'Solo: A Star Wars Story' Proves Surprisingly Fun
Spoiler-free review looks to film's troubled past
My favorite 'Star Wars' films
"The Empire Strikes Back" (1981)
"Star Wars" (1977, it wasn't "A New Hope" then)
"Rogue One" (2016)
There has been a lot of drama for Star Wars fans and not all of it on screen. I’ll have a spoiler free review of “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and a look at its troubled journey.
As a lifelong Star Wars fan, let me just say this right off the bat: “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is not the hot mess I feared it would be, nor is it the perfect movie I dreamed of.
But as with “The Force Awakens” I feel like I can breath a sigh of relief that the film proved enjoyable and didn’t make any major missteps.
Behind the scenes melodrama
The reason for all the trepidation going into the film was twofold.
First, the idea of giving us a young Han Solo was a huge challenge since Harrison Ford has defined the role from its inception and casting a young actor who would believably play our favorite scruffy-looking nerf herder seemed darn near impossible.
And second, the film suffered a near meltdown deep into production when the directing duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller (hot off successes with "The Lego Movie" and "21 Jump Street") were removed from the film and replaced by Ron Howard. Rumors ranged from them having a run-in with Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy to writer Lawrence Kasdan having creative differences with them to actor Alden Ehrenreich worrying that the directors were making the characters too cartoonish.
And in regards to Ehrenreich, there were rumors that an acting coach had to be brought in to help him capture the essence of Ford’s Han Solo. We may never know the entire truth about the behind-the-scenes melodrama, but everyone is being very polite and vague about the parting of ways.
At a panel for their MTV animated series Clone High at the Vulture Festival in Los Angeles, Lord is quoted as saying to the audience: “The experience of shooting the movie was wonderful. We had the most incredible cast and crew and collaborators. I think in terms of us leaving the project, I think everybody went in with really good intentions and our approach to making the movie was different than theirs. That was a really big gap to bridge, and it proved to be too big.”
But regardless of what exactly happened the end result is that the person helming the film changed late in the game and that can yield messy results.
But on a certain level, Lucasfilm made the right choice in Howard. They took flack on social media for going with an older white male but the reason he was the right choice was that he is a filmmaker with no discernable style and a person who grew up within the Hollywood studio system (he began playing Opie on the TV series “The Andy Griffiths Show” at the age of six in 1960). Thus, he understood the business side of what needed to be done.
He wasn’t hired so that he could put a "Ron Howard stamp" on a “Star Wars” movie, which is why having no style of his own makes him a smart choice. But he was hired to deliver a product that wouldn’t be an embarrassment and that could please fans.
It would have been a mistake to hire someone like Edgar Wright or Ryan Coogler because they are filmmakers with particular approaches, and they would have wanted to reshoot and refashion the film to make it their own (which might have yielded a better, more inspired film but would have cost more money and probably not been delivered on time).
The surprise of “Solo,” whatever your complaints may be, is that it is rather seamless in terms of where Lord and Miller left off and Howard took over. Whatever they did that Lucasfilm or Disney did not like does not stand out like a sore thumb or perhaps what they shot didn’t merit getting fired over. Again, who knows?
But here’s what works in the film. It’s just a fun adventure film, and it’s refreshing to have a heist at the core rather than something involving the Death Star, the Empire and the Rebellion driving the narrative.
The cast is appealing. Despite concerns about Ehrenreich, he ultimately delivers. It takes a little time to get used to him, but he eventually makes it his own without ever letting us forget he’s just giving us an early look at Ford’s Solo. He’s a good actor, and you can see that here and in the work he did for the Coens in “Hail! Caesar.”
Of course, the person who steals the show in fitting rogue fashion is Donald Glover as the young Lando Calrissian. The part is not as big or as well written as I’d like, but Glover certainly has the charisma, as Billy Dee Williams did, to hold us all rapt.
I would love to find out that rumors of Lando getting his own movie were true. I live in hope.
Emillia Clarke as Solo’s love interest Qi'ra is a nice mix of sweetness and deceit, but Thandie Newton makes all too brief an appearance as the only other strong female Val.
Paul Bettany makes a decent villain but not nearly the caliber of a Darth Vader, but then the stakes aren’t as high in a heist film as in one about fighting an empire. Woody Harrelson kept making me think of Michael Rooker in “The Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, but he’s perfectly fine as the older bandit teaching Solo a lesson about who to not trust, or rather how to trust no one.
