Thursday, June 14, 2018

Movie Review—Solo

Solo: A Star Wars Story
A group of people standing in a row, in the middle stands Han Solo pointing his blaster. The background is divided into blocks resembling a cockpit window.

by Peter J. O'Connell                                                                                                      

Solo. Runtime: 135 mins. Released: May 2018. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence.

Solo stands alone. This movie, with Ron Howard credited as director, is considered a “Story in the Stars Wars Anthology,” not an “Episode in the Star Wars Saga.” As such, it has some characters, settings, and situations from the Saga, but is essentially an independent work, free (mercifully), for example, from the magical, mystical mumbo-jumbo about the Force, etc., that shapes the Saga.

What Solo has is Han, Han Solo, that is, the insouciant rogue introduced in the very first Star Wars movie long, long ago in 1977, now known as Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope. Han was played, memorably, by Harrison Ford then. Now Alden Ehrenreich is the dashing pilot in a film that provides backstory for Han.

That story proceeds in segments. The first is a kind of sci-fi Dickensian one. As the opening scroll puts it: “It is a lawless time. Crime Syndicates compete for resources—food, medicine, and hyperfuel. On the shipbuilding planet Corellia, the foul Lady Proxima forces runaways into a life of crime in exchange for shelter and protection. On these mean streets, a young man fights for survival, but yearns to fly away among the stars . . . . “ The young man is Han, and his girlfriend is Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke). Together they attempt to flee Corellia, but only Han succeeds. He vows to return for Qi'ra.

The next segment is set in the military. Han made it into the Imperial Flight Academy but was expelled for insubordination. Now he fights as an infantryman in a World War I-type of setting. Eventually, after first clashing with them, he links up with a gang of criminals posing as Imperial soldiers led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and a Wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotomo). 

The third segment depicts an attempted heist. Beckett and his gang and Han and Chewie seek to gain control of a speeding train carrying hyperfuel high in the snowclad mountains of the planet Vandor. The sequence is one of the most exciting and spectacular in the whole Star Wars cinematic universe. Acting, stunt work, traditional special effects, and computer-generated imagery all work together brilliantly.  

The heist attempt fails, and the fourth and longest segment of the film begins. It is a kind of gangster tale and opens with a cocktail party on the yacht of Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), a high-ranking boss in the Crimson Dawn syndicate. The atmosphere of this opening is somewhat reminiscent of that in fancy parties from 1940s noir films, though the guests are all types of creatures. 

Among the guests is Qi'ra, who has joined Crimson Dawn and become Vos' top lieutenant. This is her way of escaping the “mean streets” (hat tip to Martin Scorsese) mentioned in that scroll at the beginning of the first segment. To make up for the failure of the train heist, Han suggests a risky plan to steal hyperfuel from a distant planet. Vos has Qi'ra accompany Han and Beckett and their team. Oi'ra leads them to Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), a smuggler with a ship named Millennium Falcon, which Han covets. 

Various adventures follow, including, of course, ones that show the piloting skills of Han. Twists and turns abound and are well summarized in Beckett's saying: “Let me give you some advice. Assume everyone will betray you. And you will not be disappointed.” 

Solo is an entertaining, though not enthralling, film. There is a certain “check off the box” quality to it with an eye to the 1977 classic—Han meets Chewie (check); Han plays cards with Lando (check); etc. Alden Ehrenreich has shown himself to be a fine actor in Hail, Caesar! and other films, but he lacks the panache of Harrison Ford. Part of that is due to the fact that Hollywood's current desire to be seen as promoting female empowerment often renders Han an observer of female humans, space aliens, even robots kicking ass rather than doing it himself. Donald Glover is a sly Lando Calrissian, but Paul Bettany as Dryden Vos is more a collection of personal tics than the embodiment of evil. And Woody Harrelson as Beckett is solid but, somewhat surprisingly, doesn't really add the kind of “just enough over the top” quality that he usually provides to movies.   

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