Solo: A Star Wars Story

***

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Solo: A Star Wars Story
"Solo is an exercise in retroactive continuity, and its ability to create peril is itself imperilled by what we know to follow after." | Photo: 2018 Lucasfilm. All rights reserved

We will have been here before.

The opening is that familiar blue, that familiar black, those familiar words: A Long Time Ago, and so on. Yet what follows is not a crawl - text with capitals, mention of Lady Proxima, of fuel, of heists, a succession of facts. A presentation of information that recalled Blade Runners foundational, final cut, and 2049. There's a hovering car, but this is Star Wars. We move not to the skies of Los Angeles, but those of Corellia, camera panning such that there's a ship overhead, the half-built silhouette of an Imperial Star Destroyer, space beyond lost in the clouds.

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No stars visible, at least initially. We'll get our Woody Harrelson and Warwick Davies and Linda Hunt, but we're first with Alden Ehrenreich. It's hard to mention Blade Runner without talking about production difficulties, and Solo will likely ever and always be associated with similar travails. Film-making is a messy business, and business (as the Godfather tells us) is impersonal. Ehrenreich's feature d├ębut was in another Coppola picture, Tetro, and it might be this personnel parallel that brings him closest to Harrison Ford. It's a hard pair of shoes to fill. Harder still because those shoes have been resoled, reconfigured, retied, retired.

Solo is an exercise in retroactive continuity, and its ability to create peril is itself imperilled by what we know to follow after. It's a credible heist movie, with cross and double-cross, but it's less successful in snatching its prize than its protagonists, and those don't go as smoothly as they'd hope either.

Star Wars is a feeling. It's a pinch of this, a bit of that, connections between things, a constant creative tension. It's hard to create that tension when you know what's going to happen, or what's not. Star Wars works best when it implies, when it suggests, when artifacts of stories untold are written in texture and reference and costume. Solo suffers from the same problems as the old Expanded Universe, what new forays into canonicity would variously have been marked with levels of truth, a graduated scale of certain points of view. That creative tension is a product of compromise, and most often collaboration. We knew in Mos Eisley that Han must have met Chewbacca, that he must have acquired the Millennium Falcon, the DL-44, the dice that hung in the cockpit that have been variously pipped before they bore numbers in Aurebesh or some other invented script.

It's just not certain that we needed to know how. This is the fourth year in a row that I've seen a screening of a new Star Wars film on opening night, each of them with work the next day, but this is the first of those four where the cinema was not full. Not just not full, but scarcely occupied - I counted 25 folk. I don't know if it's fatigue, that the trailers didn't grab, that promotion has been seemingly minimal, that cinemas went big without or that folk felt burned by The Last Jedi's commitment to advancing story through invention rather than slavish homage. I had noted that the trailers I saw before Infinity War and Deadpool 2 were not about the film but about Lando and the Falcon - that didn't seem a sign of confidence and it's unfortunately clear why.

Solo justifies things that didn't need to be justified, serves a story that we now tell that is now called Episode IV but at the time was just Star Wars. It puts flesh, arms, legs, tentacles on cantina nonsense that was already prompt for three reactions - Ben Kenobi thought it the improbable braggadocio of a scoundrel circumstance had made him dependent upon, young Luke Skywalker thought it a stunning boast from a dashing star captain, and 41 years of nerdlingers and nerf-herders thought about how it could be made true. This is another version of that story, among others, but in attempting to tap once more into that well there's a sense that it's running dry.

Rogue One worked because it was ancillary - it borrowed from more than enough places in enough improbable combinations to feel like Star Wars, and it created characters we cared about and stakes that mattered and had the freedom of continuity to create significant peril. Solo too gives us a new type of TIE Fighter, a few new planets, a villain prone to shouting. Though it draws on the apocrypha of Star Wars too, Solo is so beholden to what we know from before will come after that it suffers from the same traps as the prequel trilogy.

There are some great moments - a thermal detonator, a crime boss of improbable proportions, acts of rebellion and resistance. There are some neat references - amongst the names dropped are all manner of scum and villains, there's a lovely bit of homage to that implicature through comparison that is at the heart of Star Wars for me, and those with keen eyes (and keen ears) will spot and hear characters from across the span of the trilogies and the stories. Those stories become more important because at least one of the major reveals at the denouement will make sense to those who've seen Rebels and less sense if you've not. Solo borrows (like Rebels) from McQuarrie concept art, manages to give a good accounting of itself, but book-keeping and finance are probably better watch-words for it than story.

We know too many outcomes for some scenes to have tension. Likeable as newly introduced characters are, their fates are already written (sometimes literally). There are women, who rarely talk to each other, there are uncomfortable attempts at seeming humour through politics (sexual, slavery, sentient rights, suffrage), and there's sabaac - when Casino Royale replaced Baccarat with Texas Hold'em it at least explained the rules. Solo has a trick or two up its sleeve, but these aren't enough to cover for where it's otherwise lacking.

It can't be read alone - it's impossible to ignore the changes behind the camera, I'd hoped that Ron Howard would give us something that felt like American Graffiti but this never quite manages to be a hot-rod picture, never has the sense of an easy before with a dangerous after. There's an homage to the improvisatory antics of Apollo 13, and Clint Howard appears too, but he's not a splashy director. Lawrence Kasdan (and his son Jonathan) script, and though they've got Lando down it seems almost impossible for Han to live up to expectations. There are some bits that feel like they're first drafts at something Star Wars, knuckle-duster vibro-haladie feel like they're one too many, too busy. John Powell's music is well used, but from an appearance in an Imperial recruiting ad and providing a theme for Han it seems in this movie it is John Williams who succeeds at getting a payoff for one last score.

This is going to be divisive. I enjoyed it. Others won't. Audiences don't seem excited to see it, and it's hard to blame them. It's worth seeing for Donald Glover's performance alone, but it's a struggle to determine how to forewarn you about things you have already been forewarned about without spoiling the surprises Solo is allowed in its limited space for invention. I'll mention Blade Runner again because of the way dialogue is sometimes presented almost as voice-over, that some of the most human struggles are from those who are ostensibly explicitly identified as other. There's also the sense that this is something that's been revisited, that's got a sense of a time and place projected from a particular time in place. A vector, not a distance. There are art deco yachts and a moment that could have been in Rick's, there are trenchant observations on the costs of colonial ambition and the ways in which autocracy become entrenched, but these good moments are of clarity in muddy circumstances. We already know which way this story is flowing, and while it's pleasant enough to be carried along, it's all too often downhill.

It's frequently said that art flourishes within constraint, but even as the Falcon jumps to hyperspace this is more akin to a joining of dots.

Reviewed on: 24 May 2018
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Solo: A Star Wars Story packshot
Through a series of daring escapades deep within a dark and dangerous criminal underworld, Han Solo meets his mighty future copilot Chewbacca and encounters the notorious gambler Lando Calrissian.
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Director: Ron Howard

Writer: Lawrence Kasdan, based on characters created by George Lucas

Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Thandie Newton, Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, Paul Bettany

Year: 2018

Runtime: 135 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

Festivals:

Cannes 2018

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