"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, November 16, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

When it was announced that a movie featuring a young Han Solo was in the works, the Star Wars fanbase took to the Internet to complain, their collective outrage came on two fronts: the casting to Alden Ehrenreich as Han, the role originated and made iconic by Harrison Ford, and the very existence of this movie would ruin the mystique of the character. Much like the other non-saga Star Wars movie, Rogue One (2016), Solo (2018) had a well-documented troubled production with the original directors replaced midway through principal photography by Ron Howard.

While the movie garnered strong reviews, it underperformed at the box office – the lowest of any of the Star Wars movies, which led pundits to speculate that its poor performance was due to it being released too close to Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) and people were sick of Star Wars movies (and yet Marvel doesn’t seem to have this problem). Was it merely a matter of timing, its thunder stolen by superhero movie juggernauts Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Deadpool 2 (2018) or were audiences simply not interested in a Han Solo movie that didn’t have Ford reprising the role? Ultimately, all of this is meaningless in the face of a much bigger question: is Solo any good?

We meet a young Han (Ehrenreich) struggling to survive on the dangerous streets of Corellia with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). They live by their wits, scamming and scheming a way off this dead-end planet. All Han dreams about is being the best pilot in the galaxy but he has very few options except for the Empire. He enlists in the Imperial Navy and finds that he doesn’t take orders too well and this lands him trouble. It also puts him in contact with two people who will be the important figures in his development as an outlaw – Chewbacca the Wookie (Joonas Suotamo), a prisoner of the Empire, and Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a veteran criminal who becomes a mentor to Han, schooling him on how to be an outlaw. They introduce the young man to an exciting and dangerous world populated by colorful characters, none of whom he can trust.

Director Ron Howard wastes no time jumping right into it as Han and Qi’ra try to escape local gangsters via an exciting hover vehicle chase that shows off not just his piloting skills but also his willingness to take chances and press his luck. That being said, Solo starts off a little awkwardly with Han and Qi’ra’s downtrodden street urchin beginnings coming off as Charles Dickens by way of Blade Runner (1982). It isn’t all that interesting but from a story point-of-view I understand its purpose. It establishes the unbreakable bond between them. They grew up on the streets together and learned how to survive by sheer cunning and wits. It also establishes Han’s legendary lousy negotiating skills. Perhaps the movie should’ve started in medias res with Han and Qi’ra on the run from Lady Proxima’s goons. It would’ve been a bolder move to just drop us right in it and establish Han’s formidable piloting skills. In addition, getting separated at the Imperial checkpoints is an excellent way of showing how close they are and how painful it is for them to be torn apart (Han giving Qi’ra his lucky dice is a nice touch) by the Empire. Although, the moment where we learn how Han got his surname is clumsy and unnecessary as it awkwardly references The Godfather Part II (1974). I do like how this scene ends – with Han alone and afraid, which is a scenario we rarely see him in.

Solo really gets going when we catch up with Han three years later fighting for the Empire and meets Chewie and Beckett. It is also a brief albeit fascinating look at the Empire from the P.O.V. of the foot soldier: they are cannon fodder in a dirty chaotic battlefield that Han is lucky to survive. As bonus to film buffs, there’s even a nice visual nod to Stanley Kubrick’s World War I film Paths of Glory (1957). Once free of the Empire and in the employ of Beckett, Han enters a bigger world and the movie opens up as well.

It doesn’t take long for Ehrenreich to slip effortlessly into the role and make it his own. He doesn’t really look like Ford and doesn’t try to imitate the actor either, but instead adopts a few choice mannerisms of the character. He captures Han’s swagger and smartass disregard for authority brilliantly and in a way that shows the beginnings of the man we see in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). In Solo, Han still trusts people and has a sense of wonder, which Ehrenreich conveys quite well when he witnesses his first jump to hyperspace aboard the Millennium Falcon as he finally realizes his dream to see the galaxy. The actor is playing Han at an age that we never saw Ford play the character. It isn’t like Ehrenreich is replacing Ford but instead playing Han at a young age much like River Phoenix played a young Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

When Han, Chewie and Beckett arrive on infamous crime boss Dryden Vos’ (Paul Bettany) “yacht,” Ehrenreich does some of his best work with low-key comedy as Han tries to follow Beckett’s advice only to quickly abandon it. He’s told to keep his eyes down and not look at anyone. For a few seconds he does and the actor’s slightly embarrassed look is amusing. This quickly gives way to a romantic vibe when he’s reunited with Qi’ra and Ehrenreich does an excellent job of showing the rush of emotions that play over Han’s face. This entire sequence shows Han clearly out of his depth and trying to convey a confident front. The humor comes from the brief moments where we get glimpses of cracks in this façade.

