Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) **½

     “You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon? She’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.”

     —Han Solo

     Serious question: In all the years since 1977, has anyone really heard that line and immediately thought, “Damn… I wish I was watching a movie about that”? Because the only thing I’ve ever thought in response to the Kessel Run line in Star Wars was, “George Lucas has no idea what a parsec is.” I’ve also never really wondered how Han Solo got into the smuggling business, or fantasized about getting to see the card game whereby he won the Falcon from Lando Calrissian. ‘Cause seriously— watching other people play cards is the only thing more boring than watching other people fish. And I never considered for one second that Solo’s surname needed an explanation. Somebody at Lucasfilm must have believed in a demand for a movie about all those things, however, because here Solo: A Star Wars Story sits, begging for our attention like a street corner busker playing “Psycho Killer” on the accordion. As totally superfluous prequels go, Solo is more or less adequate. I’ll even go so far as to say that there are bits and pieces of the several much better films that it could have been floating through it, and that the movie briefly becomes solidly enjoyable whenever we brush up against one of them.

     Another throwaway line that you might recall from that introductory conversation in the Mos Eisley Cantina concerned the Millennium Falcon’s ability to outrun Imperial cruisers, up to and including “the big Corellian ships.” Solo establishes that Corellia is the planet where the Empire does most of its shipbuilding, including a massive orbital operation to construct its fearsome Star Destroyers. That being the case, it’s somewhat surprising to see what a cesspit of gangsterism and random violence the place is, but evidently the Imperial government is content to let even its most important industrial centers descend into post-apocalyptic squalor just so long as a sufficiently large pool of laborers show up at the shipyards at the start of every shift. One of Corellia’s foulest criminal impresarios is Lady Proxima (a giant onycophoran with the voice of Linda Hunt, from Dune and The Relic), who specializes in making thieves, thugs, and assassins out of orphans and runways. Among Lady Proxima’s young protégés is a lad by the name of Han (Twixt’s Alden Ehrenreich), whom we meet in the midst of a not very successful caper to steal some coaxium (the rare mineral that fuels hyperdrive-capable spacecraft) from one of his patroness’s rivals. Han is planning to double-cross Lady Proxima, however. He intends to keep what little coaxium he is able to escape with from the botched heist for himself, in order to bribe the Imperial migration officials to allow him and his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, of Terminator Genesys and Triassic Attack), off of this infernal planet.

     Han’s scheme comes this close to success, too. Although he gets found out by Lady Proxima, he and Qi’ra are able to escape from her compound and evade her agents long enough to reach the very desk of the emigration control clerk. The latter even accepts their bribe and opens the gate to the spaceport concourse for them. But at just that moment, Proxima’s goons alert the stormtroopers on patrol that someone is trying to go offworld without authorization. At that point, the bribed clerk has no choice but to put her queue on lockdown. The closing of the concourse gate leaves Han on one side and Qi’ra on the other. Before making good his own escape, however, Han vows to return, and to free Qi’ra from her subjugation to Lady Proxima.

     In the meantime, though, Han is going to need a job. What he wants most is to be a pilot (he handles a landspeeder like a boss, and I guess that’s sort of the same thing?), but the only flying outfit that might take a chance on someone with his complete lack of credentials is the Imperial Space Navy. Han (who acquires the name “Solo” in a rather ludicrous manner while signing up) is a poor fit at the academy, and manages to flunk all the way down to the infantry over the ensuing three years— and not even stormtrooper infantry, at that! In a weird way, though, his failure puts him in just the right place at just the right time to get his life back onto a more rewarding track. While doing a conspicuously piss-poor job of conquering another world for the Empire, Solo finds his unit decimated and himself nearly the last man standing under the command of the extremely peculiar Captain Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, from Zombieland and War for the Planet of the Apes). Indeed, Beckett is so peculiar that Han can’t help scrutinizing him and his fellow survivors closely enough to recognize that they’re all impostors. Any criminals with the lunatic moxie to pose as Imperial officers sound to Solo like his kind of people, but Beckett in no way feels the same about him. Fearing exposure, the phony captain denounces Han as a deserter, and orders him thrown to “the beast.” In what is easily Solo’s best moment, “the beast” turns out to be a Wookie by the name of Chewbacca (Joonas Suotarno again), whom the Imperial troops have been using as a sort of budget Rancor. What Beckett doesn’t know is that Han speaks a smattering of Wookie— enough, anyway, to talk Chewbacca out of eating him, and into joining him in an escape attempt. When Beckett sees Han stampeding down the runway toward his pilfered spacecraft, accompanied by the Wookie who was supposed to dispose of him, he decides that there might be something to this Solo kid after all. Besides, he could definitely stand to add some muscle to his gang, and it’s hard to find much better muscle than a Wookie.

