Film review – Solo: A Star Wars Story (Director: Ron Howard)
By Sascha Krieger
It’s almost as if the film wants to exorcise its, to put it mildly, difficult creation process. Its initial directors were fired halfway through, Ron Howard took over, making sure that at least top-level craftsmanship would be guaranteed. After a few minutes all of this is forgotten. Solo: A Star Wars Story charges out of the gate as if there was no tomorrow. A breathless chase, a few life-or-death confrontations, a love story, a miniature war movie thrown in for good measure and finally a memorable first meeting of two beloved characters. The film’s first part is so fast-paced and breathless that viewers can easily forget how little things fit together, how much is constructed of set pieces cobbled together from various genres. Plausible characters? Who needs them? A consistent direction? That’s for losers! A goal for what is essentially a quest-based adventure movie, an Indiana Jones in space (the irony that said character was made famous by the man who originally played the title character in this one is not lost)? Overrated. Ron Howard knows how to build suspense, he masterfully erects a gritty, dirty, darkish world, an underworld really, and is an expert in keeping his audience entertained. There is no second that’s really boring, chiefly because Howard piles action sequence upon action sequence upon, well, you will guess it by now.
Yes, action has always been a key element of the Star Wars universe which has traditionally taken inspiration from genres such as the adventure flick or the western. They have, however, always been tools serving a higher objectives. The films tell the ancient story of good battling evil, they occasionally comment on the world – far, far away – we live in and are trying to confront existential questions. Solo, it has to be said, does none of these things. Yes, it throws in a few set pieces like the controlling, evil Empire, the idea of a rebellion against it, it has a few villains but none of this feels consequential but rather as items on a checklist. The revelation of the good force feels as empty and contrived as the various villains seem arbitrary. While the film hints at a background, it is little more than just some painted canvas. The existential battle between good and evil – among humanity and within the individual – is mostly absent.
Which makes the characters quite hollow, too. It starts with Alden Ehrenreich who is completely overwhelmed by stepping into Harrison Ford’s shoes. The original Solo’s dry sarcasm and ironic realism is replaced by youthful arrogance and ridiculous overconfidence, delivered not with irony but a rather childish silliness. This may help explain why initially very adventure Han stumble into fails but it breaks apart completely when the script tells him to develop, albeit in a rather unconvincing way. Ultimately, we end up believing Ehrenreich nothing: not the cynical outlaw persona he needs to arrive at because that’s how we meet him in the original trilogy, not the sudden moralistic „do the right thing“ impulse. This Han is always the good guy but that doesn’t fit the role. And makes it completely implausible when he does not choose the side of the good in the end. The original films tell him he mustn’t so he doesn’t. Why? Wrong question.
The other characters? Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett is a career gangster whom he invests with more nuances than the role allows before finally giving him the one and only of the many, many plot twists that can be classified as unpredictable (too often film opts for the obvious). Paul Bettany is way overqualified to play the two-dimensional villain Dryden Vos but it is the female characters that suffer most: Emilia Clarke essentially plays two Qi’Ras, the initial young lover and the hardened opportunist, two parts she cannot quite keep apart which leads to entire character basically collapsing. Thandie Newton’s tough but good-hearted gangster is as forgettable as short-lived. There are two bright spots, though: Donald Glover’s young Lando Calrissian, a swaggering, arrogant, yet vulnerable and insecure con man, and L3, a revolutionary, emancipatory, feminist android voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who is both comic relief and centre point of the only real relationship of the film that doesn’t feel contrived and hollow. When Lando has to bid her good-bye, the film for a moment gains the intense urgency, the emotional rawness that has anchored the best Star Wars films.
It is, alas, a fleeting moment. Soon the action needs to pick up, unnecessary origin questions need answered, the original trilogy set up, even a ludicrous, chronology-defying character return – it is rumoured he will return in future anthology films – enacted before the most predictable, boring, annoyingly smug ending. Yes, technically the film is nearly flawless. Ron Howard knows how to keep the audience engaged and he does so. There is a visual and atmospheric consistency in the darkish, shabby, dusty, second-hand underworld universe that’s both a departure from the original films and the current trilogy, finding its own distinct tone, and is connected with it, building bridges to the world first created by George Lucas. It is what happens there that is so disappointing: a bland adventure story with plenty of plot holes and even more twists, not designed to serve a higher narrative purpose but self-sufficient to keep the viewer watching. A routine effort, entertaining, technically brilliant but hollow inside. It’s not only Alden Ehrenreich who cannot walk in shoes way too big for him – it’s the entire film.