from all the things that prequels at their worst bring with them - too much fan service, too much predictability, too much exposition - at its best, it reminds us why we love this universe and these characters so much. It will never draw the kind of ire that the Last Jedi received from some fans but will undoubtedly never enjoy the same love and admiration that that film received from its more fervent supporters (myself very much included). Solo is solid almost to a fault. It has some very high highs and some pretty low lows but it's mostly just a solidly fun movie but is unlikely to provoke the kind of passion that Star Wars at its best elicits so easily from its fans.

And, on a purely subjective level, I don't know if I'll ever feel that a Star Wars movie without a Jedi or two will ever really feel like a Star Wars movie. That's probably unfair as there is so much to play with in this fictional universe but there it is. When you have something as cool as lightsabers to play with, it just feels criminal not to do so.

I mean (SPOILERish!), there is that cameo towards the end there, I guess, but I don't watch Star Wars: Rebels so it mostly just confused me. And no, it's sadly not Grand Admiral Thrawn.

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