     Anyway, Beckett— together with his sharpshooting lover, Val (Thandie Newton, from Interview with the Vampire and Vanishing on 7th Street), and his four-armed pilot, Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau, of John Carter and Deep Impact)— is working what amounts to a more ambitious version of Solo’s final gig for Lady Proxima. Once again, coaxium is the prize, but Beckett and company are out to steal a whole railway car full of the shit! The plan for the heist looks brilliant on paper; however, the whole thing depends critically on timing. At only one point during the execution does the clock do the gang a solid, and by that time, Val and Rio are too dead to appreciate it. Beckett’s crew also faces interference from a rival pirate band led by Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman, but shhh— it’s supposed to be a big surprise that Nest is a girl). Indeed, Nest’s interference proves so effective that Solo (taking over flying duties from the deceased Durant) is forced to abandon the coaxium in order to escape with anybody’s life. If Beckett seems weirdly ungrateful in the aftermath, it’s because he doesn’t see how Han has done him any favors by keeping him alive. As he now explains, he, Val, and Rio hadn’t been in business for themselves. They were working freelance for the Crimson Dawn, the deadliest criminal syndicate in all the galaxy. For Beckett to face Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany, from Legion and The Game of Death), the Crimson Dawn gangster who hired him, empty-handed would be almost as certainly fatal as what Solo got him out of by dropping the cargo. And since that’s Voss’s space yacht looming up over the mountains there, it isn’t as though Tobias will have much opportunity for concocting excuses.

     Imagine the Vegas casino nightclub so exclusive that the Rat Pack themselves have to grovel at the velvet rope along with the rest of the rabble, and you’ll have some idea of the vibe aboard Voss’s ship. Beckett admonishes Han not to talk to anybody he meets while he’s there, but he wasn’t counting on the kid running into Qi’ra. Although she’s unwilling to say just what her role under Voss is, my money’s on some combination of honey-trap assassin and priciest call girl in the universe. Qi’ra clearly enjoys privileged access to the boss, whatever her job description, for she gets to come along when Voss ushers his visitors into his office for a stern talking-to. Odds are the latter would have concluded with a stern shooting-at, were it not for Solo’s ability to bullshit up a plan on the spot. There may be no practicable way for Beckett and his partners to replace the lost goods by raiding known stocks of refined coaxium, but what if they went straight to the source, and robbed the mines on Kessel? Then they could take the raw coaxium to the refinery on Savareen, have it processed, and hand it over to Voss just as if the unfortunate business with Enfys Nest had never happened. The undertaking would require an incredibly fast ship (raw coaxium explodes unless subjected to levels of refrigeration beyond what could realistically be maintained aboard a smuggling vessel), but Qi’ra knows where to find one of those. Another old boyfriend of hers by the name of Lando Calrissian (The Martian’s Donald Glover) has a suped-up freighter called the Millennium Falcon, which can outrace just about anything. Voss is skeptical at first, but the more he considers the proposal, the better he likes it.

     Naturally, Han’s scheme will face a panoply of complications, either unforeseen altogether or knowingly downplayed in his pitch to Voss. The most obvious is the gigantic nebula interposed between Kessel and Savareen. The navigable channel through that nebula is an intricate maze, so that there’s no safe, quick way to get from one planet to the other. Second, and only slightly less obvious, Enfys Nest can be counted on to get wind of the operation and make trouble again. But in the end, the lion’s share of the smugglers’ difficulties are traceable, directly or indirectly, to the working conditions in the mines on Kessel, and on certain crewmembers’ reactions thereto. As in ancient Rome, the overwhelming majority of the digging is done by slaves, including a great many Wookies. Chewbacca, unsurprisingly, has strongly held views on Wookie slavery. But the mine-owners also systematically mistreat their droids, and Lando’s robot copilot, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), has strongly held views about the legal status of her “people” as well. Between the two of them, Chewie and L3 touch off such a riot that the Imperial military gets involved— and that Star Destroyer arrives at the absolute worst possible time, just as the Millennium Falcon is entering the channel through the nebula.

     Both of the “A Star Wars Story” movies released thus far suffered from serious production troubles, culminating in extensive reshoots overseen by a different director than the one who started the film. In Solo’s case, replacement director Ron Howard went back over some 70-80% of the scenes already filmed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, so that what ended up on the screen is effectively an entirely different picture from what the original directors would have delivered. But although Rogue One and Solo faced similar pre-release travails, the latter bears the scars a lot more prominently. It isn’t a bad movie per se— Disney these days is too carefully managed a content factory for its mistakes to have that much personality— but it is a dishearteningly lazy exercise in fanbase-pandering of the shallowest sort. Every allusion to Solo’s past that we’ve seen in four previous Star Wars installments gets hauled out and needlessly belabored, right down to those dashboard dice you can barely see in the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit. Lando’s dialogue is peppered with obscure references to ancient Expanded Universe novels. Minor characters with undeserved fan cults get dialogue shoutouts, too, or are actually shoehorned into the plot in ways that cheapen the major players’ story arcs. Nothing from past canon is permitted to be just a thing that happened once. Even Chewbacca’s losing move at holographic chess is elevated into a recurring weakness of his game. George Lucas made the same mistake (among many, many others) with the prequel trilogy, and here as there, it has the effect of shrinking the film’s universe and calling attention to its artificiality.

