“You think everything sounds like a bad idea…”
The Star Wars saga’s very longevity has become, if you’ll forgive the slight Jedi inference, a double-edged sword, laser-honed, amazingly precise despite its innate power and massive destructive capability, and, therefore, deceptively difficult to wield. This was, of course, already the case when a single storyteller, flawed visionary/kindly internet punching bag George Lucas, held the franchise in his eccentric hands; You can bet the issue has only compounded and is now accelerating toward what promises to be a spectacular end since that control was usurped by The Walt Disney Company, a monolithic trillion dollar entertainment conglomerate focused almost exclusively on the generation through perhaps overly dedicated fan service of a veritable Matterhorn of filthy lucre. To wit: Opening weekend box office for Solo: A Star Wars Story – just north of $100 million domestically – was smashing by most any other rational measure, though pillow soft if not scandalous for such a priority representative of the Mouse That Roared. “Our fantastically successful arbitrary franchise installment somehow didn’t make enough money!” At Disney headquarters, this qualifies as a full-blown conundrum. Pre-rodent Star Wars films reliably took three years to create, whether Lucas was busy fussing over elaborate miniatures and matte paintings or, later, blank slate green screen sets the length of multiple city blocks. In the interim, public demand for galaxy-adjacent content could rarely be satiated in a manner consistent with guaranteeing fans the level of quality they’d come to expect.
“Enough of all that,” yelled a friendly mouse to the assembled masses. “Get ready to gorge!”
The “Disney-fication” of Star Wars began with an irresistible hook: a new, third trilogy, flesh and blood, dovetailing off the original adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han and spinning forward into a cinematic universe that, at least at first, seemed comfortably familiar. Disney also committed to the regular release of off-year appetizers in the form of standalone stories taking place on the periphery of what had already come,* which had the unfortunate natural effect of making each new Star Wars property feel incrementally less like the event its predecessors had. The first “Star Wars Story”, 2016’s terrific Rogue One, had the added benefit of carving out an intriguing concept from nebulous lore, that of the secret Rebel mission to steal plans for the original Death Star**. In retrospect, the first two years under Mickey’s tutelage were the easy part, with Rogue One representing the end of the honeymoon. At a time when franchise nostalgia was at a modern day high – many, myself included, thought J.J. Abrams rebooted the saga with Episode VII by basically repurposing the sacrosanct Episode IV – it offered potentially toxic levels of soothing itch therapy, including a legitimately stirring battlefield climax and callbacks galore to days and characters gone by. Episode VIII: The Last Jedi would demonstrate just how chained to memory and decorum this particular fanbase is by purposely upending its carefully calibrated world (and worldview) a scant year later. Still smarting from the hysterically polarized public response to Rian Johnson’s flawed though fearless dramatic inversion, there’s little doubt that Abrams will be again leading and (leaning hard on) the cheer squad to close the trilogy out in late 2019.
*An odd if clever byproduct of trimming the gestation of each new trilogy episode by one-third. Disney probably has sufficient resources to marshall towards the definitive end of world hunger if that’s the way their collective heads were bent. Of course they can pull a competent “Star Wars” movie out of thin air within a two-year turnaround window.
**Sign me up for the inevitable “Rogue Two”, the story of the equally daring though likely far less tropical Rebel effort to steal incriminating plans for the “Return of the Jedi”-era Death Star Mark 2. As of this writing, I’m still quite interested in seeing a member of the Bothan race (Or sect? Or persuasion?) for the first time, not to mention learning whether any of them can act.
