Saturday, May 26, 2018
Star Wars Watch: Solo - A Star Wars Story (2018)
Format: Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter
What a time to be alive that we've had two Star Wars films in the past seven months or so. I'm serious. Before everyone complains that there's too much Star Wars (something I'll entertain, but...), if you'd told me in high school that one day we'd have a new ongoing saga plus movies acting as prequels coming out on a regular basis and frequency better than every 3 years, I would have lost my damn mind. I know I made this same argument with Infinity War, but... it's an incredible era of movie making and attending for us Gen-X'ers who grew up mostly on scraps when it came to genre movies, with only the occasional full banquet for a Star Wars, Star Trek or superhero movie (by that I mean the first two Batmans).
That's not to praise every one of these movies that arrive now on a schedule driven by corporate profit-earnings reports more than by actual readiness of the product or final execution. But it's not nothing, and I'll be dipped if I'm going to fold my arms and pretend like I don't have time for a new 2 hour Star Wars movie once every 6-18 months.
But, also, what a time to be alive that in a single 12-month window two of these giant nerd genre movies (Solo and Justice League) experienced massive reshoots under new directors. And, if you believe the stories, so did Rogue One (the auteur theory is dead as a doornail at the big studios).
Now is as good a time as any to mention: I never read any of the Star Wars books or other non-movie material that was meant to fill in the back-story or continue the adventures of our heroes. No comics. Maybe that one Role-Playing Game handbook back in the day. I know the books were supposed to be canon, but even as a kid that never made any sense to me. Why would they want to get hampered in by a work-for-hire writer's novel when they had their own ideas?
I mention this because I do remember the Star Wars section of the science-fiction section at B. Dalton back in the day, even before the Timothy Zahn generation-spanning continuation books. And I absolutely remember Han Solo and Chewbacca novels among them - some of which filled in Han's back story. And I suspect a lot of the word-of-mouth stuff I "knew" about Han and Chewie and the Millennium Falcon came from those books. Maybe. No idea, really. It's been a lot of decades.
Honestly, I was surprised how many of the beats I remembered from those hand-me-down stories appeared in Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018). It can't have hurt that the movie was written by the Kasdans, the senior - Lawrence - having a hand in Star Wars since forever ago. It's possible or likely that the beats presented were in a character bible they'd created, and not wanting to repeat the continuity-exploding mess of Lucas' prequels, Kasdan and Kennedy decided to stick to a sort of shared canon already understood by fans.
This sort of "we're playing it safe" attitude may also inform the mid-production firing of directing team of Phillip Lord and Christopher Miller, most famous for their work on the semi-sleeper-hit The Lego Movie, and subsequent hiring of Ron Howard, who never met a film he couldn't vanilla-up. I won't get too much into the details of the reasons for the firing, but let's just say that those guys had worked mostly in animation and without a ton of supervision, and I don't know that any of that translated well into Kathleen Kennedy's view of things or budget management (it did not. She fired them. Publicly.).
What we get out of Solo: A Star Wars Story is an origin story that provided fan favorites and scenes to match expository comments dropped in the prior films, mixed with a new set of characters, but with a sort of lightweight inevitability about the whole thing and the occasional burst of tonal inconsistency covered up with iffy editing and powered through by an omnipresent score.
Solo isn't a "bad" movie, but it also never surpasses expectations. If Last Jedi's twisting and refracting of Star Wars lore and expectations provided this viewer with food for thought and a sense of genuine excitement, this film seemed to serve to deliver on the promise of how pretty-good those suggested back-story elements mentioned in Empire were (and to actually make them canon before someone else came along and messed with it).
And the movie is pretty fun! Ehrenreich doesn't stray from Ford's Han Solo, but he also isn't doing an impression - and what he does do seems consistent with what we know of Han - of the Han we see as he drops his cool-guy act (if an acting teacher was brought in, it may have been to help keep him in line as a neutral third party - there's no issue with the performance in general). Meeting Chewie and Lando - also it's own brand of enjoyment.
