Solo – Buckle up, baby

Solo: A Star Wars Story has been controversial possibly since it was announced.  When Phil Lord and Chris Miller were announced as directors there was an internet uproar. The casting of Alden Ehrenreich was likewise Controversial On The Internet. Though I’d bet that most people had no idea who Ehrenreich was prior to this, perhaps fans were just hoping they’d hire Harrison Ford and de-age him. Then the production troubles started: Lord and Miller were reportedly requesting dozens of takes, taking far too long to shoot, and asking for too much time and money to complete the film, clashing with producer Kathleen Kennedy (and President of Lucasfilm) one too many times. Rumors swirled that Ehrenreich was terrible as the lead, and that an on-set coach had been hired to help him along. Finally, Miller and Lord were fired and Ron Howard was brought on after two-thirds of the film had reportedly been shot. 

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Maybe this photo wasn’t the best idea

Howard managed to get the film finished by the end of August 2017, which put it on time for it’s May 2018 release. Rumors swirled that he’d reshot nearly the entire movie AND that he had only re-shot a little bit. Whatever he did though, he was clearly more efficient and had a clear vision from what he wanted from his cast and crew. Experience is a blessing with these monster blockbusters. The rumors calmed. The wait for the trailer began…

And when the trailer dropped, the internet erupted with “NOT MY HAN SOLO” statements from every corner of the fandom. Good lord people, of course he’s not Harrison Ford. It would be incredibly boring if he just tried to be the younger model of Ford’s Han. This movie should tell us what shaped him into the lovable scoundrel we met in A New Hope, not show us that Solo was born and raised this way. But certain sections of the fandom would never have been satisfied unless Harrison Ford was re-cast and we just all pretended he was 40 years younger.

However, there is a large contingent of Star Wars fans who are intolerant of change, as exemplified by the deep divide over The Last Jedi, they expect only fan service, and if these films don’t confirm every ludicrous fan theory, if they don’t feature the characters they want, if they feature a diverse cast, they’re going to shout and stomp all over the internet about how you ruined their childhood.  These loudmouthed fans expect to be catered to, and when they are not, because the cast is too diverse or the plot isn’t precisely how they predicted or whatever, they feel that entitles them to taking it out on the creators by crashing their Rotten Tomatoes scores. Fan entitlement attempts to ruin so many good things, and it seems to swirl heavily around the Star Wars films in particular.

Solo, despite reviews leaning mixed to good, had a disappointing opening weekend at the box office by taking in just $84 million and missing the $100 million expectations. It did well internationally, and it will definitely make it’s production and marketing costs back. Unfortunately, Disney clearly wanted Solo out of its production schedule, to put the controversies behind it, and clear the slate for Episode IX and any future movies like the Boba Fett movie, and possibly an Obi-Wan story. Ehrenreich also has a three-movie contract for subsequent sequels to Solo, but we’ll see how that plays out.

Solo was under-advertised, the marketing was minimal compared to Rogue One, which speaks a lot to the confidence the studio had in the film. The general consensus seems to be that Disney won’t be releasing movies so close together again, and I’d bet they don’t risk another blockbuster on the backs of comedy directors. Maybe they should try some women or people of color in the director’s chair? Disney had better luck making some risky choices in the late phases of Marvel’s universe, Taika Waititi and James Gunn weren’t huge household names before they directed Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy.  But Lord and Miller turned out to be a disastrous choice.  

Additionally, theaters made it difficult for some audiences to appreciate Bradford Young’s deeply rich cinematography by having shitty, cheap projectors. Theaters are always looking for ways to cut corners, and unfortunately, low-quality projectors are some of the best ways to reduce costs. The differences are stark…

Much closer to the way this scene should be seen.
How many theaters ended up showing Solo

The difference is partially in the shadows, some digital projectors have difficulty with the deep blacks which give this shot so much more depth than the flat, difficult to see second shot. Young is known for his low-light shots like this, folding in shadows to create depth, and unfortunately, some theaters ruined that experience. It makes me wonder how many other, lower-reach, movies have been destroyed by crappy projectors.

Solo has clearly had its fair share of production, marketing, and theatrical troubles. But I don’t think it’s fair to judge a film on anything but the final product. There are plenty of films that had tortured productions but were successful critically and/or financially. There were plenty of casting and directorial hiring decisions that were publicly decried but then turned out to be beloved (Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman comes to mind). Love it or hate it on its merits, not on its trailers. So does Solo succeed in stealing our hearts?

****spoilers from here on in!****

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Recap

Seriously, the internet owes Alden Ehrenreich a damn apology.  It takes a few minutes to reconcile that he’s a different actor than Harrison Ford, and then he seems natural as the cocky, clever pilot we’ve known and loved. Is he as good as Harrison Ford? NO! And in the words of a favorite critic of mine, Harrison Ford is “an imitable & precious resource.” But Ehrenreich does a good job, he’s charming, he’s arrogant, he’s ridiculous, he only stumbles a little when it’s more obvious he’s imitating Ford. 

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Ehrenreich’s Han is a romantic, a dreamer, a bit of an optimist. He’s often in over his head, but we see how he’s learning to talk his way out of situations. We meet him on Corellia, it’s implied that he’s been working as a thief since childhood for a pretty awesome looking crime boss who’s part giant worm, part vampire. Han and Qi’Ra (Emilia Clarke) have a half-baked plan to get off the planet, buy their own ship, and start their own adventures. It’s a pretty terrible plan, but it’s easy to see how desperate but also in love these two young people are. They’re going to bribe their way off with this movie’s MacGuffin, which is apparently a type of jet fuel, Coaxium.  It’ll be important later.

