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With a whole host of behind the scene wobbles trailing behind its release, SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY finally arrives. I imagine that visitors to this site are as interested in Disney nostalgia cash cows as they are contracting piles but, hey. Camus straps on his blaster.
 
  “But it didn’t take long before I fell in love with the story and this cast and the crew that was making the movie and it became very personal to me. So I’d say within a week it was no longer a creative exercise, it was a great movie story that I was fully invested in creatively. It was interesting to see what that was like. But I certainly inherited good work that had been done and good ideas which I was really grateful to have.”
  Director, Ron Howard expertly toeing a corporate line*

 

Apologies. That cynical interpretation of Ron Howard's interview quote may be truly off the mark. Cake – have – eat. If Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones' Daeneyrs) on the Graham Norton Show is anything to go by, then of course Howard's going to fall in love. Movie sets (and I have had a little experience of this) are cauldrons and crucibles of the extremes of human emotion. This seems apt given that the industry is devoted to evoking them. Everything seems so much more life and death on a movie than things ever do in an office worrying about quotas and profit margins. Howard works in an industry whose primary engine runs on the appearance of good will and surface bonhomie. It also slaves itself to granting power to those who have enjoyed past success as if there is any correlation between directorial achievement and audience response. Cheat Sheet Factoid; there isn't. Some movies connect with audiences. Some movies don't. The filmmakers have precious little to do with that. If any human agency does, it may be the marketing department. I mean Star Wars: The Last Jedi bombed in China. No one knew who Luke was because the original trilogy was not as impactful in China as it was in the rest of the world. As he took over the project ousting directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Howard inherited a tough gig, a $250 million movie a few weeks from completion of principal photography and with baggage attached that would frighten off a Rancor. The original directors, according to varied reports, went off script and encouraged improvisation, both aspects of production not looked on too kindly by writers Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan. It was probably producer Kathleen Kennedy who pulled the plug on The Lego Movie duo. Hiring Ron Howard was a statement of sorts – safe hands, popular, bruised after the domestic underperformance of Inferno and unused to not satisfying his backers. But art (if indeed Star Wars spin offs can be regarded as such) doesn't play well with ‘safe'. Howard has delivered a serviceable heist drama with good action scenes and a few satisfying narrative twists along the way. He's also made the backstory of a fairly two-dimensional character in the first place about as vanilla as is humanly possible. It's safe in a way that no film should be. Almost all of its edges are filed down and all of its surprises dulled by weight of expectation and fandom conjecture. If Han Solo started a sexual relationship with Chewbacca, yes, several points out of ten for originality but the studio would be rightly nervous. I suspect Lord and Miller never went that far. Although I do recall Harrison Ford, questioned by ITV's Clapperboard host Chris Kelly in the 80s, saying that Raiders of the Lost Ark was about sex with camels. I may be misremembering that. Not so sure I am though.

Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo and Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca

And is it just me but have the Kasdans taken Joss Whedon's Firefly's first televised episode – The Train Job – and just chucked a quarter of a billion dollars at it? The plot is achingly similar as well as the moral decisions taken by the lead character. Joss must be a little suspicious. And there's a train. OK, now I get the visual splendour of a train and its inherent drama (people on top always in peril etc.) but this is the Star Wars universe. When the bad guys can afford a ship to fly about in, why can't the shipping company? The train is about as anachronistic as it gets – and pedants, no reminding me that the film is set in the past, a long time ago. Am I nit-picking? You want a synopsis? No, you don't. Oh, for... Boy and girl, Han and Qi'ra want a life beyond the scummy thieving for a Fagin-centipede character on planet Corellia so they steal a hover car and bribe an Empire passport controller for passage off-world ("the chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure...") She gets caught, he vows to become a pilot and come back for her. Solo has a stint in the Empire army and falls in with Wookie Chewbacca and a gang of thieves (Serenity's Malcolm Reynolds by any other name, take a bow). A botched job results in another one set up to placate the bad guy and stay their executions.

