Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Half-Witted & Scruffy-Lookin' – Solo: A Star Wars Story

Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo in Solo: A Star Wars Story. (Photo: Jonathan Olley)

Note: This review contains spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Disney, and Kathleen Kennedy in particular, must now serve two masters. Lucasfilm’s market – though it is an absolutely massive one – is as fractured and divided as anything else in North America right now. Star Wars fandom is split in two, and every move Kennedy makes has to cater either to one group or to the other, because nothing she does can possibly make both sides happy.

This was the reason I wasn’t excited for Solo: A Star Wars Story. It's serving a different fanbase: the guys on the other side of the aisle; the ones The Last Jedi left behind. As the origin story of cinema’s most famous silver-tongued scoundrel, Solo is for those who never want Star Wars to change; who want to relive their nostalgic attachments again and again forever; and who hated Rian Johnson’s film because it was something other than a nakedly indulgent power fantasy aimed straight at them. Solo has clearly positioned itself as a comforting reset to the status quo these fans pine for, tailor-made to placate this aging demographic that’s so petulant, its constituents might literally boycott a franchise because it insulted them by daring to grow in new and interesting directions. The upshot here is that no matter where you land on this franchise, I think we can all agree that for recognizing this rift in her marketshare, and for pivoting so quickly and capably to capitalize upon it, Kathleen Kennedy is a fucking genius.

All that’s not to say that a story about a young Han Solo isn’t fertile ground for a fun period film set in the Star Wars universe. Lucasfilm employs armies of master craftspeople, whose brilliant art, costuming, set design, lighting, pyrotechnics, and animatronic engineering ensure that there’s always going to be some new and interesting stuff slipped into the Star Wars Story format, no matter how much the individual films might prioritize nostalgic pandering instead. It’s always exciting to get a peek into the worlds mentioned only in passing before – the shipbuilding planet Corellia, the spice mines of Kessel – and, more importantly, a glimpse into the adventures that moulded a young scoundrel, his furry friend, and their cape-wearing accomplice into the characters we know and love. That’s the promise of prequels, after all. But I’m extremely wary of the prequel format, especially after being seduced by the starry-eyed potential of these offshoot Star Wars adventures and watching them fail to capitalize on the good ideas inherent in their premises. We were sold singular, even experimental shifts in tone and style; we were promised storylines and character work that would profit from the lack of an overarching storyline about destiny and the Jedi. Things never turn out the way you think they will – it’s the mainline Star Wars films, and not the offshoots, that have taken on the burden of experimenting with new and exciting storytelling styles, and the Star Wars Story films have proven to be the place where the safe, predictable, non-challenging fare can survive. With Rogue One, I was intrigued by the idea of The Dirty Dozen in space – some boots-on-the-ground action with an unforgettable cast of characters doing the jobs we never hear about, that nobody else in the Rebellion would do. With Solo, I could see the potential for a swashbuckling heist caper, or even a gritty western, that showed us new stuff while still reinforcing the old. Instead both films fell into the trap of depicting the in-between beats of the narratives we already know, the details of which were much better left to our imaginations anyway.

It’s not impossible to pander to a nerdy fanbase and still craft functional, compelling cinema out of the product – just look across the Disney hallway at what Marvel’s doing. But Solo was plagued by production problems, after original director duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired due to creative differences with the Lucasfilm brass, to be replaced by aw-shucks studio nice guy Ron Howard after the vast majority of the film had already been shot. Actor Michael K. Williams, playing the film’s primary antagonist, was removed entirely because he couldn’t return for reshoots, so his role was recast with Paul Bettany instead, causing no small amount of controversy. Star Alden Ehrenreich was a point of contention, too, not just with fans who were uncertain that he could live up to Harrison Ford’s iconic performance, but with the bad press that followed the hiring of an acting coach tasked with helping him tailor his work to the material. To Howard and editor Pietro Scalia’s credit, Solo doesn’t feel like a film chopped together from disparate elements cobbled out of multiple screenplay drafts and extensive reshoots, but it is – and though Howard did manage to guide the thing down to a safe landing on the runway, the end result is nothing to cheer about. The risk you run with prequels like this is that if you're not careful enough to make every element of your story a functional way to enrich the characters or setting we already know, then all you’re doing is actively, irreparably cheapening them. Solo doesn't teach us anything we didn't already know about Han, Chewie, Lando, or the Rebellion. Its new characters don't serve to flesh out the familiar ones in any significant way. I'm actually more confused about who Han is and why he behaves the way he does than I was going in.