If The Last Jedi hinted loudly at a turbulent but viable way forward for the franchise as a whole, Solo: A Star Wars Story distracts at times with its dogged interest in only looking back. There are, of course, abundant new settings and characters to be had here, new temporary conflicts and shotgun alliances in place of overarching themes and relationships, all of which do represent a fair amount of creativity and filmmaking prowess ably committed to the screen where a cynic might only acknowledge laziness and the basest, almost mercenary, sort of motivation. Penned by Empire Strikes Back scribe Lawrence Kasdan in collaboration with his son, Jonathan, Solo, like any number of convoluted origin tales before it, offers almost too much backstory. Does it also, in the process, present a particularly compelling case for its own existence? That’s a trickier question. Coming on the grim, existential heels of Rogue One and, especially, The Last Jedi, the movie feels lighter than air by comparison. Ron Howard’s direction is, predictably, sure-handed and unobtrusive, and he coaxes a far better performance out of would-be Ford doppelganger Alden Ehrenreich than I expected he might, though the script does a lot of heavy lifting camouflaging the photogenic lead’s inexperience. Solo is the standalone series’ second “heist” movie in as many attempts***, and operates within the sort of limber, never-too-intense dramatic structure that encourages audiences to check their brains at the door. Indeed, charting the beloved Corellian scoundrel turned Rebel general’s early course seems so much like a conceptual no-brainer that it’s astonishing how his namesake movie has become the saga’s latest referendum after only a few days in theaters.
***I worry that the “Star Wars Story” conceit is going to quickly and irreversibly evolve into an endless series of boutique origin stories rather than offering more self-contained thrillers like “Rogue One”. With “Kenobi” long rumored and “Boba Fett” officially announced, at least we may break out of the storytelling loop soon, as “zen master” and “silent assassin” don’t really lend themselves as character types to “Oceans 8-13” shenanigans. Trouble is, I’m not sure to what style those two actually do ascribe. We’ll see, I guess.
To be sure, Solo itself has relatively humble intentions: to entertain, to ingratiate, and to push forward. It’s easy to see how the Disney braintrust imagined this particular spinoff might have sufficient juice to become an adventure franchise of its own, along the lines of what Harrison Ford – whose visage and legendary low-key swagger, let’s be honest, haunt the entire movie – accomplished with the Indiana Jones series. If so, Solo is a solid to very good start. It definitely has the entertainment part down. In terms of integrating new faces into the Star Wars pantheon, it takes the interesting if hardly unprecedented**** tact of surrounding a relative neophyte (Ehrenreich, whose only previous film of note was the Coen Brothers’ oddball Hail Caesar!) with known commodities such as Woody Harrelson, Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke, Community and Atlanta’s Donald Glover, and Paul Bettany from the two latest Avengers films, not to mention the relatively deft introduction of dependable scene-stealer Chewbacca. Glover’s expressive take on a clearly high on life young Lando Calrissian especially seems to be floating at all times on a cloud made of silk. I left Solo hoping I’d eventually get to see him endure some of the weathering that surely shaped Billy Dee Williams’ suave realist from the original trilogy. So, mission partially accomplished! Harrelson is sympathetic and doesn’t overextend himself as Han’s smuggler mentor, Clarke strikes an excellent balance between romantic confidant and unknowable collaborator, and Bettany hits his marks with restrained relish as the slimy sophisticate gangster to whom all involved are in serious debt.
****The comparison that sprung to mind for me was of Christopher Reeve’s magnificent debut in 1978’s “Superman: The Movie”, where he convincingly hung with the likes of Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, Margot Kidder (R.I.P.), and a slumming, blatantly disinterested Marlon Brando. ”Solo” might not make Alden Ehrenreich a star any more than Lucas’ prequel trilogy ended up elevating Hayden Christensen, but it won’t be for a lack of trying. The difference is that Reeve was an immediate and sublime casting discovery as perhaps the quintessential Man of Steel, while Ehrenreich, however appealing, is largely stuck in neutral, fumbling at an approximation only one actor before him had attempted, let alone nailed. Yeah, no pressure.
