Solo: A Star Wars Story review

This is the review I did of Solo for my Patreon, which I wrote back in June when the movie hit theatres. For more reviews like this, please support my Patreon — to get the regular movie reviews, it’s only $1/month.

solo

The biggest problem with Solo: A Star Wars Story is that the title character is the least interesting person in it.

Given that Han Solo was, up until now, the most popular character in the Star Wars franchise, this is kind of a problem.

First off, let me say up front that I enjoyed myself at this movie. It’s a fun little heist movie, albeit one with too many car chases and blaster battles and too little actual heisting. (Tellingly, the two best sequences in the entire movie are the actual heists.) The visuals are superb, the acting is mostly first-rate, the pacing is good, and we get some superlative characterizations of many of the folks in the movie, some of them with very little screen time.

There are a number of show-stealing performances in this from the supporting cast, starting with Woody Harrelson as Beckett, who is fantastic. Harrelson has aged nicely into the scrappy-redneck-middle-aged-dude-who’s-seen-it-all type, and his Beckett is exactly that role, and he nails it. You know what’s going to happen to him, because his character is that much of a stereotype, but Harrelson makes it work with his floppy hair and innate charisma.

Emilia Clarke does some superb work here, as her Qi’ra in the opening sequence is young and hopeful and in love with Han, and when we next see her at Dryden Vos’s party, it’s blindingly obvious to everyone (except Han, of course) that she’s not that person anymore. The tragedy of her life is etched on her every facial expression, and while the idealistic young person comes out periodically during the Kessel run, she’s still very obviously trapped. After all, the tattoo on her wrist isn’t Dryden’s, it’s Crimson Dawn’s, and her killing Dryden doesn’t change her enforced loyalty. She’s called a lieutenant, but the body language between her and Dryden makes it clear that she’s his slave—but, as we’re reminded repeatedly, Dryden has people he reports to, also. Dryden is in charge of his fiefdom, but he’s as beholden to Darth Maul (which was a great reveal, by the way, and ties in nicely to the Clone Wars TV series) as Qi’ra is to Dryden. The ending just shuffles Qi’ra a little higher on the slave food chain, but she’s still a slave. Clarke subtly and magnificently plays the character’s tragedy.

Speaking of which, Paul Bettany, like Harrelson, does a remarkable job of taking a character who’s a big honking stereotype and making it work. In this case, it’s entirely due to his honeyed voice and physical charisma.

Much has been said about Donald Glover’s amazing Lando Calrissian, and I will only add to the praise, as he’s magnificent. I’m 100% convinced that this is a younger version of the guy we met in The Empire Strikes Back, and Glover imbues him with tremendous charm and verve and wit and roguish charisma. So many great bits, from his negotiating with Beckett to his shock at realizing Han has figured out how he cheats at cards to his devastation at L3-37’s demise to his dictating his likely very exaggerated memoirs.

Speaking of L3, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has the biggest theft in this movie, and L3 is an absolute delight. Her droids’ rights crusade is beautifully played, and it’s way past time we had a droid in the SWuniverse that identified as female. Her death is also a massive tragedy, as it’s obvious that Lando cares for her more than any of the organics he knows (except maybe his mother). Her snarky commentary on the proceedings is greatly missed after Kessel, but of course, she needed at the very least to be damaged in order for us to eventually get Han and Chewie in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. But the best moment in the film is when she frees one droid and it starts a cascade effect of droids rebelling, which also leads to the mine slaves rebelling, and the pure chaos it unleashes, allowing the gang to steal what they need.

Beckett’s other cohorts, who are killed during the train heist, are also excellent. Val, as played by Thandie Newton, is brilliantly competent, and it’s telling that she dies entirely on her own terms. Rio not so much, but Jon Favreau imbued him with a full personality, making his death all the more frustrating.

All the above do an amazing job of stealing the show, and that’s both the movie’s greatest joy and its greatest flaw, because the two leads make that theft ridiculously easy.