Ehrenreich with Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca. (Photo: Jonathan Olley)

The screenplay was written by Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan, who, you can tell, attempted several times to invest Solo’s storyline with some unique material and were forcefully course-corrected to better toe what you might call the fanboy line. We meet a young-ish Han – who I think is written as late-teens or early twenties, but looks more like a solid thirty – as a street rat on Corellia, indebted to an alien crime lord and pining for the chance to score a ship off-world with his gal, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). They’re separated, and in a desperate bid to flee the planet, Han signs himself up with the Imperial infantry (where, when he states no next of kin, a wry recruitment officer gives him his famous surname). Han meets Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), falls in with a criminal gang led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), and proceeds through a paint-by-numbers series of setpieces involving a scarred-up crime lord named Dryden Vos (the aforementioned Paul Bettany) and another young rogue named Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). Howard blows his big show-stopping action scene – a train heist – early in the movie, so the final act is reduced to a dreary sequence of painfully predictable double- and triple-crosses that bloat the running time with unnecessary scenes of flat, uninteresting dialogue. Solo is nearly two and a half hours long, and boy, does it feel it.

The movie’s a succession of missed opportunities. As in all prequels, the stakes are automatically lowered before you've even seen the film; you know who's going to make it out alive and who isn't. Ideally this means that the filmmakers make the threat emotional, rather than physical  where the mental state of the characters is what's at stake  but Solo doesn't take this very obvious path to storytelling success. We miss out on likable characters in Thandie Newton’s Val and Jon Favreau’s Rio, who are introduced and then swiftly killed off in the second act, to be replaced by far less charming people. We get some great setup regarding Lando’s feelings for his droid copilot, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), but no payoff for that relationship, or really any character work for Lando whatsoever. (The way L3 is handled is actually its own can of worms; we’ll get to that.) We miss out on the establishment of a real bond between Beckett and Han – a father-son connection one would think would come naturally to a father-son screenwriting team – that would make the ending, where Beckett and Han face down, actually resonate. We don’t get any kind of emotional resolution for Han about Qi’ra (the dissolution of their relationship feels like it should be the cornerstone of the film, but Han seems impossibly ambivalent about everything), and we lose any sort of interplay between Qi’ra and Vos that dramatizes her bondage to him, or her motivations with regard to her even darker master. In probably the most galling example, we miss out on a solid introduction for Chewbacca, or any real sense of characterization for him. If there was ever a time to let Chewie share in the limelight, it’s this film, but Howard doesn’t even frame Chewie (at least visually) in a way that gives him more prominence as his own character. Instead, he’s relegated to mere background window-dressing, the way he is in every other Star Wars film. So much more could have been done to make him a terrifying brute who eventually becomes sympathetic, if not a unique presence in the story with his own arc, but they don’t present him any differently than normal, making the typical prequel blunder of skipping the chance to show us interesting stuff because we already know and like the character. (Plus, you’d expect this movie to teach you why Han knows Wookieese – sorry, “shyriiwook,” thanks, Wookieepedia – or at least see him learn it from Chewie, but no, Han just knows the language already for some reason, and it represents no kind of special bond between him and Chewie.)

Han himself is the biggest missed opportunity of all. All we know is that he wants to be the best pilot in the galaxy, and that he has a chip on his shoulder (and not a very big one; Ehrenreich’s performance makes him much more guileless and cute than the reckless, infuriatingly cocksure rogue we expect. They were going for John McClane – “Only John can drive somebody that crazy” – and wildly missed the mark. You can point to ten other heirs apparent to Harrison Ford, from Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk to Nathan Fillion’s Malcolm Reynolds, every one of whom better represents the core appeal of the character.) We don’t see him become a great pilot, nor do we learn where he got his piloting skills (beyond some official Imperial training we don't get to see). We don’t see his rough childhood come through in his words or actions (they way we do with, say, Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, whose history of neglect has made him a snarky asshole). We learn – in the vaguest terms possible – that he had a troubled relationship with his father, but nothing comes of that information. We don’t see him womanize or even charm the (very, very few) women he meets, and he isn’t motivated to do so by the end of the film by heartbreak or loneliness. We experience the deaths of other characters alongside Han, but he doesn’t learn or change as a result. We don’t see growth from Han in any area, be it teamwork, bravery, selflessness, or technical skill. He starts the film as an archetypal good guy and never once deviates from that path. The film contains a “foundation of the Rebellion” subplot (another breach of the Star Wars Story promise) that doesn't affect Han in any way other than to allow him to choose altruism over greed, which undermines his characterization in A New Hope as a self-serving rogue who learns to serve something bigger than himself. So much time, in fact, is spent on establishing him as “the good guy” – including directly referencing it in dialogue – that I'm left wondering what the hell happened to him between Solo and A New Hope to harden his heart so much. (It should have been Qi’ra leaving him that triggers the change, not to mention gunning down his supposed mentor, but Ehrenreich’s Han seems entirely unbothered by these events, like he doesn’t even understand the weight of what’s happened.) I guess we need another prequel now, exploring the first time Han falls in with Jabba. Maybe by then we’ll achieve some consistent characterization that teaches us how Han became Han – even though that's exactly what Solo was supposed to do. It’s disappointing that it turned out this way, yes, but more than anything, it’s just boring to watch.