Needless to say, their half-baked plan only half works. Qi’Ra, showing a bit more brains than Han, initially refuses to hand over their Coaxium to the Empire agent they’re trying to bribe until they’re through the gate. But their pursuers are too close and they have to move. The guards snatch Qi’Ra and Han has to bolt. He quickly realizes he’s not going to make it much further if he’s not careful…so he steps into an Empire recruitment office where he’s unceremoniously given the moniker “Solo.”

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Qi’Ra doesn’t get a lot of fleshing out as a character, she implies she had to do some shady things to get by, and the fact that she’s working with criminals suggests that, of course, it’s not exactly been a lifetime of honorable action. We know she is very fond of Han, is clever enough to stay alive, and that she values her own survival above everything. Clarke does an admirable job of making this young woman seem capable of all of these things, and even that she is sorrowful for leaving Han behind.

Han befriends a Wookie we already know and love when he’s thrown in a pit-cage with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) who is a clearly terrorized, filthy, starving creature. Han survives because he speaks a little Wookie (and understands it better than he speaks it), empathizes with Chewie, and promises him a way to freedom. Han Solo really isn’t solo for very long.

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The Empire tolerates a certain amount of black market dealing, just enough to let people in this universe feel like they have some agency over their lives. Han is clearly attracted to that idea of freedom, for himself and the ones he loves. His empathy and his need for freedom clearly influences his actions later in the film, and explains why he joins the rebellion in the future.

Chewie and Han bond as friends as part of the subset of a crew they join with Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (an underused Thandie Newton), and Rio (Jon Favreau). They’re the new muscle, mistrusted together, and therefore they only have each other. When the train heist goes horribly wrong, losing Val, Rio, and their target to pirates, they have to find a way to make up the loss, and report back to the leader of the crime syndicate, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).

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Solo is always very clear about the stakes for its characters. The Empire is evil, sure, but these characters are just trying to live their lives. They don’t care about rebellions, Jedi neutrality, or trade factions. Nobody’s parentage is in question. This is a straightforward heist movie.

Han and Beckett propose a bigger score of Coaxium, unrefined from the source, to make up for the haul they lost. Vos sends Qi’Ra, clearly a trusted lieutenant, with them, to ensure their success.

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Our big heist is, naturally, the long-famed Kessel Run. First they need a ship. Enter Lando (Donald Glover), and a silly card game that we naturally don’t know the rules to.  This scene is predictable, in that we know Han is going to lose because that is the way this scene always goes, but it’s fun in the creature department. The aliens, from the character next to Han with multiple eyes, and one who wood-chippers his cards after a loss, are a creative delight. They make an otherwise dull scene a little fun. As predicted, Han loses though he does seem to be an actual, admirable card-sharp. And we meet Glover’s Lando. A confident, ruthless, cape connoisseur, smuggler, and owner of the Millenium Falcon. Glover’s Lando is suave, cosmopolitan, gregarious, and he says, “baby” at the end of sentences. He is fabulous. Glover is at his best when, like Ehrenreich, he’s not imitating his predecessor.

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From the colors he wears to the way he speaks, Lando is a character of misdirection

We also get to meet Lando’s droid friend, L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), and she is a goddam delight as the wokest droid in the galaxy. Lando addresses her directly, and allows her to have her own agency, and she has some snark! She also starts a bit of an accidental revolution, solving a bit of a Star Wars mystery as to whether or not droids are sentient when she removes the control bolts of droids to start a distraction while her companions steal the unrefined Coaxium. Apparently, the droids are capable of sentience and might want to make their own decisions, which raises a lot of ethical question about all our favorite droids in the Star Wars Universe. L3 also admits to a bit of a flirtation, maybe more, with Lando, much to the amusement of Qi-Ra. Of course, this complicates her eventual future.

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Partners in crime and life

The Kessel Run is fun, but also, we know everyone survives, which lowers the stakes a bit. Except for L3, who doesn’t make it back aboard the Falcon in one piece. As Han and Company hide in the maelstrom, they decide to scavenge L3’s navigation maps by uploading her memory to the Falcon. Does this mean the Falcon is now partially L3? Does she long to always return to Lando? That’s a lot of potential existential anguish in this spaceship.

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L3? Is that you? A ship with the heart of a rebel

Our ragtag crew escapes the maelstrom, makes the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs (if you round down) because they took a scary shortcut, and delivers the unrefined Coaxium without getting exploded. The rebel pirates show up, and ask politely for the loot. Turns out, they’re with the rebellion, and apparently they think that they should change their tactics and have decided asking nicely might get them better results? Fine.  The crew has to make a tough decision, everybody betrays every one else, except Chewie and Han. Han and Beckett have a brief showdown, but Han shows that he’s at least learning, and SHOOTS FIRST. Thus ends one of the most annoying debates in fandom.

When you have a movie with fairly low stakes, we know Han, Chewie, and Lando survive, you need to have more investment in the tertiary characters. The fact that Beckett betrays the team was not the least bit surprising. Watching Qi’Ra leave should have been tragic, but it was expected. When L3 dies, we don’t get to spend much time with Lando’s grief. The lack of character development means we don’t feel the emotional impact the film was striving for, because all we care about is Han and Chewie.

The conclusion is fairly predictable, except when Qi’Ra departs without Han (or the Coaxium) and reports in to her superior, a mechanical-legged Darth Maul. If you have been watching Star Wars animated series’ Clone Wars and Rebels, you’ll know that Maul survived being sliced in half through some complicated machinations, and is the head of a criminal syndicate once again, and also would very much like to kill Obi-Wan. That’s fun, and could create excellent threads for subsequent episodes.

Overall, Solo is a solid, fun heist movie with predictable plot elements. It benefits from great creature design, beautiful cinematography, good acting, and some fun dialogue. It suffers from its clunky predictability, and poor character development.

B

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