Although over two hours long, the film moves at a brisk pace and delivers entertaining action. It also tries to tie into the “Star Wars” universe and Solo’s story in particular as often as it can, be it in providing the backstory to how he got the Millennium Falcon from Lando or on his first meeting with Chewbacca (with Joonas Suotamo officially taking over from Peter Mayhew) explaining the whole Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. Sometimes the attempts to explain things or to drop an Easter egg for fans feels too forced and as if the filmmakers had a checklist of things to do. But overall the film is mostly a satisfying back-story for Han.
The script, by father and son team of Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, is mostly solid but not terribly inspired or original. Papa Lawrence wrote my favorite “Star Wars” film “The Empire Strikes Back,” but had less success with his scripts for “Return of the Jedi” and “The Force Awakens.” Here with his son he does reveal an understanding of Han’s character, and there’s one scene, where Qi’ra defines what that character is, that actually brought a little tear to my eye.
What doesn’t work
The main problem with “Solo” is that it just doesn’t feel very inspired. I don’t expect it to break new creative ground, films in a franchise like this or James Bond or Marvel are mostly about satisfying audiences with a formula that’s delivered with some flair and genuine love. “Solo” feels like more of a product than the recent “Rogue One” (which is my favorite film outside of the original trilogy).
“Solo” tries too hard with characters like the L3-37, a female-voiced droid with an equality agenda. She has some fun moments, but her input becomes predictable, and she is kind of discarded by the screenplay in an unceremonious manner.
As I mentioned earlier, Lando gets shortchanged, and it would have been more fun to see the relationship between Lando and Han developed more fully, or at the very least seeing Lando given more to do.
And a word about fans
Finally, I just want to end with a brief comment about “Star Wars” fans. As someone who identifies as a fan, it has been disconcerting to see how some fans have urged boycotts of the film before even seeing it. I actually left one Facebook fan group after one supposed fan urged a boycott just because Disney now owns “Star Wars,” and he accused anyone who liked any of the Disney produced “Star Wars” films of being Disney lackey.
Another fan in that same group complained about a scene in which he claimed Lando “flirted” with Han and damned the film as promoting a gay agenda (although the word “flirting” is used to describe an interaction between Lando and Han there is no gay relationship implied in the film). The anger expressed in his post about anyone liking the film needing to reassess his or her own sexual preferences just seemed bizarre and over the top.
But the straw that broke the camel’s back for me with that group was someone taking a poll about which was worse, “The Last Jedi” or “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.” It seems that there is a contingent of “Star Wars” fans who will like anything — even “Crystal Skull” or the prequels — rather than a “Star Wars” film produced by Disney. I have even seen fans demanding that “Last Jedi” and now “Solo” be removed from the “Star Wars” universe because they don’t like them. I’m not sure when fandom became so vitriolic, and it makes me kind of sad. I got kicked out of one Facebook film group when I defended “The Last Jedi” because there were specific things — like Rey’s parents being no one special — that I loved and felt were key to defining “Star Wars.”
I’m used to fans disagreeing, but the love for the franchise seems missing from some people who claim to be fans. I mean, I had to suffer through the prequels and Jar Jar Binks, but I never demanded the film be removed from the canon. It’s just something you have to deal with as a fan and that you could argue over. Or you could be creative like the person who tried to explain the genius of Jar Jar Binks to somehow make him more acceptable. You can argue with his theory, but you can’t question his fandom for looking at the films in such depth.
There have also been some critics who take the film to task for its “politics” or rather its lack of proper political correctness. It makes me miss the times before social media when a film could just exist on its own terms and not have to somehow be politically correct on a broad spectrum of issues. “Solo” is meant to be an action adventure more in line with the original “Star Wars: A New Hope” and riffing off of old Saturday morning serials. We may want our pop entertainment to also have some redeeming social values, but I think it’s unfair to expect it from every film.
The heart of the “Star Wars” films for me has always been about delivering an adventure that would inspire the imagination of the 12-year-old in me, something that paid homage to the old action and fantasy movies I loved that my dad showed me. “Solo” delivers on that. It’s not perfect, and it’s not as stylish or clever as I would have liked, but it was fun, and it expanded Han’s story in a way that I enjoyed.
But maybe Ryan Coogler could be lured from Marvel to Luscasfilm to make a Calrissian story with Glover. Maybe that would reinvigorate the franchise in an exciting new way because Coogler seems to understand how to bridge studio demands with personal style. That happened with Gareth Edwards and “Rogue One,” and I hope it happens again in a galaxy far, far away.
Check out your options if "Solo" is sold out or you want something a little less mainstream.