Thursday, May 24, 2018

Zaki's Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

"This movie doesn't need to exist."

That's the critique (or some variant thereof) deployed most regularly since Solo: A Star Wars Story -- a prequel detailing the early days of Han Solo, the legendary scoundrel embodied by Harrison Ford since his introduction in 1977's Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope -- was first announced. The implication being that because a story has been untold for decades, it must, of necessity, remain untold forever and always. But in another sense, it's easy to see why the existence of this "anthology" entry would cause such a disturbance in the Force -- even if the franchise wasn't already smarting from the polarizing Internet response to last year's (exemplary, by the way) The Last Jedi. After all, how could anyone even dare, much less hope, to replicate the style and swagger that Ford made so iconic and so intrinsic to our collective culture that the phrase "A Han Solo type" became the universally accepted shorthand to describe what used to be called "A Rhett Butler type."

But nonetheless, here we are, and here's Solo, finally hitting screens after a fraught, drama-laden production that saw original directors Phil Lord & Christopher Miller depart over those dreaded "creative differences" and swiftly replaced by dependable journeyman Ron Howard, who proceeded to reshoot nearly the entire thing from scratch. So, why does it exist? Because veteran Star Wars screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (he of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens) thought there was an origin worth telling for Han. But more specifically why does it exist? Because when Disney laid down $4+ billion in 2012 for the Lucasfilm empire and the Star Wars treasure trove within, it was with the ultimate intent not just of continuing the storied saga with "episode" installments stretching far, far into the distance, but of making movies exactly like this.

You may recall that the "present day" Star Wars moved Ford's Han Solo off the chessboard in 2015's The Force Awakens by having him first shish kabobed by his wayward son and then falling into the core of a planet that subsequently exploded. As onscreen deaths go, that's about as definitive as it gets (much to Ford's eternal relief, no doubt). But that doesn't mean there wasn't still plenty of gold to mine from Han's exploits, and given that the playground for this galaxy is anywhen the filmmakers feel like (they're all just different degrees of "A long time ago" anyway), Kasdan and son Jonathan have gamely attempted to make his early years just as compelling as his later ones, and wonder of wonders, they've spun an invigorating and energetic look back into Star Wars' yesteryears that makes us believe Han Solo can live again.

Now, it's worth recognizing that the Han we meet at the start here (as played by Alden Ehrenreich, a relative newcomer who nonetheless made a strong mark in Hail, Caesar and Blue Jasmine) isn't quite the Solo we know and love just yet (in fact, he hasn't even adopted his famous last name). Instead, he's a work-in-progress, a hardscrabble orphan who gets by on his native world of Corellia by running cons and dreaming of one day escaping the planet and piloting his own ship alongside ladylove Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke). In many ways he's the same person at the start of this movie that his future brother-in-law Luke Skywalker will be at the beginning of the first Star Wars several decades later (Their time. Several decades earlier in ours).

The opportunity for escape soon presents itself, though circumstances force the pair to separate. Finding that joining the Imperial Army is his best option, Solo (given his nom de voyage Ellis Island-style by an Imperial apparatchik) spends the next few years looking for an exit, and finds one when he crosses paths with smuggler Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his motley band of ne'er-do-wells. What follows is a running tally of events we sort of need to have happen if you set out to tell this particular story. First meeting with eventual first mate Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo)? Check. Crossing paths with fellow rogue Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover -- could anyone be more perfectly cast)? You got it. First time on the Millennium Falcon? Of course. Oh, and if you're going to attempt the Kessel Run, don't even bother showing up if you can't do it in twelve parsecs or less.

As I said, the general framework of the story is such that it doesn't exactly lend itself to surprises (though there are a few to be had, so I'll abstain from going too much further into the plot, but some of them involve Paul Bettany's crimelord Dryden Vos, and there's a big one involving someone else entirely), but I think the biggest surprise is the film itself and how well it turned out. I have no idea what the Lord & Miller version of this thing would have looked like (I have my doubts that their improv-heavy approach would have fit, but we'll never know), but in Howard's hands we see a consummate professional comfortably at the helm. Unlike 2016's Rogue One (which I enjoyed quite a bit, you may recall), a heavier story predestined to end darkly, Solo is more of a caper that whizzes and hums along with the spritely energy of its title character.

And on the subject of the main character, I think it's worth taking a moment to appreciate what Lucasfilm and Disney have accomplished here. While I initially had a hard time seeing anybody but Harrison Ford in the title role (clearly the highest hurdle for the vast majority of the audience), a funny thing happened as I continued to watch: The further along we got, the more it felt like I was watching Alden Ehrenreich become Han Solo. And this too is entirely appropriate, since that's literally what the whole story is all about. Not just in his inflection, but his mannerisms. His swagger.  Ehrenreich isn't doing a Ford impression, but he manages to evoke the spirit of the character (similar, in some respects, to how Chris Pine is a pretty spot-on Captain Kirk in the Star Trek reboot without just doing an extended William Shatner riff).

So, does Solo: A Star Wars Story need to exist? No, not really. But I guess the point I'm trying to make is that no movie "needs" to exist. I would've been happy if the last Star Wars to grace cinema screens was Return of the Jedi in 1983. Hell, I would've been just fine if no sequels came after the '77 original. But since the continued existence of these sequels and spin-offs is inevitable, I just want them to do a good job. And so far they have. Unlike any of the other Disney Star Wars entries before it, Solo had the difficult, nigh insurmountable task of decoupling one of the franchise's most beloved heroes from the actor to whom he's inextricably linked, opening up a stream of stories that would otherwise have been impossible, and letting Han Solo fly the Falcon for years to come. I'd ask what the odds against pulling that off successfully are, but I don't want to get on Han's bad side. B+

For more Star Wars talk, listen to the MovieFilm Podcast's commentary track for 1977's Star Wars: A New Hope at this link or via the embed below:


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