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Star Wars fun and frantic fan service collide in ‘Solo’

 By Dan Cava

May 24, 2018

To Easter egg or not to Easter egg? That is the question and, in our increasingly cinematic-universe-driven summer movie landscape, the answer from movie studios seems to be, “Yes, and at every possible opportunity.” Solo, the latest feature-length backstory from the revitalized Star Wars franchise is the perfect occasion to consider whether tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of endless fan service or to shuffle off this expectation and merely tell a good story.

As with most franchise movies nowadays, Solo has two stories going at once. The first is the self-contained series of events that starts and finishes between the opening and closing credits. The second story is the effort to connect the first story to the broader “universe” of the franchise, in this case a galaxy far, far away wherein nine other movies have occured. Let’s talk about the first story first.

Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo. Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Solo finds a younger version of Han (Alden Ehrenreich), the cocky contraband pilot originally played by Harrison Ford in Episodes IV through VII, struggling to smuggle himself and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) off the industrial planet of Corellia. Corellia is overrun by Dryden Vas (Paul Bettany), an oppressive oligarch in cahoots with the evil Empire, and Han and Qi’ra dream of flying in friendlier skies. Their escape plan goes awry when Qi’ra is captured at the border, and the newly freed Han embarks an ambitious attempt to rescue Qi’ra back. Along the way, he crosses with paths with various outlaws and outcasts: a master bandit named Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Beckett’s partner Val (Thandie Newton), an excitable droid named L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a tall furry warrior whose name you probably know and, of course, the suave pirate Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).

Filmmaking partners Philip A. Lord and Christopher Robert Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street) were somewhat famously fired from the set of Solo during production and replaced midstream by veteran filmmaker Ron Howard, but you would hardly know it from the cohesive finished product. Howard’s clear-eyed visual storytelling and cinematographer Bradford Young’s richly hazy lighting hold the whole affair together, and the script (written by Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jake) tells a tight and bustling story. At nearly two and a half hours, the movie moves at hyperspeed.

Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian. Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

If anything, the multi-director seams only show in the movie’s spotty humor. The best gags have a Lord-&-Miller-esque postmodern twist, like L3’s outsized passion for droids rights, or a handful of knowing jabs at George Lucas’ notoriously clunky joke writing. The worst jokes are those same old notoriously clunky jokes. But Star Wars movies typically don’t nail their dialogue, so the saga continues, I guess.

Alden Ehrenreich bravely and wisely makes absolutely no attempt to channel Harrison Ford. His Solo is his own: less bravado, more smirk, but the magnetism, the unwavering confidence in his plan is definitely there. Donald Glover’s portrayal of Lando is much more of a direct impersonation of Billy Dee Williams, albeit a very skillful and charming one. Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra is wonderfully subtle, as a woman who’s had to use her bright eyes and broad smile to hide her sharp set of survival tools. Woody Harrelson is in his lane here as Beckett, incapable as usual of turning in a bad performance. My favorite supporting turn is Paul Bettany, whose performance as business gangster Dryden Vas hints at an adolescent rage beneath the tyranny.

So much for the primary story of Solo, a solid front-to-back caper that works really well on its own terms. It’s that second layer of Star Wars paraphernalia that…well…

Universe building–with all of the post-credit sequences, Easter eggs, and cameos that come along with it– is a tricky thing. At its best, the connective keys fit the legacy locks in surprising ways and the storytellers ingeniously tap into our collective nearly subconscious hopes. The late inclusion of Darth Vader in Rogue One is perhaps the most powerful Star Wars example to date, fulfilling a latent wish we were surprised to discover we all shared, a desire to see Vader in full ferocious beast mode glory.

Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra. Courtesy of Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

At its worst, the act of Easter-egging pushes otherwise superfluous material to the forefront, pausing the narrative to scratch an itch we don’t actually have. Remember when young Anakin Skywalker meets a young Greedo in The Phantom Menace? If not, who cares. I barely do, and I get no pleasure from that recollection because, you know, who cares. Such acts of misbegotten fan service stand out like mismatched jewelry, and Solo has more than a few such accessories. A small scene is devoted to the origin of Chewbacca’s nickname, “Chewie,” which turns out to be unremarkably similar to the reason someone named Katherine might be called “Katie.” When Han earns his own legendary last name, the moment is wincingly obvious.

In fact, the same charge might be cynically leveled at this entire clearly opportunistic endeavor. Han Solo was a fully formed creature when we first met him in 1974. He was the One Rogue, a smuggler whose smarmy selfishness and delayed morality begged no question and needed no explanation.

Solo goes out of its way to be necessary beyond its arguably unnecessary origin story, tossing out lifelines to trinkets and plot points from the other nine movies, with a 50/50 success rate. The love triangle between Han, Lando, and their beloved Millenium Falcon is a perfect portover from the earlier (later?) films. But a movie-long attempt at retroactively giving meaning to the golden dice from The Last Jedi feels like deleted scenes damage control. A late line of dialogue in Solo smoothly ties our bandits’ efforts to those of later heroes, but a surprise character appearance near the end is as puzzling as it is potent. With such an erratic hit:miss ratio, only a few things in Solo match the continued mythological weight of Episodes VII and XIII, or the retrospective enhancement of Rogue One.

Woody Harrelson as Tobias Beckett. Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Cinematic universe issues aside, Solo is an incredible action experience and a heck of a heist movie. The narrative’s many thieveries find our hero moving from one breathless chase to another and Ron Howard’s polished craftsmanship delivers some of the very best extended set pieces in the franchise. A long sequence on a rotating train is thrillingly choreographed, with a Spielbergian attention to the cause and effect of tension. The movie’s double-crosses (this is a movie about smugglers, after all) each land with satisfying precision.

Solo is an enjoyable and sometimes exhilarating Star Wars semi-prequel that, depending on your preferences, is either burdened with or enhanced by its fanatical fan service. Critics and fan-persons may well split over this movie, and that’s as it should be if everyone’s doing their job. If Solo is not an essential new Star Wars movie, it is still a very entertaining one.

Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5 

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