Milo Garner critiques the franchise spin-off.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is the exact film so many feared would come out of Disney’s Lucasfilm buyout.
An absolute disaster it ain’t, but that might’ve been a little more interesting – it’s an extended reference, existing solely on the legacy of its greater forebears. Of course, any chance of any such calamity had been snuffed out by producer Kathleen Kennedy, when she had directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller fired from the production. This also, incidentally, snuffed the possibility of triumph. Their directional method is built around improvisation, not just for comedic effect, but to encourage the best performances from their actors. But when Lord and Miller started directing according to their established (and successful) style, Kennedy and screenwriters Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan resisted. Unlike Rogue One’s Gareth Edwards, a director with far less clout in Hollywood, Lord and Miller couldn’t be cowed into submission by the Lucasfilm machine. Kennedy hired directors with a voice, and they were using it. She tossed them from the project, and Hollywood’s safest pair of hands was set to pick it up in Ron Howard. The chance for something fresh was, at that moment, scuppered.
But the problems pervading Solo lie beyond Howard’s workmanlike direction; the script, written by the sacrosanct Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back) and his son Jonathan, invites a blandness that much of the film succumbs to. Part of the issue is in its purpose – it seeks to explain every element of the Han Solo we recognize in the original trilogy. How Han got his name, how he met Chewie, how he became a smuggler, how he got his blaster, how he met Lando, how he got the Falcon (and how it got bashed up), how he managed the Kessel run. Even the significance of those dashboard dice seen in his cockpit get a few scenes. The result isn’t just an uninspired screenplay, but a shrinking of the character and the world. Meeting Han in Star Wars we might assume his various accoutrements were picked up across a variety of adventures, a long history of wear and tear. But this film crushes all of these moments into what might be a few days at most. A history of galactic derring-do exchanged for a few cheap beats.
This feeds into the film at large, replete with nods and winks to every corner of the galaxy. A few are harmless – fan-favourite Bosk gets a namedrop (as does Felucia, featured in Episode III for about as many seconds), and there are a few obscure characters included here and there for the sake of true believers. Others weigh Solo down, such as fellow-marauder Beckett infiltrating a hostile base in the exact costume Lando would wear when rescuing Han several films later. Again, the universe shrinks a little. Writing for the Chicago-Sun Times, Richard Roeper sees this filmic worship of iconography as one of Solo’s strengths, enjoying the interplay between the audience and their memories. But when so much of a film is constructed by tying these references together, we’re left with an exuberant slideshow of Star Wars memorabilia. For its considerable faults, Rogue One was at least a little less dependent on stitching familiar elements into a full-blown narrative.
But nonetheless, a few of Solo’s very best moments are born of its history. One towards the end of the film both references and rewrites a particularly controversial event in Star Wars history, marrying the new content of this film’s story with a character’s action from the old. I wonder if Lucas himself would react with a smirk or a sigh, but I certainly find myself leaning to the former. It’s a genre-moment that works entirely in and of itself, but is granted an extra kick for those in-the-know. That’s what a nod can, and should, be. But whilst caught mid-congratulations, we cut to one of the most egregious cameos in cinema history, one indicative of so many of the systematic issues with the Star Wars franchise as much as Solo itself. But I’ll leave that one to viewer discretion.
On the question of genre, Solo strikes a middling ground. Kennedy initially described it as something of a ‘space western’ or ‘heist’ movie, and it covers some tropes from both. Yet at the same time, it is so embroiled with the Star Wars brand it can never quite fully engage with the trappings of either – Star Wars has become a genre unto itself, but not one that can carry a film sans its Jedi centrepiece. An appropriate analogue would be in Disney’s other monstrous franchise – Marvel. These films, while often proclaiming their versatility through appropriating different tropes across their multitudes, generally meld into a larger mass. Ant-Man might be the best example of all, a supposed heist film that ended in a mirror-battle of superpowered punchy-men. It also lost a distinctive director to a more accommodating studio pick, if we’re still counting. Like Ant-Man often was, Solo can be fun regardless of the pigeon-hole it finds itself forced into, but the limitations are becoming ever-clearer as Disney pushes these anthology films. Edwards’ “gritty war film” version of Rogue One probably never made the light of day either, even if something just as grim – but more “Star Wars” – did.
Solo’s aspirations to be a western range a little further than the content of the film, with Kennedy mentioning the influence of Frederic Remington on the film’s visual design. His 19th century paintings of the Wild West supposedly contributed a focus on bright primary colours, but the film itself rejects any such suggestions. The talented Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year, Arrival) instead approaches Solo with a dark eye, lighting as little as possible while emphasising a dankly coloured haze. At its best this aesthetic is a sub-Blade Runner riff, especially the orange light that surrounds the initial meeting between Han and Lando. But so often it simply appears murky, brown, and dim. Minimal lighting is one thing, but to lose so much essential detail in the shadows is careless, not to mention the portentous nature of this tone not meeting the lighter adventure Solo wants to be. It might be the boldest attempt at a creating a unique visual aesthetic in any Star Wars film, but especially after the impressive colours and compositions of The Last Jedi, to fall so short in this area is damning.