First off, while Joonas Suotamo is better here than he was in The Last Jedi, he’s still a pale imitation of his predecessor. Peter Mayhew did such a superb job of imbuing Chewbacca with emotion and personality, and Suotamo just isn’t there yet. The improvement since last year’s film is good to see, but it’s frustrating to get only about 60% of the Chewbacca we should be getting.

And the biggest issue is what I said in the first paragraph: Alden Ehrenreich’s young Han Solo just isn’t that interesting.

Only part of that is Ehrenreich’s fault. Where Glover had me completely convinced that he would age into Billy Dee Williams, I never quite got that same vibe from Ehrenreich, that he would age into Harrison Ford. (I did get the vibe that he might age into Karl Urban.) He has the Han Solo smile and the Han Solo arrogance, but not quite the Han Solo personality. It’s probably never more evident than in the line where he talks about the landing gear maneuver he learned from a friend, who died while doing it. Harrison Ford would’ve nailed that line, but Ehrenreich’s delivery simply did not, er, land. (Sorry…)

But the script doesn’t do him any favors, either. We don’t get nearly enough of an impression of Han’s life on Correllia because the movie is far more interested in showing us a spectacularly uninteresting land speeder chase instead. It’s not the most boring “car” chase in a Star Wars film, as that place of dishonor is still held by the early scenes of Attack of the Clones, but it’s right down there. And that was time that could’ve been spent actually showing what Han is supposed to be escaping, and why he wants to go. Instead, we get lots of people telling us how bad Correllia is, and also a car chase that has me bored before we’re ten minutes into the movie.

There are so many other, more interesting movies that Solo hints at. The heist movie with Beckett, Val, and Rio. Qi’ra’s story of how she got off Correllia. Lando and L3’s adventures together. Lando and his Mom’s adventures together. Hell, anything with Glover’s Lando.

Having said all that, Solo is fun. The train heist is a truly spectacular bit of filmmaking, and honestly the movie’s worth seeing in theatres just for that scene. There are some truly fine characters inhabiting this film.

And I should give credit to one thing: I totally buy the first meeting of Han and Chewie and their friendship as it develops across the movie. That’s the one element of these two characters that both the script and Ehrenreich and Suotamo get completely right.

Best of all, though, is that this movie does what Disney has generally done since taking over the SW franchise, and that’s show what life is like for actual real people in the galaxy far, far away. The first six films were all concerned with Big Events and Major Happenings and Heroes of Destiny. But The Force Awakens and especially Rogue One, The Last Jedi, and Solo give us a universe of people and consequences and what happens to the normal person growing up on these worlds and facing a horrible life. One of the fascinating things about the SW universe generally, which George Lucas doesn’t get much credit for, is that it’s one that reflects the history of humanity in that most of these characters are people who are not educated, illiterate, and enslaved. The first two are more subtle (though my friend Ryan Britt examined it in depth in the title essay of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths), but the latter is front and center. It’s a good reminder that the notion of literacy for anyone other than the upper classes and the notion that slavery is bad are both, historically speaking, very recent developments. For most of the history of civilization, most people couldn’t read and slavery was a commonplace practice. And in the SW universe that’s still the case, and this movie does a very good job of showing just how awful life is for most people.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is the most flawed of the films that Disney has put out since taking over the franchise, and that’s no doubt partly due to the tumultuous process by which it was created (with original directors Phil Lord & Christopher Miller being replaced by Ron Howard, who reshot about 80% of it). But it’s still tremendous fun, with a plethora of Easter eggs for SW fans (and also for fans of the Indiana Jones movies), from “I hate you” “I know” to “I have a good feeling about this” to why C3PO thought the Millennium Falcon had a weird computer in Empire to the presence of a crystal skull and a golden idol in Dryden’s office to the Imperial Death March playing in the background of the empire’s recruiting video, etc. etc. etc.

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