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Saturday
May192018

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

Stars: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson, Joonas Suotamo, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jon Favreau, Linda Hunt.
Writers: Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan, based on characters created by George Lucas.
Director: Ron Howard.

WARNING: CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.

Rating: 3.5/5

Despite jettisoning much of the franchise mythology like a shipment at the first sign of an Imperial starship, ring-in director Ron Howard still feels bound to his Lucasfilm overlord for much of Solo: A Star Wars Story. The latest ‘expanded universe’ episode in Disney’s brand expansion offensive, the origin backstory of roguish space scoundrel Han Solo is a lot better than fans had any right to expect, but it is not the ripping yarn we collectively yearned for when the project was first announced.

With no title crawl, no Force, no Darth (Vader, at least), no Death Star and only a smattering of Rebellion angst, Solo is about as ‘stand alone’ as the franchise has allowed itself to become since it was re-awakened in 2015. Yet there is a structural through-line that ties Howard’s film to the series earliest installments, most notably A New Hope. Both films kick start on a remote, unremarkable planet (first up, it was Tatooine, here it is a scummy industrial city on Corellia), where our hero comes into possession of a small but plot-spinning Macguffin (then, it was R2 and his Death Star plans; now, it is a vial of superfuel).

Like young Skywalker, young Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), is motivated by notions of romance; his sweetheart Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is left behind as a fleeing Han signs up with the Imperial infantry, yelling to her he will return, Last of The Mohicans-style. While in the midst of combat on a mud-soaked outer world, he meets his paternal mentor, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson in the Alec Guinness part, although more Fagin than Obi-Wan), the leader of a small but high-stakes criminal outfit that includes a terrific Thandie Newton and multi-limbed pilot Rio Durant (the voice of Jon Favreau, in a part that veers too close to the tone and function of Guardians of The Galaxy favourite, Rocket Racoon).

So sets in motion a well-paced, serviceable heist thriller that Howard handles with the assured slickness of an old school Hollywood pro. He calls upon his preferred support player Paul Bettany (The Da Vinci Code; A Beautiful Mind) to chew the scenery as the key villain, Dryden Vos, as well as demanding career-best work from DOP Bradford Young (Arrival; Selma), who proves adept at both murky/grainy and stark/crisp. Howard also conjures a cute bit part for a franchise favourite, whose career he bolstered with his fantasy epic Willow, 30 years ago.

Along the way, loyalists learn the answer to questions they never asked, including ‘How did Han get his surname?’, ‘How did Han get his iconic pistol?’, ‘How did Han meet Chewbacca?’ (Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo, stepping into the hairy feet for the third time, for a meet-cute that harkens back to Luke’s encounter with the Rancor in Return of The Jedi) and ‘How did Han win the Millenium Falcon from Lando Calrissian?’ (the super-smooth Donald Glover).

Ehrenreich brings enough charisma in the title role to (mostly) convince that he could morph into the ‘Han Solo’ that launched Harrison Ford into Hollywood history. He proves physically capable when carrying the action sequences, especially the film’s highpoint – a freight-train hijacking set amidst rugged, ice-covered mountains (one of many nods to the series’ Western genre origins); his rapport with his romantic lead needed another polish, with Clarke’s underwritten part a let-down given the strong roles usually afforded women in the Star Wars universe.

The film takes a left-field spin into contemporary politics with the introduction of Lando’s droid offsider, L3-3L (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, channeling the vocal intonations of Tilda Swinton). Spouting ‘equality for robots’ speeches and leading a ‘free the repressed’ mini-revolt at one stage (not to mention an open attitude to human/android coupling), her presence may be construed as either an honouring of or pandering to the #MeToo movement, suffice to say such outspokenness was not founder George Lucas’ strongpoint. Of the two scriptwriters, her voice sounds most like that of the younger Kasdan, Jonathan (he penned 2007’s In The Land of Women); the rest of the script is pure Lawrence – commercially instinctive, effortlessly heroic with endearing human fallibility, all a bit macho.     

Gareth Edwards’ rousing Rogue One still remains the most emotionally resonant and fully satisfying work of the post-Lucas films. Ultimately, there is not enough at stake in Solo: A Star Wars Story to up the narrative ante into that white-knuckle, crowd-stirring realm. It’s a romp, albeit a bit clunky at times; a space-opera, but one that needed a bit more tuning up. Howard delivers an enjoyable US summer movie ‘event’, but as an entry in the greatest science-fiction film series of all time, it is far, far away from the best of them.

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