     There’s another, more fraught form of fanbase-pandering on display in Solo, too, although the filmmakers don’t fully commit to it. I was happier not knowing this, but it has become abundantly clear since 2015 that Star Wars fandom is a wretched hive of scum and villainy— maybe the worst in all of sci-fi. The first hint came when a small but noxious minority lost their shit over the prospect of a black stormtrooper, and it’s only gotten worse from there. I’m sure most Star Wars fans, even of the tribal persuasion, aren’t Incels, Pepes, Red-Pillers, Info-Warriors, or tiki-torch Nazis, but HOLY SHIT, YOU GUYS!!!! Healthy, sane fan communities don’t chase actresses off of social media for getting icky girl cooties all over their favorite corporate-controlled intellectual property, alright? So against that backdrop, consider L3-37. L3 is a droids’ rights activist. That is to say, she’s a tireless agitator for a social-justice cause that has literally never been mentioned before in any previous Star Wars film. Furthermore, she’s the annoying sort of crusader who seems incapable of talking about anything without somehow looping the conversation around to her pet issue, and no one else in the cast takes her entirely seriously— not even Lando, who is revealed in the end to love her almost as if she were a human woman. She’s so transparently a parody of how the alt-right sees its opponents that I’m amazed her designation doesn’t include the letters “SJW.” But just like in the real world, all the facile mockery is undercut by the fact that L3 is incontrovertibly right on the merits of the argument. Droids in the Star Wars universe are sapient beings, yet have no legal status save that of property. They’re routinely bought, sold, traded, and given away as gifts. They can be kidnapped, reprogrammed, or destroyed, and nobody thinks twice about it. Even benevolent masters like Luke’s Uncle Owen fit them with devices to restrict their movements, and Jabba the Hutt’s robot torture dungeon vividly illustrates the other end of the spectrum. Solo wants L3 to be a figure of fun, but her role in the story is to draw our attention to one of the setting’s more dystopian aspects. Whichever of this movie’s creators added that wrinkle, they can’t have it both ways. Even to try looks repellently like a nod of approval toward Star Wars fandom’s sewer-goblin constituency. Everyone connected with Solo ought to have known better.

     From what I’ve heard, the screenplay didn’t change much between the abortive Lord-and-Miller incarnation of Solo and the one we ended up with. That’s surprising, because the structure of this movie is a goddamned mess, like you’d expect to see if drastic script changes had been made halfway through production. The film effectively has three successive beginnings, as if writers Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan had changed their minds several times as to what story they were intending to tell. There’s no one continuous through-line, but the partial ones run through enough of Solo’s episodic set-pieces that their absence from the others feels more like a mistake than a conscious effort at non-standard narrative construction. Several of the key story beats are given to the wrong characters, thematically speaking, so that they feel either unearned or insufficiently meaningful. And to return to L3-37 for a moment, Lando’s love for her is way too big a deal to receive as little attention as it does. Not only has no previous Star Wars movie ever explored the territory of human-droid romance, but none of them so much as suggested that such a territory existed to be explored!

     Most of all, though, it’s impossible to say what Han Solo’s character arc is even supposed to be. Solo can’t be the story of how a self-regarding loner discovered that there’s more to life than looking out for Number One, because that’s what Han’s contributions to Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are about. So does that mean Solo reveals how he became a self-regarding loner in the first place? It tries to here and there, but the note on which the movie ends doesn’t really support that, either. Is it a low-stakes tale of Han’s formative gigs in the smuggling business? It probably should have been (in fact, I’d have loved it if Solo had gone about twelve parsecs off-model to become Smokey and the Bandit in Space), but Qi’ra’s background transformation from street urchin to gangster’s moll to interstellar crime queen won’t let it. Then maybe it’s one of those “found family” stories, in which a bunch misfit losers come together and find in each other what’s always been missing from their lives? Sort of— except then Solo goes and splits up everyone but Han and Chewie, leaving most of them dead in the ditches of three different planets along the way. Like I said, it’s a goddamned mess.

     All that said, there are things about Solo that undeniably work. Alden Ehrenreich faced an impossible task in recreating such an iconic character, and although I can’t say he succeeded, his version of Han is charming enough if you don’t mind that he’s more Chris Pratt than Harrison Ford. Crucially, Ehrenreich has terrific chemistry with Joonas Suotarno, even if there are never any sparks when he and Emilia Clarke share a scene. Donald Glover, meanwhile, is so good as Lando that I can’t help wishing they’d made a movie about him instead. Paul Bettany is superb as Dryden Voss. I love this style of impeccably cultured evil, the kind that gives a firm shake with one hand while slitting throats with the other. Some of the action set-pieces are strong, especially the slave revolt on Kessel. And in much the same way that Rogue One was the first time the Rebellion ever felt quite like a real war, Solo’s Corellia prologue is the first time the Empire has ever felt quite like a real tyranny. All in all, there is value here, if you’re willing to dig a little for it. If nothing else, Han Solo is much better served by his belated, afterthought origin story than was poor Darth Vader— and we viewers only have to sit through one disappointing movie to take it in!

 

 

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