The movie lives and dies, however, with the game Ehrenreich, whose presence substitutes for performance to a reasonable and significant degree, despite his inability to quite make such an iconic role his own. In his defense, the movie does live, and it’s difficult to imagine many other near unknowns who could pull off the feat without similar substantial pain. Ehrenreich is enthusiastic, charismatic, and has room to eventually grow into the part if his rodent overlords so allow. His young Han Solo is often along for the ride in the early going, and – impetuous, arrogant, lovelorn, and almost nothing else – sometimes hard to square with the embodiment of grizzled cool Luke first encountered in the Mos Eisley cantina. Solo speeds Han through a oft-dizzying gauntlet of “first onscreen” milestones lighting his path toward Episode IV: his first onscreen vehicle boost; first (and second) chase through the Corellian slums; first passionate kiss (and second, third, etc.); first white knuckle escape; first last name christening; first battlefield experience; extended sidekick meet-cute and bonding; train heist; solo flight; gangster encounter; introduction to the Millennium Falcon; daylight facility robbery; shocking betrayal(s); grudging nod toward outright heroism, and, to top it off, making the famed Kessel Run in twelve parsecs (if you round down), though it’s amazing no historian ever thought to mention the massive space leviathan comprised of tentacles and teeth he out-maneuvers through the soupy, treacherous maelstrom. That pervasive “checklist” feeling turns Solo into a more rigid, less organic experience than one might’ve hoped, but doesn’t mute its zeal to either create/connect dots or to entertain. As the first filmed Star Wars property to really zero in on life and death and business among the cutthroat criminal element of our galaxy far, far away, I think Solo is onto something. Pity that its less than stellar positioning, buzz, and financial intake might kill those potential explorations before a sequel can arrive.
The internet tends to focus populist commentary and crowdsourced criticism into weaponized vitriol, though sadly (for some) insufficient to destroy a planet. This can foster real and important dialogue, or even occasionally midwife crucial societal change, but directed into the realm of commercial art, what was already an echo chamber of hair trigger fan umbrage and apologia can quickly become not just deafening but debilitating. In its wake, with the dust settling and the next target already acquired or coming into view, the incessant noise often seems silly and counterproductive. Count me among the fans of both the original trilogy and the overall enterprise who, in a rage, grabbed the nearest metaphorical pitchfork upon learning of Solo’s existence. There were days I convinced myself I’d be waiting a long time to see it, indeed. Perhaps never, just on principle. To put this mania in some perspective, Han Solo, among other characters, prominently adorned the curtains, sheets, and comforter of my childhood bedroom. His first two adventures are my first and fourth favorite movies of all time. Han’s glorious homecoming to the Falcon and heartbreaking death at the hands of his evil-emo padawan son are arguably the only transcendent moments in The Force Awakens, his sudden absence already amounting to a yawning void in the heart of the new trilogy before either of his above-title compatriots would join him in the great beyond. But this, this sunny, cocky youngster making mistake after charming mistake, this isn’t that Han Solo now, is it? In look, or feel, or substance? And, if we can agree not, what exactly is it?
It is an experiment, for storytellers and their handlers so far content to cram the alien faces of Vader (five appearances), Yoda (six), and Chewbacca (seven) into episode after episode but reticent to really toy with the human element except via breath-catching, computer-abetted, single-serving cameos. Solo represents a crucial litmus test for the Star Wars brand going forward. Will its loyal and passionate fanbase, steeped in history and burdened by expectation, consent to watch and support and, importantly, invest in movies that feature new and/or unfamiliar actors in their most recognizable human roles? I certainly didn’t think so going in, though I suppose everyone’s mileage will vary. The greatest achievement of Solo: A Star Wars Story then is both fairly subtle and incredibly consequential, in that it enlists a rightly skeptical audience in its cause, not in spite of the Han Solo we knew and loved – the Han Solo we still know and love – but because of him. Howard, Kasdan, and Darth Mickey know how to accomplish what Solo originally set out to do, however occasionally clunky the results. By and by, preconceptions thaw, restlessness abates, and we start paying attention to the dingy little details of Empire-occupied Corellia, where Han began as a child slave turned street hustler, or Dryden Voss’ towering pleasure barge (a fair step up from Jabba the Hutt’s), the unnamed wintry planet where a fantastic train robbery set piece plays with our expectations and strict understanding of gravity, or the mythic, albeit drab, spice mines of Kessel and, from that crime scene, the harrowing, thrilling, multi-stage getaway he engineers and executes magnificently.
We begin to sense his presence ever so slightly, his laconic, devil-may-care, seat-of-the-pants essence, undergirding the whole affair, making it buoyant. And as we watch this scruffy, smirking guy on screen who everyone calls “Han” and, yeah, he kinda acts like Han but we know deep down it isn’t Han, it slowly but just as surely begins to not make a world of difference after all. For now. Because, honestly, we really just missed having him around.
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018) 3/4 stars