Better is the soundtrack, which has always been a troubling proposition when it comes to these anthology films; I would contest that John Williams’ score is perhaps Star Wars’ best and most distinct feature, in the new as much as the old. To have someone step into those sizable shoes is an intimidating prospect. Rogue One’s soundtrack by Michael Giacchino, who is as close to a Williams protégé as we’re likely to get, fell sadly short. It imitated Williams, but lost all the bravado and power of his music for an often-muddled pastiche. Solo’s John Powell fares better (aided by a main theme supplied by Williams himself), developing and adapting motifs that do not feel out of step with the Star Wars aesthetic, while being distinct enough in themselves. The brilliance of Williams’ original work does overpower the new compositions when it’s quoted, but like much in this film, to emphasise the classic over the innovative is part of its raison d’être.
The best of the new is in the film’s cast, an element that can’t yet be imported directly from the past (not for lack of trying). Leading the pack is Alden Ehrenreich, who bares limited facial similarity to Harrison Ford and, for most of the film at least, resists the temptation to simply imitate the man. His performance captures much of Han’s charm and wit just as well, and is clearly angled as a younger, less cynical version of the character. Given most of this film takes place after a three-year stint in the Imperial army, I’m not entirely sure why Han is still so wide-eyed and jolly – the short glimpse offered of his military service looked spirit-crushing enough. But this element of his character not being overtly explained and presented might be a blessing in disguise, at least suggesting some development between this film’s end and Han’s introduction in the next.
Donald Glover’s Lando is a step better, his voice sometimes slipping into a perfect replication of Billy Dee Williams’ but joined with enough of Glover’s own panache to stand out. But here Lando is more than a rival swashbuckler – once again he has been granted a Social Purpose. In Empire he was the Black Character, a response to the whiteness of the first film, something that wasn’t unnoticed at the time. Now he’s the LGBT character, which a cynic might perceive as an insert to quieten calls for representation. His ‘pansexuality’, as Kasdan acknowledged it, is at least a little more of a token nod. In one of the few scenarios in which that term resists redundancy, we hear that sex with a droid is indeed possible. To my memory this might also be the first explicit reference to sex in a Star Wars film at all, so that’s something.
But with the good comes the bad, and among them is Lando’s robo-love, L3-37. While many have accused Disney of pandering to ‘social justice warriors’ by including women and people of colour in these new Disney films (how could they!) I have always found these accusations a little jumped-up. While it is almost certain that casting decisions are working to a sort of internal quota, the result is hardly something to complain about – what would the alternative be? But in L3-37 we have something else, a droid who calls for liberation for her robot kin, to save the metal men from their fleshy owners. This extraneous subplot is defined, I feel, by a punchline that has her declare that all she’d like is ‘equal rights’. This isn’t an interesting diversion about the robotic denizens of the Star Wars universe, nor a very funny distraction, but an appeal to Buzzfeed feminism. Can I get a yaaas? Olivia Truffaut-Wong describes her as ‘the feminist droid you’ve been waiting for,’ but I feel if ever the term ‘virtue signalling’ was apposite, it would be here. Far better has been the production of female-led stories and the inclusion women in pivotal roles – let us not set our standards so low that this blatant pandering can be considered especially feminist in any real, interesting, or even entertaining sense.
This ties into what Steve MacFarlene coined a ‘belaboured wokeness’ in his review of the film. Like an all-too-long aside in The Last Jedi that culminates in a speech against arms dealers and animal cruelty, this is another example of Star Wars attempting to deal with ‘the issues’ and coming up very short. This feeds into the main narrative, too – toward the film’s end an attempt at a sudden anti-colonial angle is introduced. This section of the film is accompanied by a bizarre set of shots focusing on ambiguously exotic women and children – almost ethnographic in character. It goes without saying that these elements appear tacked on at best. This redundancy is double-edged in a sense – as much as these concerns do not belong, they are superfluous to the extent that they can be mostly ignored without much detriment to the film at large. The Last Jedi made up for its social misgivings through interesting approaches to the storytelling at large, Solo cannot claim as much.
Despite the largely negative slant of this review, Solo isn’t excruciating in the moment. When I said Ron Howard had safe hands I wasn’t referring to his legendary grip; out of this mess he pulls off a fairly entertaining romp, and despite its unwieldy pace, it’s one that remains mostly watchable throughout. An early action sequence on a train, for example, teeters just on the right side of thrilling, even if the editing is a little frantic. But while it can hold your attention, it’s in desperate need of something to do with it. The entire enterprise is unfortunately drenched in an aura of pointlessness; a bridge to nowhere.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is showing in cinemas across the UK. Watch the trailer below.