Problematically - the pacing in the first third of the movie is too brisk - things keep happening, a rush of plot points, character introductions and two fairly major characters come and go without much impact, finally settling in as we hit the second act. It is fair to say the movie is a giant character arc for Han - but I'm not sure we don't get short-changed on the other characters in the process. Oddly, Harrelson's "Beckett" feels like a character that should have been in the movie for ten minutes and back out, but he sticks around in half the scenes without much to add. Emilia Clarke's "Qi'ra" is either underwritten or lost on the editing room floor - nearly a blank slate by the end of the movie. And when characters are suddenly introduced in the third act... the movie depends entirely too much on a few lines of exposition to hope we get what they're on about (and maybe that we see parallels here with Rogue One's nascent rebellion).
There's a character cameo in the back half of the movie that I am sure was meant to illicit excitement, but I confess to a sense of dissatisfaction with the choice, more for what it suggests than anything that actually occurs in the film.
The movie mostly does *look* like a Star Wars movie - although, much like the casino scene in Last Jedi, it's always weird to see people just going about their day in the Star Wars universe, as lived in worlds or not. And Paul Bettany's space yacht just feels... like a set. It's kind of a weird space for a Star Wars movie. It just winds up a pedestrian villain's layer when all is said and done, which is a strange thing to see when you consider Snoke's crimson throne room or Vader's bachelor pad in Rogue One.
While the mix of the two approaches to the film and a looming deadline didn't mean this movie wound up as the soupy mess that one could consider Justice League, it does mean we lost something along the way en route to just getting a picture out the door.
Bringing in Ron Howard to the project was surely intended to get the movie back on schedule - he's a workhorse - but it was always also going to mean we were going to end up with as safe a final product as possible. I have no idea what we lost - but the chaos of the Robot Uprising scene does not say "Ron Howard" to me - that feels a whole lot more like Lord & Miller, and was maybe the most thoughtful bit of the movie (and one the editing and music seemed to want to cover up as quickly as possible, L3's joy cut to a line or two).
At least one Loyal Leaguer out there bemoaned the fan-service and box-ticking that they saw in the movie, and, yeah - that's one way to define it. But I'll be honest - that was what the movie was pitched as, so while I would have liked some additional surprises in my movie, nothing about this chafed me as a viewer any more than seeing any Marvel hero's origin shown up on screen has been an issue (granted - we aren't seeing origins as a prequel forty years after the fact... yet). Given the low-grade headache I get trying to reconcile the Prequels with everything stated in the original Trilogy, I'll take a little too much continuity wrangling over Lucas's dismissal of his own dialog.
Is the movie necessary for Star Wars at Disney?
Let's start with: Was anything after Return of the Jedi necessary? I don't know what this question even means, really. Were there plot threads left open in that Epsiode I-III or VII and VIII answered? Did we need to know more about Han Solo before he met Luke and Leia? Did we need to meet Darth Vader before he put on the mask? Did we need to see who died to give Leia the tapes?
As someone who just took a stand on "why is Krypton on TV?" I'm not sure how to measure the criteria. But that does help - if I opined that there's no drama to the action of Krypton (because we know that no matter what, everyone dies), then how much drama is there if we know Chewie and Han's state at the beginning of Star Wars? Sequels are hard enough to do well, but Prequels can't even offer "what happens next to the characters you liked?"
Clearly Disney intends a sequel or two out of Solo - it seems impossible we won't see the operation that got Han in trouble with Jabba (which I assumed this movie would cover, but doesn't), so the further we get into this, the greater the chance for something new and novel in the films. And certainly a chance at additional adventure and excitement.
Frankly, while Solo isn't set to topple my current favorite Star Wars films, I'd welcome a sequel to see what happens when they've ticked off the fan service boxes and get on with a new story - even (or especially) the Jabba smuggling bit.*
So, if you liked the movie - I'm on your side. It's a fun ride with some good elements and sets us up well for another installment. If you hated it - I can probably see your point, to an extent. I'm just not ready to say this was a disappointment of a movie.
*I simply cannot believe that the "life raft" section of the Falcon wasn't deployed to dump the cargo at the first sign of Imperial interference. That shocked me.