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Entries in Han Solo (2)

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.

Thursday
Dec172015

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

Stars: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong’o, Gwendoline Christie, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow, Warwick Davis, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker.
Writers:  Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt.
Director: J.J. Abrams.

Watch the trailer here.

Rating: 3.5/5

The Force Awakens is to A New Hope, as A New Hope was to the Flash Gordon matinee serials of yesteryear. Just as those creaky two-reelers inspired a young George Lucas to rework sci-fi adventure tropes for a new generation, so to does director J.J. Abrams now imprint his own frantic filmmaking flourish on Lucas’ source material for the millennial mindset.

Whatever factors rob The Force Awakens of the soulful essence of Lucas’ 1977 blockbuster are, frankly, impossible to define; it will be something as intangible as timing or fate or some such thing. Unlike Lucas’ work, which bowed at the birth of the blockbuster era and spoke with a clear and classic heroic voice, the likes of which young audiences had not encountered previously, Abrams’ vision is very much of its time – busy, self-aware, giddy in the thrall of its own energy and aesthetic. Just as he did so successfully with the Mission Impossible and Star Trek brands, Abrams has breathed new life into Star Wars; why it should then feel lacking in a strong pulse at times is worth pondering.

On the record as a die-hard Star Wars fanatic, Abrams' fan cred comes through in his reverential treatment of thematic and narrative elements synonymous with the series. This honouring of lore may represent his geek-boy spiritual bond or may be in answer to Disney’s demands to not mess with the formula, or both. The blueprint to which Abrams adheres is a strength and a weakness; the warm glow of nostalgia is all over The Force Awakens and imbues immediate goodwill, but Abrams does little to earn his own stripes as a conveyor of franchise mythology (unlike Irvin Kershner achieved with The Empire Strikes Back or, to a lesser extent, Richard Marquand on Return of The Jedi).

The heroic characters are strong in this one, with Daisy Ridley’s desert scavenger Rey firmly establishing a spunky, resourceful central figure and strong bond with the plucky droid, BB-8; John Boyega’s defecting Stormtrooper ‘Finn’ is slightly less well defined, but the actor is a strong presence and establishes an honest chemistry with Ridley. Oscar Isaac’s X-wing hero Poe Dameron is all square-jawed gusto; Lupita Nyong’o’s CGI-rendered cantina owner, the wizened Maz Kanata (looking too much like The Incredibles’ Edna Mode) seems poised to become Yoda 2.0. The impact of Harrison Ford as aged scoundrel Han Solo is invaluable, his superstar charisma and weathered ‘grey fox’ appeal the pic’s greatest asset. His scenes opposite Carrie Fisher’s Leia (no longer a ‘princess’, now settled into a strategic role with the Rebellion) are melancholy and warm.

Abram’s villains are less compelling, none matching the malevolence of Eric Bana’s Romulan Nero in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren casts a meagre shadow over the proceedings, his merciless mean-streak seeming no more ominous than that of schoolyard bully when faced with Rey’s resistance. Some convoluted plotting that ties Ren to our heroes does not convince, leading to a development that should be a series-defining moment but which instead plays as a throwaway contrivance. Andy Serkis lends his mo-cap skills to the CGI-generated Supreme Leader Snoke; solid actors such as Domhnall Gleeson and Gwendoline Christie adopt the stuffy Brit baddie archetype in the dark-suited military roles (then it was ‘The Empire’; now, it is ‘The First Order’).

When the film does soar it is on the back of the production design and effects crews. A sequence that re-introduces the Millenium Falcon leads to a thrilling chase sequence on the desert planet Jakku; majestically staged dogfights between screeching Tie Fighters and beautiful X-wing crafts are truly breathtaking.

To put it in ‘old franchise’ perspective, The Force Awakens is immeasurably better than the dire Lucas-directed prequels and probably as good as Return of The Jedi. But it lacks the free-wheeling bravado and pure thrill of A New Hope and the smart scripting and artistry of The Empire Strikes Back. As a kicker for a new raft of sequels, spin-offs and merchandising, it is serviceable and entirely enjoyable. The bitter irony is that the very thing that inspired its existence also created the frenzied, blockbuster-hungry studio system that reins in its potential.