A Bunch of Simple Tricks and Nonsense
DIRECTED BY RON HOWARD/2018
It’s not just irresistible, but perfectly fair to say, that expectations for Solo have been so low, it’s a relief that it’s merely so-so.
Yes, it’s true that between the film’s title and the unavoidable nearly-yearlong press reports of its very troubled production, this whole thing virtually begs for that kind of critical treatment. Does the resulting film deserve it? The answer can only be a resounding “Yes”.
…From a certain point of view.
In the capably iffy hands of Oscar winning replacement director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code), Solo, true to the established form of its beloved title character, gets by. Not as true to form, however, is way it must resort to punching up his rogue charm. So yes… this is where it must be said that, try as he might, young Han Solo actor Alden Ehrenreich is no Harrison Ford.
The film may not be an intergalactic train wreck, but it does have an intergalactic train wreck.
How could he be? Selected from an unwieldy talent search said to be the biggest since they set out to cast the role of Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades series (apparently that was a really big job), Ehrenreich is inspired casting as much as anyone could be. Having made a positive impression in Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply (that title a Han-esque sentiment in its own right) and having downright stolen the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!– in the role of a bad actor, no less- he arrived as capably as anyone could.
Still though, and perhaps wholly inevitably, watching Ehrenreich work to fill Ford’s boots is like watching Steve Martin play Inspector Clouseau: He gets the job done, mostly, even as he’s doomed to forever be the guy saddled with the task of holding together a unique mold that broke after the first guy departed. And let’s face it, no matter how often Ehrenreich is told to make the part his own (even by Ford himself), the bottom line of his job can’t help but be to do the best Harrison Ford impression (circa pre-1977) possible. As it stands, and it’s surely a surprise to no one, Ford (though himself not the greatest acting talent at the time) remains THE Han Solo. That’s a fact that’s forever preserved in carbonite.
Solo does boast an intriguing cast, one that absolutely pulls through in this particular jam. Woody Harrelson plays a new character called Becket, a gun-twirling crook who takes Han under his broken wing. Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones fame is Qi’ra, a mysterious girl that Han grew up with. She re-emerges in league with a scar-faced crime lord called Dryden Vos, portrayed by Ron Howard regular Paul Bettany. Joonas Suotamo returns as Chewbacca, having replaced Peter Mayhew in all of the Disney Star Wars films that feature the character.
In a satisfying bit of dream casting for many, popular star Donald Glover (Atlanta) is young Lando Calrissian. Smooth yet quirky, Glover’s Calrissian actually serves to further mystify the character, in a good way. His trusty droid, a feisty female model keen on equal rights for robotkind, is played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Amazon’s Fleabag). When one stops to consider that all of these actors (except Bettany, who came in via Howard) were hired by initial Solo directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller to be in a very different, more comedic version of this film, their finished work is all the more impressive- Ehrenreich included.
As for Ron Howard, he’s taken this opportunity to both enjoy this moment in twin suns, and to tow the company line with his version of “Everything’s perfectly all right now… We’re fine… We’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?”. Howard’s visuals are nothing if not handily utilitarian here, with the noticeable exception of the work of up and coming cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma). For the first two-thirds of Solo, the film is a dim, murky mess to look at. One wonders if Young, known for his moody atmospheres, was a Lord/Miller hire, and if so, was Howard locked into matching their footage. Or, perhaps the look was in fact Howard’s call, a last ditch attempt to snuff out his predecessors hilarity. Whatever. The dim look is distracting and out of step with the freewheeling romp that this is supposed to be. By the time the Millennium Falcon lands on a sunlit desert planet in Act III, the relief of light in the picture is palpable.
Star Wars has always been a fantastical melting pot of genres and ideas, but the Solo blend attempted by galaxy veteran screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, along with his son Jonathan, fails to ignite today’s seen-it-all audiences. Foremost, the clunky Western-movie tropes that pepper the film (the earthy wardrobe, card games, a quick-draw style stand-off, a jail break, and even a train robbery) don’t quite land with the gee-whiz gusto that they need to. These things are fun, but not infectious. In short, the film may not be an intergalactic train wreck, but it does have an intergalactic train wreck.
The “space Western” that Lucasfilm so obviously set out to make is betrayed by encroaching heist film elements, which are in turn left in the dust by contemporary chase scene set-pieces, all of which is upstaged by the screenplay’s drive to play connect-the-dots with as many previously tossed-off references to Han’s early life as possible. Ever wonder what “the Kessel run” is? It’s here. Ever feel the need to watch the card game in which Han wins the Millennium Falcon? You will. Ever wish we’d get to see the moment when Han met Chewie? It happens. Basically, the whole movie is Han Solo Forrest Gump-ing his way through his own life, pre-A New Hope. This is both Solo’s raison d’être, but also it’s biggest problem; and unlike the directorial woes and whatnot, it was there from the outset. More-so than any Star Wars prequel to date, the sheer lack of surprises (a marked opposite of its direct franchise predecessor, The Last Jedi– a film many fans found to be too full of surprises) in the movie slows down the works, and frustratingly keep it from ever hitting light-speed. That said, this one’s still got a few tricks up its sleeve.
Also notably, Solo is the first Star Wars movie without religion. Reasonably, it does take place smack in between the slaughter of the Jedi Order in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and the beginning of its kinda-sorta resurgence in Episode IV: A New Hope. But the complete absence of The Force is glaring, not even acknowledging why Solo is such a hardened atheist when he first meets Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. (Guess there’s always Solo 2?) For a movie that’s supposed to be a concentrated dive into the character of everyone’s favorite smuggler, that’s one vital compartment noticeably empty. The overall significance of Han’s arc begins in A New Hope with his pronouncement:
“Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls my destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.”
His arc, then, essentially ends with his The Force Awakens about-face:
“ (I) Thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. A magical power holding together good and evil, the dark side and the light. Crazy thing is… it’s true. The Force. The Jedi… All of it… It’s all true.”
That, before finally offering to do “anything” for his lost son, Ben… Thereby prompting said son to fatally impale him through the heart. Hence, this glorified loner who entered the saga proclaiming his detachment from any and all ideologies and larger beliefs ends on a spoken note of compete, fatherly selflessness. As much as it hurts, it’s also a beautiful thing.
With Solo interjected as a prequel to all of that, we see fully and completely how inconsequential an entire Star Wars movie of simple tricks and nonsense really is. Fun? Sure. Interesting? Barely. Compelling? Negative, negative.