Heists, and starships, and Wookies — oh my!
Each year a “galaxy far, far away” seems to get just a little bit bigger, as Disney’s new series of “Star Wars Stories” explores the ins and outs of a billion-dollar franchise. It didn’t take long for Disney to jump at the opportunity to dive into the past of the galaxy’s most beloved scoundrel: wise-cracking, cynical smuggler Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich).
He wasn’t always such a cynic, though. Solo, we soon learn, was once a piece of hard luck growing up on the mean streets of a despotic planet. Like most plucky heroes, he had a dream: escaping with his childhood sweetheart, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), to roam the galaxy and find adventure on every corner. Plans go awry, but Solo is propelled into all sorts of unplanned adventures across a vast variety of intergalactic venues: the imperial army, swanky starship “yachts,” seedy gambling tables, impossible heists, and — of course — the Millennium Falcon.
The film’s strength is in the sheer vastness it gives the “Star Wars” universe. We’ve all spent eight movies (nine if you count “Rogue One”) hearing an awful lot about how oppressive the Empire is, without much insight into the reality of the regime. Solo shows us the ritzy high-class clubs (with the usual cantina music replaced by something much more suave) at the epicenter of criminal operations, the exploited rural planets, and the miserable crime-infested back alleys. At the center of it all, it gives us an understanding of the actual structural inequality and violence the Empire set in place, and what it means to exist within that.
This expansion of the universe does mean that the film doesn’t really have a cohesive aesthetic. Your mileage may vary on what that brings for the film; at its best it feels like a portfolio of the different corners of the galaxy, and at its worst, it feels disjointed and clumsy — a bit like multiple movies crammed into one. Though reportedly a “space western,” the film’s beginning feels a bit more like something pulled out of a sci-fi “Oliver Twist.” It’s a fun tribute, maybe, but to what?
For what it’s worth, when the Western aesthetics are there, they’re excellent — quiet desert settlements in an expanse of sand, crowded bawdy space casinos, and even a good old-fashioned standoff.
Despite the perhaps groundbreakingly low expectations for his performance, Ehrenreich manages a compelling job as the film’s titular character. It’s probably safe to say he won’t be holding any Oscars any time soon, but he has an endearing cockiness that gives the heartstrings a good tug. More than anything else, the audience’s heart is stolen by Emilia Clarke’s performance as Qi’ra, who brings a complexity and nuance to the character otherwise absent from others in the film.
Still, the standout performance has to be Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian, as he manages all the suave and charm the role is known for and turns it up to a hilarious top-notch. Calrissian and Solo’s scenes together ring the truest of all, and perhaps the greatest tragedy of the film is how few there were. All the chemistry for the character’s original trilogy bromance was certainly there, but the relationship is hardly developed aside from some hilarious back-and-forth banter (called out as “flirting” by Calrissian’s droid co-pilot).
Call-backs to the original films are delightful — despite everything, it is just plain fun to recognize Chewbacca during his entrance, see the Millennium Falcon perform the oft-quoted “Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs,” and learn how Han acquired his ship in the first place. But in some ways, this is all “Solo” has. All in all, the film doesn’t feel like it could have stood on its own — the film’s charm lies in its explorations of and kitschy references to pre-existing concepts. As a prequel, one would have guessed the point of the film would be to see how Solo turned into the man we see in “A New Hope,” but, while we do learn his origins as a smuggler, his character development is hazy at best. It’s abundantly unclear whether he grows from a cocky, hopeful kid into a cynic only out for himself, or from a youthful delinquent into a “good guy.” Paradoxically, both seem to be true — but only when it benefits the plot.
The challenge of a movie like “Solo” is that Solo grows a great deal in the original trilogy, so a prequel would ideally show how he gets to be the cantankerous pessimist he is in Episode IV — a difficult feat without ending on a bitter note, which after “Rogue One,” would be setting a very depressing precedent for “Star Wars Stories.” Rather than learning to thrive in that bittersweet area, or finding that balance another way, “Solo” ends on a vague note in terms of actual character development.
Make no mistake — it is a lot of fun. Hardcore fans’ opinions are likely to oscillate wildly depending on personal priorities, but for the casual fan, “Solo” is loaded with all the things that make the “Star Wars” universe memorable (outside of the Force). For the uninitiated, it’s probably not the best film to start with. While it may not be a peak for the franchise overall, “Solo” is a solid ride through one of the world’s most beloved fictional universes.
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson
Release Date: May 25, 2018