Solo: A Star Wars Story (Cert 12A)
US (2018) Dir. Ron Howard
The Star Wars franchise is following in the footsteps of Marvel and DC by expanding its cinematic presence with more adjuncts to the main saga that explore the events prior to the story we all know and love. After the prequel-following-the-prequels Rogue One comes a look into the history of one of the more popular characters in the Star Wars universe.
An origin story for Han Solo, a number of nods and references to the future are dotted all over the script to keep the lineage intact despite not being strictly canon. Some are subtle, some are weaved into the story itself – like the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs Han was always boasting about – but like Rogue One it finds a way to stay relevant within the established oeuvre yet can be enjoyed as a standalone story too.
It begins on the lawless junk planet of Corellia, where two young lovers Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) plan to earn enough money dealing in black market hyperfuel to leave. As they are about to escape, Qi’ra is captured leaving Han alone. Vowing to become a pilot and return to rescue Qi’ra, Han joins the Empire’s army for training.
Three years later Han falls in with Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his cohorts Val (Thandie Newton) and Rio (voiced by Jon Favreau), as well as a feral wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) who was being held captive by the Empire. Han and Chewie inveigle their way into the group as they stage a daring robbery of highly combustible substance called coaxium.
Unfortunately the mission fails when a group of pirates also after the coaxium interfere leaving Han, Chewie and Beckett to face crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) for whom the job was undertaken. Reunited with Qi’ra at Vos’ base, the trio are given one last chance at obtaining the coaxium with Qi’ra joining them to ensure success. But first, they need a fast ship to pull it off.
Scripted by father and son duo Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, the policy of giving other genres a sci-fi makeover is straight out of the George Lucas playbook insofar as A New Hope being inspired by westerns and the films of Akira Kurosawa. Solo also tips its hat to westerns, with a touch of Oliver Twist and Treasure Island thrown into the mix.
It sounds like an unusual concoction but sci-fi is a nebulous genre that can expose the flexibility of any storyline no matter how rooted in reality it is. Staying true to the main Star Wars ethos, it boils down to good vs. evil but in this case, there many shades of grey to the characters that need removing first.
We already knew Han was a loveable rogue; this younger iteration is more obnoxious and cockier, yet his heart always steers him back to doing the right thing, but the same can’t always be said about the others. Beckett repeatedly tells Han “don’t trust anyone” but that is the one thing he always does, explaining the cynicism found in the older Han.
But this also exposes a problem in the development of the other characters, who we safely assume are expendable through not being referenced in the later films – except for Lando Calrissian, a charismatic turn from Donald Glover. Current owner of the Millennium Falcon and noted card shark, Lando and Han don’t hit it off at first but we already knew their relationship was variable so it is nice to see the germination of that.
Lando’s co-pilot is female droid L3-37 (voiced and acted via motion capture by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), an unabashed comedy act with the subtlety of a shark in goldfish bowl thus feeling out of place in this context. As chief villain, Dryden Vos’ evil credentials are a scarred face and being tall enough to intimidate, leaving his need for coaxium a mystery – at least until a late twist that isn’t predictable.
Qi’ra is frustrating as so much about her is left without explanation. She reunites with Han after three years yet this reunion is lukewarm at best; naturally she has changed but why? With nothing revealed, either a sequel is forthcoming or we just have to accept this and move on. At least she gets stuck in with fighting but Emilia Clarke has no charisma or warmth in her to make Qi’ra a compelling heroine.
Alden Ehrenreich has a tough job stepping into Harrison Ford’s shoes (so to speak) and comes across like a less annoying and slimmer Jack Black. Some will love him, some won’t be able to look past hints of Ford’s portrayal but Ehrenreich stays the course as the focal point of the film, sparring confidently with Woody Harrelson and bonding well with Chewbacca.
Ron Howard was a surprise choice for director after previous choices left the project and to be fair, he does a good job in creating a palpable Star Wars vibe and doesn’t let the CGI heavy world overwhelm him. I do have to question the use of dim lighting for the first half an hour making things hard to follow but this is soon abandoned for a more visually pleasing aesthetic.
ILM handle the special effects and you know that guarantees a top-notch presentation, this film being no different. The aforementioned Kessel Run is a spectacle in itself as is the coaxium robbery which takes place on a futuristic train hurtling through a snowy mountain pass. Alien creature deigns are typically fun and creative mixing new ideas with callbacks to familiar faces.
Viewed as an action packed sci-fi adventure Solo: A Star Wars Story ticks all the boxes and the story works without the surrounding mythos – yet it is this mythos that is a hindrance with regard to the new characters and their backstories which feel just as compelling. There are at least two films here when just one suffices, stretching a fun film a bit too far.
Rating – *** ½
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