“Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018) Review

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Dir. Ron Howard; Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke
[1.5 out of 4 stars]

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) is one of the worst Star Wars films to date. And yes, that’s including The Phantom Menace (1999). There is nothing remotely interesting or of quality in this film: the plot is lazy, openly stealing from other films, and the film ultimately adds nothing to the Star Wars canon other than a couple new spaceships and jokes about how Han and Chewie met. Solo’s lack of innovation puts it far below the original trilogy and J.J. Abrams’ reboot, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).

Solo opens in an urban mess on the ship-building world of Corellia. Skyscrapers and exhaust pipes line the foggy alleyways, and a diverse population of alien species wanders through the factories and ports. A group of adolescents steal Oliver-Twist-style in order to be protected by a shady gang leader. One of the kids, Han (Alden Ehrenreich), makes a pact with a girl named Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) to escape from Corellia. They steal Coaxium, a valued ship fuel, and try to bribe their way off the planet but are separated in the attempt. In a desperate attempt to escape, Han decides to join the Imperial Navy. A nod towards his later identity is given here: when asked what his last name is, Han has no response, and so the officer pauses and says, “Han…Solo.” The next time we see Han, he is in the chaotic trenches of a battle between the Empire and some other army (but we we never actually see the enemy). Here, Han runs into a bounty hunter group, led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who are posing as Imperial officers. Han tries to get them to take him, but they betray him, and he ends up being sentenced to death by being thrown into a pit with a monster. But this time, it’s not Jabba the Hutt’s Rancor as in Return of the Jedi (1983), although the scene virtually copies that one, but – surprise! – a damp, worn-down Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Through a series of grunts and roars – it’s never explained how Han can speak Wookiee – Han persuades Chewbacca to help him escape, and the two run off to join Beckett’s team.

The remainder of the film centers around Han and Chewbacca’s involvement with the bounty hunter group. Perhaps it’s just the use of Harrelson, whose Texan accent and past roles in films like No Country for Old Men (2007) make him seem here like a cowboy outlaw, but this portion of the film feels more Western than Sci-Fi. Beckett, Han, and Chewbacca fight against a rival gang, Enfys Nest, to steal Coaxium for a crime lord named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), but they fail to deliver and have to bargain with their lives. This sends them off on an even more dangerous mission, which involves stealing Coaxium directly from its heavily-guarded source. Solo slowly introduces other characters, as the gang meets Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and the Millenium Falcon in a gambling sequence on a floating city that looks suspiciously similar to Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Han bets his (non-existent) ship against Lando’s, and although Han loses, Qi’ra is able to save the day by flirting with Lando. With Qi’ra, Lando, and Chewie at his side, Han manages to steal Coaxium from its source on planet Kessel and, chased by Tie-Fighters, they escape into space and set off to deliver the Coaxium to Dryden Vos. A final, Western-style shootout at a Coaxium refinery kills off most of the dispensable characters, but Han and Chewie make it out just in time to set up a future movie.

Unfortunately, Solo employs every lazy structural device in the book. Instead of narrowing down on Han’s arc, Solo opts for quantity over quality, thrusting so many characters into the film that it gets bogged down by monologues and backstories. Han, Qi’ra, Lando, Beckett, Dryden Vos, and Enfys Nest are all introduced as if they were all protagonists, and what emerges is a chaotic storyline. All the weavings in-and-out distance the viewer and limit his or her ability to connect emotionally to any one character. Full of double-crosses and plot twists, this structure becomes quickly repetitive. Like a kid playing with action figures, every battle and quest is escalated so that it becomes the most important, riskiest one ever, even though the stakes – their lives – remain exactly the same. Other structural elements are formulaic. For instance, there is the classic third-party-villain plot twist. This is when the protagonist (in this case, Han) makes a pact with a second character (Beckett) who warns him about some third party villain (Enfys Nest). The protagonist then discovers something about this third character (who was up until this point the mysterious enemy) only to find out that they are actually the good guys, and that the second character was actually manipulating him all along. This device allows the writers to hide the identity of the third party until the end when they appear in the third act and take off their mask (and it is often literally a mask). In a good mystery film, the clues will be laid out on screen. At the end, the viewer or reader will kick him- or herself for failing to recognise the significance of that object: “I should have known!” In a poorly-written story, the clues will be completely arbitrary, and the plot twist relies completely on introducing new information rather than something built into the plot. This is the case in Solo: every plot twist relies on entirely new information.

