“I have a good feeling about this”, Alden Ehrenrich’s young Solo insists to his newly befriended Wookie co-pilot. After the troubled production history of this latest anthology entry of the Star Wars franchise and its somewhat muted pre-release publicity, I was more than willing to share this sentiment. While existing on the edges of what is now being termed ‘Star Wars fatigue’, I was still ready to embrace the apparent frolicking fun of what was advertised as a kind of return to the Saturday-morning adventure serials that inspired the original Star Wars. However, director Ron Howard’s Solo is a depressingly muddled affair; a caper that aims for both wit and grit, but with little to ground it. Uncharacteristic to its eponymous antihero’s aim, Solo is an unfortunate misfire.
Beginning in quick-witted haggling and breathless chase, Han and his lover Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) are set to escape the smoky industrialised underbelly of the planet Corellia. When this break for freedom ends in disaster, Han enlists in the Imperial Army desperate to earn his fortune and acquire a ship. After a three-year stint that ends in the muddy trenches of an Imperial outpost, Han joins the ranks of a small-time heist crew, begrudging allowed by its leader Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). Partnered by fate with a certain hairy friend (Joonas Suotamo, taking over once again from Peter Mayhew), Han descends into the high stakes, dangerous underworld occupied by a variety of duplicitous denizens, with new and familiar faces . “Come with us, you’ll be in this life for good” Beckett tells Han and it soon becomes clear that the aspiring smuggler is not looking back.
Considering the production controversies and rumours that has haunted Solo, Howard and veteran Star Wars writer Lawrence Kasdan and Jonathan Kasdan deliver an entertaining, if predictable, adventure that fortunately isn’t heavy on gratuitous cameos (though perhaps one) nor dwells too nostalgically on the classic Star Wars iconography and set-pieces (a noticeable, perhaps inevitable, trend since Disney’s acquisition). While struggling to get this film off the ground in its first act, Howard takes us assuredly into the fast-paced and thrilling action set-pieces, akin to Mission: Impossible or even Guardians of the Galaxy. Moments capture some of the excitement of Empire Strikes Back, as a gleaming new Millennium Falcon loops wildly through a space maelstrom, past attacking Imperial ships and dares to traverse the spectacular, if unsettling, unknowns of space. To say there is no fun to be had in Solo would be to deceive- there’s enough amusing wit and thrilling action to rise above the foreseeable plotting and Bradford Young’s often dank cinematography. Its the grittiness in this vision of the galaxy that jars as the backdrop to this marauding romp. While the foreground offers a lighter, funner space adventure, the background takes up the imagery of police-states, war trenches and enslavement mines. On the other hand, is Howard not reaching for the (Spaghetti) Western as he lingers the camera waist-height on Solo’s pistol during a potential desert showdown? ‘The American Civil War Wasn’t Hell, It was Practice’ for our anti-heroes in Sergio Leone’s famous The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and the same could be said for the reprobates who navigate around violent crime-lords, emerging rebellions and a fascistic empire. Its a refreshingly different vantage of the galaxy we know, far from the grandiose ‘ground-zero’ events in Edwards’ Rogue One.
Filling Harrison Ford’s grumbly charismatic boots is no easy feat and Ehrenrich does it admirably. While a little strained in the opening, he confidently captures the cocky attitude of the rogue, without being a direct imitation. “It’s fine” he repeats slyly, his face tilted up with an almost a permanent smirk plastered on, subtlety including Ford’s mannerisms and snappy asides as the film progresses. His repartee between Chewie and rival Lando (Donald Glover) really works, delivering some of Solo’s best exchanges of dialogue, whether over a high-stakes game of sabacc or in the midst of a precarious train-heist. Glover gives a very convincing impersonation of Billy Dee Williams, with his purring dipping in and out of Glover’s delivery. Harrelson, Newton, amongst an assorted cast, flesh out (sometimes through David Crossman and Glyn Dillon’s lovingly unusual alien prosthetics) the desperate, grizzled lives in the galaxy’s underbelly but have so little to do here beyond the cliches, unfortunately. “Trust no-one” Beckett advises Solo,“You never know when they’ll betray you”. When Han does get double-crossed (more than once, of course) it comes as just a formality.
Significantly, the Kasdans don’t provide us with any further insight into the cynical rogue, instead foregoing a character arc to show how he acquired his set of iconic attributes. In almost check-list like fashion, we come to witness how he got the friendship, the gun, the rivalry, the ship, etc. This is typically accompanied, almost farcically so, when John Powell’s otherwise uninteresting score breaks into John Williams’ classic themes- declaring that a box has been firmly ticked. Perhaps this collection of ‘effects’ (vis-a-vis Depp’s Jack Sparrow) was all there was to the original character and you certainly won’t be getting any development here. Much else lands flat or is just bizarre. Emilia Clarke turns in another bland performance for a blockbuster franchise, having none of the charm or fierceness of former female lead Carrie Fisher. Unfortunately, she and Ehrenrich appear to lack the chemistry required to make their relationship convincing. The latest droid counterpart, L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), is probably the most confusing addition. While droid-oppression and prejudice has been an unexplored area in Star Wars, it is very uncertain whether this character is a parody of Disney’s loudly publicised commitments to diversity or of right-wingers’ bête noire – the ‘Social Justice Warriors’? Her odd comment is quite amusing (at times she takes the sarcastic tone of Hitchhiker’s depressive android Marvin) but this becomes tedious quickly.
To use another hackneyed phrase, Solo is much less than the sum of its parts. Like its burgeoning hero, its storytelling, acting and tone swaggers in an unconfident way that sometimes hits the mark in excitement and amusement, but more often than not is strained and overcompensating. As you might tell, I have mixed feelings about this.