Pheobe Waller-Bridge as L3-37. (Photo: Jonathan Olley)

I want to address one of the more bizarre choices in the film, which I hope is the result of Solo’s frenzied production schedule, and is not a purposeful creative decision. From the jump, L3-37 is presented as a firebrand, a passionate droid motivated by the desire to be treated equally to other beings (she’s introduced in a scene where she screams through the mesh of a droid-on-droid cage match, imploring the fighters to consider what they’re doing). She makes sarcastic quips and jokes that nearly always reinforce this characterization (Lando: “I’ll be in the back, can I get you anything?” L3: “Equal rights?”) and speaks about her romantic relationship with her captain in candid, even explicit language. (Solo does teach us one new thing, I suppose, and it’s that humans can and do have sex with droids in Star Wars.) As brought to life by Waller-Bridge’s bold, self-assured performance, L3 is easily the most lovable character in the film – which makes her fate a particularly troubling one. She leads a revolt, freeing droids and beings of all sorts from bondage, and in the ensuing chaos her body is destroyed. She dies in Lando’s arms, but there’s no emotional resolution in her passing: she’s frightened, stammering, asking him what’s happening to her as she fades away. It’s one of the film’s few resonant moments, but it’s quickly overtaken by the need to escape to hyperspace, prompting Han to suggest – and Lando to agree without argument – that they rip out her brain, interface her with the Millennium Falcon, and utilize her star-mapping capabilities to plot a course to safety. The Kasdans patch over this gaping emotional wound with a flimsy line (“She’s part of the Falcon now”) but if you stop and think about it for even a moment, the underlying idea is a horrifying one. L3, without her consent, is consigned to an eternity trapped inside the Falcon: voiceless, nameless, bereft of choice or agency. We’re expected to think it’s cute that this is the reason Han and Lando call the Falcon “her” and “she” (never mind the vast fictional tradition of captains referring to their vessels using female pronouns), but the deeper ramifications approach Black Mirror levels of pitch-black sci-fi horror. To do so much work to build a character around the ideas of freedom, self-actualization, equality, and social justice, and then do her dirty like this? One can only hope, like I said, that it was mere thoughtlessness, and that it wasn’t a calculated choice.

Solo’s chief audience, though, isn’t there to interrogate the ethical issues of its smaller plot points. It's there to tick boxes on a checklist of nostalgic elements – the Falcon, Chewbacca, Han’s blaster, etc – and I’m sad that Solo can’t even deliver that in an exciting way. A film centered around a single character – named after him, in fact – has really got to pulse with his unique personality. Solo is utterly straightforward, when what it desperately needs is an anarchic, irreverent streak, something I think Lord and Miller could easily have given it. They’re excellent comedy writers, but as they proved with The Lego Movie and The Last Man on Earth, they’re great at investing those lighthearted stories with engaging emotional stakes – a foundation the stronger Star Wars properties have always rested on. By all accounts, they were fired from Solo because their take wasn’t going to be “Star Wars-y” enough – but it turns out that what Solo most lacks is what would have made it a true Star Wars movie to begin with. Ron Howard has been euphemistically called a “journeyman” director, but he can pinch-hit with the best of them, and he does himself credit with Solo, making the most palatable lemonade he could out of some particularly sour lemons. His cast is game, and deliver some fine work despite the weak script – particularly Glover, whose Lando is just strange and misanthropic enough that he becomes intriguing, and Clarke, who feels much more at home in this type of role than the uber-serious stuff she usually plays. But it’s not enough. The small touches, though flavourful – like the remarkable alien and droid animatronic work, the eye-catching costuming, and the odd flourish like an Imperial recruitment ad that plays a major-keyed Imperial March – aren’t nutritious enough to sustain the experience. Unlike Rogue One, Solo isn't a film that can coast on its good looks and action alone – it's a remarkably ugly-looking film, with soporific camerawork and a dull, rusty colour palette from cinematographer Bradford Young. But Solo is like Rogue One in that both are films of surface-level texture; movies that look and move like real pieces of cinema but lack the flesh, blood, and beating heart of an engaging, functional story underneath.

Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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