Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018, Ron Howard)

SoloStarWars

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Ten years before his encounter with Luke Skywalker in a cantina, Han Solo becomes embroiled in a job to steal a valuable fuel source for a gangster…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one.

GOOD GUYS:

* When we first meet him, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) is hot-wiring a land-speeder in a rusty, rundown city on his home planet of Corellia. It’s a place dominated by crime lords, even though the fascistic Empire are technically in command. Han – a young man in his late 20s – is scratching out a living for himself and girlfriend Qi’ra. He’s accumulated enough cash to buy their way out of the ‘control zone’, but while attempting to escape the planet Qi’ra is arrested by the authorities. Needing to hide, Han hits upon the idea of joining the Imperial military. When the recruiting officer asks his name, Han admits he doesn’t have a family and therefore no surname, so the officer plucks one out of the air: ‘Han… Solo.’ Three years later, Han is an unhappy grunt in the Imperial infantry. However, backchat to superior officers leads to him being thrown into a punishment pit with a ‘beast’. The monster actually turns out to be a sympathetic creature called Chewbacca, and rather than fight to the death the pair collude to escape their prison. (Handily, Han speaks a bit Chewy’s language.) Fleeing the army, Han and his new pal hook up with a criminal called Beckett, whose crew are planning to steal some valuable fuel from a speeding train. This opportunity pleases Han because his long-term goal is to earn enough money to get home to Corellia and save Qi’ra. However, despite Han getting to show off his piloting skills, the heist goes wrong: Beckett’s lieutenants are killed and the loot is snatched by a third party. So Beckett and Han must go cap in hand to Drydon Vos, the crime lord who hired them and the leader of a terrorist organisation called Crimson Dawn. On board Vos’s palatial Art Deco yacht, Han is stunned to bump into Qi’ra – she escaped Corellia on her own, and now works for Crimson Dawn. He then cuts a deal with Vos to steal the loot from somewhere else. This involves travelling down a dangerous space route known as the Kessel Run (take a gulp if you’re playing the drinking game), but for this they need a fast ship. Luckily Qi’ra knows a guy who has one. At first, Han attempts to win the craft in a card game – but the cad with the transport, a slick fella called Lando, beats him and insists on a cut of the take for the use of his ship. When Han then sees Lando’s vehicle – the Millennium Falcon, a disc-shaped Corellian YT-1300 – he goes all misty-eyed and mentions that his father helped build this brand of spaceship. The gang travel to the planet Kessel, where they steal the coaxium Vos wants, then flee via the Kessel Run. Lando’s pilot was killed during the job, though, so Han must take the controls of the Millennium Falcon – he actually completes the run faster than anyone ever before. Meeting up with Vos, Han is betrayed by both Beckett – who attempts to steal the loot for himself – and Qi’ra, who chooses a dark path. So as the film winds down, Han and Chewy seek out Lando again, and Han wins the Falcon from him in a rigged card game. They then head for the planet Tatooine, where they’ve heard a crime lord is putting together a new job… Charged with the task of taking over such a venerated character, Ehrenreich is absolutely terrific. He brilliantly evokes Harrison Ford’s smirky charisma but never resorts to a hollow impression. Actor and script capture the tone of the Han Solo we know – the swashbuckling heroics, the playful cheek, the romantic streak, the hubris and failure – but as this is a younger Han, he’s also more optimistic and idealistic. (Fun fact: Alden Ehrenreich was given his first name in honour of family friend Phil Alden Robinson, the director of Sneakers and Field of Dreams.)

* Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) seems initially to be an infantry officer in the Imperial Army, but soldier Han quickly deduces that he’s an imposter: a thief for hire who pulls off jobs with a couple of cohorts. After allowing him to join his crew, Beckett becomes a kind of father-figure type for Han – offering advise, encouraging him, all that. This doesn’t stop him betraying his protégé, however, when he steals the coaxium for himself. Han gives chase and, before Beckett can talk his way out of it, shoots him dead. (Han shoots first, you see.) Harrelson is typically watchable.

* Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau) is Beckett’s pilot: a small, monkey-sized, multi-armed Ardenian with a sarcastic manner and a New York accent. The character is *in no way* a blatant rip-off of Bradley Cooper’s Rocket from the Guardians of the Galaxy series. He dies during the train heist.

* Val (Thandie Newton) is Beckett’s partner, both professionally and personally. A spiky, entertainingly rude character, she also dies attempting to steal the fuel – which is a real shame, as Newton is a fun presence while she lasts.

* Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) is a 190-year-old Wookie – a seven-foot-tall, furry alien – and has been locked up by the Empire, who are treating him like a savage animal. When we first see him, his fur is matted and he’s in an understandably bad mood. Han soon wins him round, though, especially by speaking to him in his own language, and the pair not only escape the Empire but become quick pals. During the Kessel Run, Chewy jumps into the Millennium Falcon’s co-pilot seat, establishing a spaceship-flying partnership with Han. At one point, we also learn that Chewbacca is searching for his lost family. Presumably, he’s referring to the Wookies seen in the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. (A sad side note: I was doing a final pass on this blog when I heard the news that Peter Mayhew had died at the age of 74. He played Chewbacca in five Star Wars movies from 1977 until 2015 before passing the baton on to Suotamo.)

* Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman) initially seems to be the leader of a gang of pirates. She and her pals – one of whom is Warwick Davis’s Weazel, a character who first appeared in 1999’s The Phantom Menace – beat Beckett and co to the loot during the train heist. They must be crims, then? No, when Nest shows up near the end of the story we discover that she’s actually the leader of a nascent rebellion against the evil Empire. She asks Han to join their cause, but he declines. Kellyman, who only appears without a facemask in the final third of the film, is a bit earnest.

* Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) is said to be the best smuggler around, and is a dashing, louche, cape-wearing smoothie who enjoys cheating at card games and being economical with the truth. He signs up to Beckett’s mission to steal some coaxium, but wants 25 per cent of the take. However, after completing the job and running into more trouble, Lando leaves his new comrades behind and sneaks away with his ship. Later, Han tracks him down and suggests another game of Sabaac… Glover is tremendous value, echoing original actor Billy Dee Williams but bringing his own brand of swagger. (He also pronounces Han’s name with a short A, to match Williams in The Empire Strikes Back.)

* Droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is Lando’s first mate. She’s a vaguely human-shaped robot with an oversized head (all the better for containing, as Lando points out, the best navigational database in the galaxy). She’s also a fierce defender of ‘droid rights’, and is first seen pleading with other mechanical life to stand up for themselves. Despite being in a permanent bad mood, she has a thing for Lando (‘How would that work?’ asks a dubious Qi’ra) and maybe he has one for her too… On Kessel, she’s movingly upset by the sight of droids being held as slaves so incites a revolution – but then is fatally shot during the ensuing combat. Lando is *distraught*. (So are we.) L3’s navigational database is then uploaded into the Millennium Falcon’s computer… She might be a CGI creation, but you wouldn’t know that from the absolutely seamless way the character interacts with the actors and the physical sets. (Technology has moved on A LOT since Jar-Jar Binks, hasn’t it?) Waller-Bridge’s voice work is really brilliant: very funny and full of sass.

BAD GUYS:

* When Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) returns to the story on Crimson Dawn’s luxury yacht, she’s clearly a changed woman. She’s harsher, colder, and now a gangster’s moll-cum-advisor. But she’s also genuinely pleased to see Han again, and when the old flames travel to Kessel together they actually share a kiss in Lando’s cape room. (Yes, Lando has an entire room to store his capes. He’s *that* cool.) ‘Am I interrupting something?’ says a cockblocking Beckett, who’s not sure his new protégé should be cosying up to Drydon Vos’s aide. Qi’ra helps on the Kessel Run scam, pretending to be an Imperial official with Han as her shackled prisoner – then late in the film she turns into a samurai-sword-wielding badass, kills her boss and takes over his criminal empire. She then contacts his shadowy benefactor… This is a tough role for Clarke, who filmed Solo in-between seasons of Game of Thrones. Qi’ra may as well have a neon sign above her exceedingly pretty head that reads ‘I’m not who Han thinks I am’, but the actress disguises it as much as she can by using natural charm.

* Lady Promixa (voiced by Linda Hunt) is a giant slug-type creature who rules the underworld of Corellia with an iron tentacle. Early in the film, Han is taken to see her when it becomes clear he’s been ripping her off. The character is a nice reminder that the original Star Wars movies were no strangers to bizarre and even risible aliens. Nevertheless, it’s quite a relief that she doesn’t last very long in the story. To escape her oily clutches, Han pretends to have a thermal detonator (a grenade, essentially). Proxima is not fooled: ‘That’s a rock!’ she says. ‘And you just made a clinking sound with your mouth.’ (More than a decade of story time later, Princess Leia will use the same gag in an attempt to save Han from a different alien gangster.)

* One of the Imperial officers in the warzone scenes looks suspiciously like the late actor Don Henderson. Presumably he’s meant to be a younger version of Henderson’s character in the original Star Wars film.