The most disappointing part of Solo is its development of Han’s character. The film tries to provide an origin story, showing how the ruthless, witty bounty hunter first got started. Ehrenreich’s portrayal of Han should be credited for not attempting to play Han the same way Harrison Ford did. That would have been a mistake, since he would have come off as an imitation and wouldn’t have allowed the actor to come into the role as himself. But there’s also something lacking in his performance. Ford was cool and confident in his role, and Ehrenreich just doesn’t seem to have embraced Han’s laid-back approach to danger in the same way. The dialogue doesn’t help Han’s character either, since it relies on hyperbole and one-liners meant to amuse younger viewers. Take Han’s quip when trying a bold move in the asteroid field: “A little something I picked up from my pal, Needles…best street racer in all of Corellia.…Till he crashed and died, doing this.” This is far from the biting humor of Harrison Ford’s character, the “never tell me the odds!”, scruffy-looking, anti-hero we all love.

The problem with Solo’s development is that in providing this mythology, it also destroys some of the charm and mystique that makes Han who he is. Like any good cowboy, part of Han’s character is that he is difficult to read, and the realisation that there may be a man behind the money-loving, arrogant “scoundrel” is exactly what makes him a fascinating character in the original trilogy. The difficulty arises because Solo has to make him an interesting character but cannot give away too much. He cannot become a hero only to become a scoundrel in a (chronologically) later film. Solo appears to be unaware of how to do this. The only meaningful development here is in his relationship with Beckett, which reassesses the “Han shot first” dilemma. (This is a debate among Star Wars fans relating to Lucas’s digital changes to A New Hope [1977], which arguably made Han into a more likeable and less scoundraly figure.) But the film also undermines its attempt to keep Han true to himself by turning him into the hero who defies the Empire and helps Enfys Nest. What we are left with is a confusing character who straddles the line between the Han we later meet and an idealised good guy, a clear mistake in the character development.

Solo features nothing innovative in the Sci-Fi world: it is a film made up of quotations from better films. “Enfys Nest,” the bounty hunter gang who attack Solo and his pals, look like they have been stolen from Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). The alien who runs the orphan gang at the beginning of the film looks like the one from Alien (1979) crossed with one of the singers from Jabba the Hutt’s party in The Return of the Jedi. Then there’s the attack on the train that recalls every Mission Impossible film, albeit one set on a futuristic train that spins while it curves around the mountain. In addition, one of the early scenes features a land race mimicking the Podracer sequence in The Phantom Menace, and a later scene directly parallels the asteroid field maneuvering from The Empire Strikes Back. But Solo does not quote these films reverently; instead, it merely rips them off like cheap fan-fiction. Moments of hope arise, like when we finally get to see how Han makes the Kessel Run in less than twelve “parsecs.” But this is an exception, not the rule. At another point, the gang enters a bar reminiscent of the Mos Eisley cantina in A New Hope. But the iconic music played by the alien band is lacking – this would have been the perfect opportunity to create a link between the two films, but by leaving out the music, it feels less like a tribute than a lazy attempt to reuse the framework of its predecessor. Through these references, Solo tries to captivate the attention of a new generation while remaining true to the expectations of those who know and love the originals. Ultimately, it fails in both respects, largely due to the sheer number of “Easter eggs.” The film would have been much better served if it had limited its references to a half-dozen or so; as it stands, it feels contrived. Pair this with Solo‘s other weaknesses, and you’re left with a confusing and disappointing film. 

Whenever I fly across the Atlantic, I use the opportunity to catch up on the handful of recent movies I missed (or couldn’t be bothered to spend $14 to see in a theatre). Until now, this has mostly included Marvel films and blockbusters whose trailers promised a couple hours of mind-numbing fun. I try to reserve this time for films that I don’t really care about, and as someone who grew up playing with Lightsabers and Lego spaceships, the Star Wars films have always fallen into a different category. But if Disney’s takeover of the Star Wars universe extends in the vein of Solo: A Star Wars Story, I will have to continue to relegate these spin-offs to red-eye flights from San Francisco to Sankt-Peterburg. I truly hope that this isn’t the case.

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