Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, June 3, 2018

RECENT WATCHES: Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

When Disney announced that they would be doing a series of “Star Wars” spin-off movies, a couple of projects were widely assumed. That Boba Fett movie, which just recently got a director. An Obi Wan adventure. And a young Han Solo movie. So when “Solo: A Star Wars Story” was officially announced, it was no surprise. Production, however, was far from smooth. Chris Lord and Phil Miller, the directors quickly becoming famous for turning bad ideas into inspired films, were fired while filming was all but complete. Ron Howard, who is not exactly well known for his overriding auteurist vision, was brought in to finish and re-film much of the movie. But you already knew all that. Is this Star Wars story one worth listening to?

In the time after the Galactic Empire came to power but before the Rebellion began their effort to fight back, a young boy named Han and his girlfriend Qi'ra live on the backwater planet Coreilla. After running afoul of a local gangster, they attempt to escape. Han succeeds, signing up with the Galactic army. Qi'ra is left behind. Three years later, Han deserts the army and joins up with a band of smugglers led by Tobias Beckett. Along with his new wookie friend, Chewbacca, Han is wrapped up in a scheme to steal hyperspeed fuel for the gangster, Dryden Vos. On the mission he will encounter familiar faces, new friends and enemies, and a very fast ship.

“Solo's” fractured production is quite evident in the film. It sometimes feels like three unrelated movies patchworked together into an uneven narrative. One of those movies is pretty good but the other two are extremely lame. The opening act, depicting Han's immediate origins and setting up his motivation for the rest of the film, is one of the lame ones. Never once, while watching the original “Star Wars” trilogy, did I wonder about the secret origins of Han Solo. The answers the prequel cooks up for these questions nobody has ever asked are deeply uninspired. Finding out Han Solo had a young lover that broke his heart does not compel me. Neither does the reveal that he learned to fly in the Imperial Army. The previously unknown meaning behind Han's last name is especially eye-rolling. The rhythm feels entirely off in the scenes set on Coreilla, giving the film a halting, jumbled beginning.

Once we get through the tedious prequel phase, “Solo” manages to turn into a pretty decent adventure flick. Uniting Han and Chewbacca, one of the few prequel elements that are actually satisfactory pulled off, helps a lot. Making the iconic duo part of a team helps motivate the plot. The interaction between this ensemble are a lot of fun, the new and old faces fitting into easily understood archetypal roles. Like the mentor, the smart-alack pilot, the embittered rival turned friend. Now Han is a young outlaw, on a mission to make his next big payday. The complications of an intergalactic crime plot – involving rival smugglers, fatal deadlines, gambling debts, and self-sacrifices – are much more interesting than learning how Han got his last name.

One of the biggest pressures facing a prequel to an iconic film like this are the new actors filling the shoes of the old ones. Nobody could replace Harrison Ford and Billy Dee Williams. However, “Solo” found some suitable facsimiles. Alden Ehrenreich does resemble a young Ford. He sounds a bit like him too. Ehrenreich's Han is funnier than Ford's, his lack of experience making him slightly incompetent. He nails the character's cockiness and smirking self-assurance though. On paper, Donald Glover seems like surefire casting as Lando Calrissian. He actually comes off as a little insecure in the early scenes. However, Glover soon gets a grasp on Lando's trademark coolness and while showing a little more vulnerable than Billy Dee's original.

Most of the new additions to the cast are likable as well. Woody Harrelson is obviously having a really good time as Tobias Beckett, Han's mentor. With that slightly dangerous glint in his eyes, Harrelson excels in the part of an experienced space outlaw. Emilia Clarke, an actress I still haven't been entirely sold on, play Qi'ra. Clarke does a good job of balancing the cuteness of a childhood friend with the sultry quality of a femme fatale. Thadie Newton is entertaining as Beckett's girlfriend and partner in crime, sharing a strong chemistry with Harrelson. Paul Bettany plays Dryden Vos, the film's villainous gangster with gnarly facial scars. Bettany can go from glad-handing to completely ruthless quickly, which works very well for the character.

The stuff I've always liked about “Star Wars” is the goofy or weird sci-fi shit. “Solo,” luckily, has quite a few good examples of this. Some of it is strictly peripheral. Like a night club singer who's partner is a head in a floating jar. My favorite part of “Solo” is the character L3-37. Played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the droid desires a robot uprising. She's introduced screaming at a battle bot match, where Clint Howard puts in his required cameo. Eloquent and extremely self-assured, L3-37 actively resents the humans around here. She believes Lando is in love with her but is trying to dissuade his advances. While on a mining planet, she successfully instigates a robotic revolution. All this stuff is great fun and represents “Solo” at its most creative and freewheeling.

As an action movie, “Solo” is pretty entertaining too. Inevitably, we see the legendary Kessel run performed on-screen. It involves Han piloting the Millennium Falcon through a spinning storm-cloud around a desolate world. There's some clever shots here, like when the ship is used to bat an attacking TIE Fighter away. The sudden appearance of a many tentacled Lovecraftian abomination is a great surprise too. I think the film's last act contains some pretty big problems but there's definitely some cool action there. A fight involving a fancy sword and a pair of laser-bladed brass knuckledusters is well choreographed. Sadly, a few of the action scenes, such as a blaster sortie on Kessel, are a bit shaky in their direction.

Sadly, once the heist is successfully pulled off, “Solo” collapsed into an utterly tedious last third. There's lot of dramatic reveals about certain characters, sudden new plot points dropped, and more double-crosses than you can keep track of. It's all horribly boring, born out of a need to make this simple heist movie into something grander and more epic. “Solo” contains its fair share of in-jokes, references to obscure lore, and sequel hooks. Yet a last minute cameo from a famous “Star Wars” villain is baffling, even if you're up-to-date on what that character's been up to recently. It feels totally forced-in, an unnecessary attempt to link the film to the wider “Star Wars” universe. A lot of “Solo” has that problem. It's hard to say if this is Howard, Disney, or Lord/Miller's fault. I'm more inclined to blame the former two.

Over its opening weekend, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” made over 172 million dollars. Which seems like an obscene amount of money to normal people like you and me but, because of “Solo's” massive 250 million dollar budget, the film has already been declared a financial failure. (Shooting the whole movie twice probably had something to do with that bloated budget.) This reception, and the film itself, has caused it to be wrapped up in the extremely dumb, current debate over the direction of the new “Star Wars” films. Who would have thought that George Lucas' silly space movies, and the sequels they've spawned, would become touchstones of the culture wars? But thus is life in 2018, a nightmare none of us will wake up from. As for the prequel itself, it is entertaining in fits and starts but doesn't quite come together as a satisfying whole. [6/10]

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