Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Dir. Ron Howard, sort of. Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Joonas Suotamo

The biggest problem with Solo is everything that happens after the gang gets to Savareen. The secondary villains, who wear all sorts of interesting helmets, take off their interesting helmets and reveal that they are good guys after all. There’s another melee fight in a universe with literal laser guns, which goes down after a Ocean’s 11-style double cross. Morals are tested, bad guys from the past appear in holograms, but all is more or less put right for the foreseeable future when Han (Ehrenreich) and Chewbacca (Suotamo) get into the cockpit and begin the smuggling career that leads them to Tatooine, Docking Bay 94, etc. It’s a final act which refuses to end because there’s no ending at all, assuming with the inherent cynicism of a blockbuster movie from an established franchise that the hunger for a sequel would buoy up its deficiencies. When Qi’ra opens that hologram and gets Maul (now presented with a dearth of Darth) on the other end, the goal is to make us wonder what will happen next, to spout our fan theories on Reddit or gab about the twist to our friends. But what if Solo never gets a sequel and the movie is left on the hook for the questions it knows it doesn’t have to answer in an already slightly long 135 minutes? Solo is not a box office failure, precisely, but it’s one of the most publicly snakebitten movies in recent memory. Ron Howard gets the directing credit because Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were booted from the picture. (It’s one of those classic cases which one sees across creative fields where suits get together, decide they like whatever quirkiness or individuality is associated with the big name they pick up, and are instantly horrified when the name lives up to his/her reputation. I wouldn’t let these people choose my furniture and yet they have control of a multibillion industry.) The trailers were received with anything but the breathless anticipation one had come to expect from Star Wars properties. And then the movie, which no one had asked for, was not asked for. I feel bad for Solo a little bit in the same way I feel bad for Democrats who lose their elections: heaven knows I don’t want these people to be successful at the expense of worthier candidates, but I wish the failure had belonged to someone I genuinely hated.

I guess what really bothers me about Solo is that it’s almost a good movie. It’s not brilliantly made, it relies pretty heavily on fanservice that the fans don’t appear to have even asked for, it’s occasionally prosaic, but every now and then it seizes onto something rather fun. It’s hard not to enjoy the return from Kessel, complete with space kraken, gravity well, and Chernobylesque nuclear reactions, all of it lit up in wonderful color; the Visual Effects nomination it got at the last Oscars was a pleasant surprise and I think entirely deserved. As someone who doesn’t associate swashbuckling Harrison Ford with all of his childhood joy, I even think Ehrenreich does a pretty good job as a leading man. He does basically everything right that we ask our leading men to do in a popcorn movie such as this one: he’s handsome, he’s lithe, he’s able to go back and forth between dogged nobility of spirit and glad-handing goofiness. Certainly he’s not gotten it down to a science, like Robert Downey, Jr., or Chris Hemsworth, but then again he doesn’t have the practice that they have. if we’re giving out Oscar nominations for people doing impressions of other actors—yes, this is a dig at A Star Is Born, for those of you coming to this years after the fact—I don’t know how Donald Glover didn’t get a nod for Supporting Actor for channeling Billy Dee Williams. I was less taken with him than I think was consensus, but all the same there’s something just deeply wonderful about Glover’s reading of “Everything you heard about me is true.” My hope is that for the version of this movie where Lord and Miller called the shots, there’s a little more leeway for Glover to do his own significantly funnier thing, and in the version of the movie headed by Ron Howard that’s sanded down to what we see instead. Emilia Clarke is not bad either as Qi’ra, who, like Han, escapes the Corellian slums only to pick up a life of crime instead. I spent more of the movie wanting to like her performance than actually liking it. The femme fatale character she’s playing is not particularly fatale, although she’s certainly trying, and we never really do believe in the chemistry between them.

I don’t know that this last is her fault, or that it’s Ehrenreich’s. Romance is never one of the priorities of this genre, because there isn’t any chemistry between Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow or Hemsworth and Natalie Portman either. The homosocial chemistry between men is overwhelmingly more important than the heterosexual spark between men and women in these sorts of movies, which is why I don’t think anyone complained about the scenes where Han and Chewbacca just sort of hung out and did stuff together. Solo makes a mistake either of ambition—trying to break the mold of these purely man-to-man relationships—or of execution. It’s probably the latter. The relationship between Han and Chewie clearly comes first. Then comes the brief surrogate father chapter with Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), which is clearly meant to be a profound influence on young Han. And then…it’s kind of a tie between Han and Qi’ra and Han and Lando, who we already know have some history. The movie is torn between creating the fun buddy comedy with a little bit of sadness via Beckett (maybe it’s Oedipus, maybe it’s Harold Bloom), and there’s not quite enough space for Clarke to stretch her legs out. It’s the problem with a great deal of this movie in a nutshell: there’s a lot of stuff to get through, and even an overlong movie, as this one is, cannot quite choose between all of its flashing lights and blaring sirens which one we ought to really give our senses over to.

For example: I want to like the liberation of slaves and droids on Kessel. There’s justice for the Wookiees, obviously, who we have liked for a long time now and who we don’t like seeing reduced to slave labor in the mines of Kessel. And L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is both a gas and a lot. The whole business where she is somehow a sexual partner for Lando, which at least in a corporeal sense goes a long way in humanizing her, is secondary to another human quality: a sense of justice. L3, who sends the droids into a perfectly enjoyable frenzy, is ultimately lost to this little revolution; her death is played with some seriouness (even if it’s hard to take Donald Glover in his Lando drag seriously). The trouble is that all this lacks the vivisecting quality that made the Canto Bight aside in The Last Jedi. It’s been a couple years. You can still be mad that the Canto Bight scene exists (zero stars, would not recommend), or you can read it as a serious take on the franchise’s state of constant, total war, or you can find a middle ground and feel like it’s sort of an important if slightly odd escapade planted a smidge awkwardly in a long movie. No matter how you feel about it, there’s no doubt that the scene and its message linger; Canto Bight is meant to be ruminated on, and what happens there is not just another action setpiece. Kessel, in the end, is just that. Challenging the people who consign the galaxy to perpetual war indicts the viewers who come back over and over again for another Star War, and this is not a movie built to handle that kind of critique. Solo wants you to eat your popcorn and your candy while the guns blaze and L3 falls, and it wants you to continue doing it while they escape a gravity well and a space monster, too.

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