* Drydon Vos (Paul Bettany) is the leader of Crimson Dawn, so therefore is the man Qi’ra now works for. He’s an arrogant, maniacal loon with a violent streak, a love of pithy threats and a scarred face. He also makes an obscure reference to having a sinister boss… After Beckett and co have brought him the coaxium he wants, Vos suffers a double-cross as Qi’ra kills him and takes over his organisation… Michael K Williams was cast in the role, but was then unavailable for some reshoots so Bettany took over. At the same time, the character went through a rethink: he was originally a CG creation resembling a humanoid lion. Whatever the visuals, he’s a bit of a rent-a-bad-guy.

* In a shock twist held back from all the publicity and trailers, Darth Maul (Ray Park; voiced by Sam Witwer) appears late on. He’s the real power behind Crimson Dawn – oh no! We only see Maul as a hologram when he FaceTimes Qi’ra, but we can tell he has robotic legs (in his last appearance, remember, he was cut in half by Obi-Wan Kenobi). Maul summons Qi’ra to come and see him and tells her they’ll be working more closely from now on… This is just a cameo, meant to set the character up for a sequel that will now probably never happen because Solo “only” took $392 million at the box office (ie, the smallest gross of any live-action Star Wars film). Peter Serafinowicz was originally hired to reprise the voice of Maul from The Phantom Menace, but then the strange decision was made to use someone else.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The action is uniformly great in this movie, whether it’s the chaotic trench warfare scenes, or the slick, wind-machined train heist, or the multi-character punch-up on the planet Kessel. Especially impressive is the dieselpunk chase sequence on Corellia with Han and Qi’ra in a land-speeder, a kind of floating car. Unlike most CG-heavy action scenes, this one feels totally real and heavy and locked into gravity. Solid, metallic vehicles career round corners and skirt past palpable obstacles. You feel the speed and the thrill and the danger. It’s like something from a Mad Max film.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Solo’s original directors were Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the team behind the far-better-than-you-think-it’s-going-to-be comedy 21 Jump Street and the everything-is-awesome Lego Movie. But they were fired during production – reportedly for trying to make the film too much of a comedy. Nevertheless, even with the more serious-minded Ron Howard taking over, Solo is still often very funny. L3 is a hoot (‘Is there anything you need?’ ‘Equal rights?’), meaning this is the second Star Wars spin-off running with a comedic droid (cf Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO in Rogue One). Lando as played by Donald Glover is so watchable he *needs* a film all of his own (check out the throwaway moment when we glimpse him recording a vainglorious diary entry). Geeks all over the world will have smirked when the infamous Imperial March music cue is used in-story, as the Empire’s army-recruitment theme tune.

MUSIC: The score is utterly superb, feeling thoroughly and joyfully Star Wars-esque but having a life of its own too. Whether the scene is action or romance or melancholy or humour, John Powell’s incidental music adds a huge amount. Old John Williams themes are quoted if appropriate, such as a 1977 motif when Han first sits behind the controls of the Falcon, but the new stuff is always memorable and engaging. (Williams made a contribution too. He wrote a new theme called The Adventures of Han, which Powell then incorporated into his work.)

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this film on 6 June 2018 at the Everyman Canary Wharf in London with my old pal Fraser Dickson. Unlike the December releases of the previous three Star Wars films, Solo came out in the UK on 24 May. WHY NOT MAY THE 4TH?!

REVIEW: This was a huge ask. Huge. To take such a famous and beloved character and *recast* him could have gone catastrophically wrong. Thankfully, both lead actor and the film as a whole are wonderful, vibrant and entertaining. Not that anyone’s going to claim Solo is rewriting the rules of cinema. Being a prequel, for example, it goes down the predictable route of ticking narrative boxes – we learn how Han gained his surname, how he met Chewbacca, how he met Lando Calrissian, how he first encountered the Millennium Falcon, how he gained his gun, why he claims in the original Star Wars that he did the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, even how long he’s owned a pair of gold dice that featured beyond fleetingly in the 1977 film then became a plot point in 2017’s The Last Jedi. This kind of dramatised backstory – simply filling out the spaces between established facts – could of course become boring very quickly. Solo, however, has more than enough zip, panache and style to sidestep the issue. It’s full of vivid characters, exiting sequences, humour, romance and adventure. It’s a caper movie, a heist movie, a Western in disguise. It’s enormous fun. It’s Star Wars. 

Nine spice mines of Kessel out of 10

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One thought on “Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018, Ron Howard)

  1. Solo got a lot of unjustified stick I felt, with a frequent complaint being the film had very small stakes in terms of plot. True it’s not about Han saving the universe but the stakes are very big on a personal level to the characters and it is essentially one of those old “Heist goes wrong” movies, only with sci-fi props.

    Liked by 1 person

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