Han even comes up with an unconventional solution to the coaxium they need to get for Dryden or risk facing his wrath. The young man is bullshitting his way through the plan as fast as he can. Fortunately, Beckett and Qi’ra catch on the help flesh it out. The best moment comes when Han proposes that he’ll fly the coaxium to a refinery before it destabilizes: “We’ve already got the pilot.” Ehrenreich points to himself and flashes Han’s trademark cocky smirk. This is the moment that Han starts to become the character we all know and love. The rest of the movie sees the actor build the character of Han bit by bit, like when he first boards the Falcon and begins to adopt Han’s trademark stance, even the way Ford would lean against a doorway. These are little gestures but they all go towards building the character up.

Another inspired bit of casting is Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian, a smooth operator that knows how to invent his own luck, especially when it comes to games of chance. We meet him plying his trade: fleecing people of their money in a card game known as Sabacc. Glover exudes a cool sense of style and a confidence that is fun to watch, as is the amusing interplay with Han, most notably when they verbally spar while playing cards. Here are two arrogant smugglers facing off against each other for increasingly higher stakes. Glover is funny as Lando treats Han with whimsical condescension, much to Han’s chagrin, but his cockiness is put in check when Beckett steps in to negotiate his percentage of the take from an upcoming score.

Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan’s screenplay invokes A New Hope and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) by paying homage to its roots – the old serials from a bygone era. Solo is structured as a series of cliffhangers as our heroes go from one sticky situation to another. The elder Kasdan slips right back into Han and Lando’s familiar cadences with ease, crafting a space western complete with chases, shoot-outs and showdowns.

The script also includes several character building moments between action sequences, like when Han and Chewie tell Beckett and his crew what they are going to do with their share from the loot in an upcoming score. It gives us insight into what motivates them. They’re not just mercenaries like Beckett and his crew. Han and Chewie have personal goals – the former wants to buy his own ship and go back for Qi’ra while the latter wants to free his people that have been enslaved by the Empire.

This is not to say that Solo doesn’t have its action-packed set pieces. The movie’s centerpiece is a thrilling train heist as Han, Chewie, Beckett and his crew attempt to steal a shipment of coaxium, a valuable commodity, from the Empire while also trying to fend off a gang of pirates led by the mysterious Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman). There are plenty of tense moments as our heroes have to deal with multiple opponents whilst atop a very volatile and valuable shipment. This is the first time Han plays a pivotal role in something and he almost succeeds. He’s faced with a dilemma that forces him to take a risk or play it safe and he opts for the latter. It is an important lesson and from that point on he fully commits to being a risk-taking smuggler like Beckett who tells him, “You’re in this life for good.”

“You want to know how I’ve survived as long as I have? I trust no one. Assume every one will betray you and you will never be disappointed,” says Beckett to Han halfway through Solo. The young man replies, “Sounds like a lonely way to live.” The veteran outlaw simply tells him, “It’s the only way.” This exchange lays the down the foundation for the Han we first meet in A New Hope – a cynical smuggler that is out for only one person – himself. There’s an argument to be made that this movie is completely unnecessary and demystifies the iconic character. I understand this sentiment as I was initially resistant to this movie and the whole idea of it. Solo only sheds some light on the character of Han. There is still plenty of mystery to the character, like how does he go from this movie to what we see in A New Hope? What exactly went down between him and Jabba? Did he ever cross paths with Qi’ra again? What is Lando’s backstory? Or Chewie’s? We are only given small pieces of their story. There are so many adventures he and Chewie had between this movie and A New Hope that leaves plenty of gaps for us to use or imagination, especially since the disappointing box office results all but assures there won’t be a sequel anytime soon. Solo creates such a rich, textured world and introduces so many fascinating character that there are even more questions left unanswered about Han and his future.

I find myself enjoying these anthology movies more than the actual chapter movies. It might be that Rogue One and Solo don’t have to be too slavish to the style, tone and structure of the saga movies and this gives them the freedom to be their own thing. They also both explore the nooks and crannies of the Star Wars universe, showing us worlds we’ve never seen before and introducing us to all kinds of new characters we’ve never met. I have fond memories of reading the trilogy of Han Solo Adventures novels that came out in the late 1970s and they made me daydream about all kinds of adventures that Han and Chewie had pre-A New Hope. It was great to finally see a movie that realized those dreams and brought them so vividly to life.