There's nothing to complain about, acting-wise. Emilia Clarke shines as the Han-struck girl who morphs into a strong willed woman with secrets of her own. Woody Harrleson (in the Malcolm Reynolds role of the leader of a band of thieves) is reliably strong as Becket. Paul Bettany gives good moustache twirl as the nominated nasty, Dryden Vos. Thandie Newton's Val injects some much needed cynicism into the proceedings (she may be the only character in the film with edges). And the Lando Calrissian backstory is faithfully (and somewhat by the numbers) retold with Donald Glover as the owner of the Millennium Falcon oozing charisma. He definitely gets the oddest moment of what is a fairly standard shoot-'em-up. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, sounding a lot like Gwen Christie, gives us L3, a droid with Received Pronunciation and a rebellious attitude. When she is injured, Glover has been directed to act as if she were a lover not a droid. It's probably the most interesting scene (so many questions!) for all the wrong reasons. My face scrunched up wondering why I was watching a man keening for a machine. Inappropriate wasn't the word. And then of course, there's Alden Ehrenreich as Han. The movie kind of rests on his shoulders somewhat. With the 70s sideburns, his smirk of a grin and a physical swagger, Ehrenreich just about manages to channel Harrison Ford but makes the younger version stand out enough to differentiate himself. But it's the whole movie that needs to do this and the entire enterprise never breaks through enough to proclaim its originality, its membership in the Star Wars universe in the same way that Rogue One did and heavens, even the fan-maligned The Last Jedi. At least Rian Johnson took some chances and the Lucasfilm and Disney brass went along with them. Solo may not be ordinary bit it sure feels that way. Perhaps we've been overfed the caviar.

Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian

A quarter of a billion dollar budget (never mind the marketing) and no one could afford a fill light? The colour palette on this film goes from black to white with one or two browns in between but it's so uniformly washed out. The contrast has been dialled down so much it's actually off-putting. I kept whispering to the screen, "Fill light, fill light..." Everything looked so uniformly bland. Cinematographer Bradford Young shot Arrival for Christ's sake. Could he have been directed to light Solo in this way? It seems a bizarre decision. Technically all the effects are top of the range (do we really have to say that anymore?) but John Powell's score hardly registers. All movie scores these days are competing and mostly losing to a plethora of sound effects and ‘sound design'. Powell's work on the Bourne trilogy is some of the best action movie music out there. But I'd have to listen to it stand alone to appreciate what I'm sure are its subtleties and driving rhythms. Hang on... iTunes preview all. It's very brassy but also there's no really discernable Han theme, something the original trilogy managed with aplomb. In fact, there is an advertisement for the Empire in the movie at the station Han and Qi'ra attempt to escape from. Powell has slightly re-orchestrated William's glorious Imperial March and it's hilarious. The subtext is "Wanna be a Nazi? Sign up now!"

There is a moment late in the film that fulfils the promise of who this character had the potential to be from his first appearance in the original Star Wars. It's also a sly middle finger to George Lucas and his tampering of a key scene in the original. And I have to say it was the only real surprise in an earnest and terribly careful film guaranteed to offend no one. Disney has started signing its product.

 


* http://emanuellevy.com/review/featured-review/cannes-film-fest-2018-solo-star-wars-story-interview-with-director-ron-howard/

Solo: A Star Wars Story poster
Solo: A Star Wars Story

USA 2018
135 mins
directed by
Ron Howard
produced by
Simon Emanuel
Kathleen Kennedy
Allison Shearmur
written by
Jonathan Kasdan
Lawrence Kasdan
based on characters created by
George Lucas
cinematography
Bradford Young
editing
Pietro Scalia
music
John Powell
production design
Neil Lamont
starring
Alden Ehrenreich
Joonas Suotamo
Woody Harrelson
Emilia Clarke
Donald Glover
Thandie Newton
Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Paul Bettany
Jon Favreau
Erin Kellyman
Linda Hunt

UK distributor
Walt Disney
UK release date
24 May 2018
review posted
25 May 2018

related reviews
Star Wars Part III: Revenge of the Sith
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

See all of Camus' reviews