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“Solo: A Star Wars Story”: From Scaramouch to Scoundrel?

Solo!

THIS IS CORELLIA. WE CAUGHT YOU SLIPPIN’ NOW.

It’s never fun to hear stories about difficulties behind the scenes on a film set. When Lucasfilm decided Rogue One: A Star Wars Story needed retooling, they recruited top screenwriter Tony Gilroy (the Bourne series, Michael Clayton) and delivered. When Lucasfilm fired original jokey directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller from Solo: A Star Wars Story after repeated clashes with the producers and the Kasdan dynasty, they recruited director Ron Howard — a known name, a respected professional, but a safe choice to save the film. I’ve liked quite a few of his works (Cocoon, A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon) and still remember that time on Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update” when Eddie Murphy led the audience in a chant of “OPIE CUNNINGHAM! OPIE CUNNINGHAM!” But I don’t know any Star Wars fans who fist-pumped in triumph when he signed on. I mean, maybe there were some, and we just haven’t been introduced?

On a related note, quick show of hands, out of curiosity: how many folks out there still buy anything and everything with the words “Star Wars” stamped on it regardless of content or merit?

…huh. I count a lot fewer than there used to be.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Harrison Ford is nowhere to be found in this, the secret origin of Han Solo, not even in a surprise cameo. Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!) takes over as the titular space smuggler in his early years, when he was a space street-rat stealing and hustling his way through the underworld of the planet Corellia, until a moment of personal trauma convinces him to sign up for the Imperial military. When red-shirt grunthood proves a waste his time, he deserts his position, forms a partnership with a new pal named Chewbacca (a returning Joonas Sutotamo) and hitches along with a ragtag band of thieves led by a skeptical Woody Harrelson, who reluctantly lets the rookie tag along for their next big score involving a shipment of “superfuel”, which is a kind of fuel that’s very explosive like normal fuel, expensive like a lot of fuels these days, and very useful to certain interested organizations looking to become more powerful, like a long list of real-life organizations too numerous to mention here without boring myself. But nobody wants to watch Han Solo commit the Great Space Train Robbery just to steal a bunch of gas, so we’re meant to humor the script and pretend “superfuel” should be a thing.

One error leads to another, and Han then finds himself dragged into another tangentially related mission that adds more faces to his Friends list, including Atlanta creator Donald Glover as Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, the smoothest man in that galaxy far, far away…if we keep forgetting the fact that in The Empire Strikes Back Lando betrayed everyone to the Empire, complained a lot, and wasn’t much help until Return of the Jedi, in which he personally supervised Nien Nunb’s victory dogfight in the very heart of Son of Death Star. Glover nicely embodies those complicated layers of attempted sophistication, ladies’-man mystique, impulse cowardice, and the exorbitant price tags that come with being a dedicated follower of fashion and all-around shopaholic.

Too bad this film isn’t about him. It’s about the white guy. Who’s supposed to be played by Harrison Ford but isn’t. Yaaaaay.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Game of Thrones‘ Emilia Clarke is the love interest Han leaves behind to enlist and then to pursue a life of crime, but who factors much more into later scenes or else Clarke wouldn’t have wasted her time on this role. Harrelson’s crew includes Thandie Newton (Westworld, Crash) as his Concerned Hijacker Wife, and the voice of Marvel director/actor Jon Favreau as a nimble CG space monkey thief whose proudest acquisitions are all the scenes he steals. As the Big Bad who commandeers the second and third acts, Paul Bettany (Marvel’s Vision, and costar of two previous Ron Howard films) towers over all comers as Dryden Vos, head of the Crimson Dawn space mob. It remains to be seen whether Crimson Dawn is any relation to preexisting crime syndicate Black Sun, and whether Dryden Vos is any relation to Jedi Quinlan Vos or if it’s simply a common surname in that galaxy, like “Smith” or “Jackson”.

Listen closely and you might hear Academy Award Winner Linda Hunt as a space slug. And where there’s Ron Howard, chance are you’ll also see his brother Clint Howard, this time as a Battlebot wrangler. We’re also treated to a few familiar faces from previous Star Wars films, because you’re not allowed to make blockbuster franchises anymore without surprise cameos. IMDb’s site traffic would be one-tenth their present levels without people hurriedly pulling up the app after they leave the theater wondering “Wasn’t that…?”

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:

* Time doesn’t stop for other people when you’re not around them. Their lives move on and change in ways you may not be able to predict.

* Anyone who says “trust no one” shouldn’t be trusted and is obviously foreshadowing their plan to be a jerk to you someday.

* Military recruiters aren’t obligated to fast-track you to the position of your choice.

* Hurray for orphans who grow up to become self-starters?

Solo doesn’t bring anything truly complex for its hero or his teammates to undergo. It’s just another bag of chips from the Star Wars entertainment vending machine. The explosions keep coming, albeit with no planets, moons, or inhabitable asteroids destroyed for a change.

Nitpicking? Due to hasty oversight on my part in checking showtimes, my family and I had to endure a 3-D showing. Our favorite AMC Theater dropped the ball and had the bulbs dimmed too low on their film projector, turning the first 30-40 minutes into one big parade of shadow puppets arguing and shooting at each other over murky backdrops. Or possibly throwing lit fireworks at each other in an underground cave. Hard to tell. All I know is it felt like watching an old-school TV set with the brightness turned down to a below-film-noir setting.

I’m not sure full eyesight would’ve improved matters. The screenplay is credited to established pro Lawrence Kasdan and one of his sons (not the one who directed Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the other one who used to write for Dawson’s Creek), but has all the spontaneity of a creative-writing class assignment in which someone had to brainstorm all the best Han Solo jokes and anecdotes they could remember from the original trilogy, then write a story gluing all those pieces together in as few steps as possible. The net effect is one big connect-the-dots puzzle that, when solved, forms a big picture that any Star Wars fan could already see in their own heads without trying. See: the origin of his partnership with Chewbacca! The origin of Han owning the Millennium Falcon! The origin of Lando owning the Falcon before Han owned it! The origin of the Falcon’s personalized version of Google Maps! The origin of Chewie playing space chess! The origin of Han’s blaster! The origin of him shooting first! The origin of “I know” as a knee-jerk cool-dude response! The origin of the Kessel Run record and why the parsec count matters! The origin of his last name!

(Seriously, if you hated Will Smith’s cheesy “some kind of Suicide Squad” line in Suicide Squad, you’ll wince while you’re wondering if Han’s name was lifted from an old Bob Hope sketch.)

Most of Solo goes through those mechanical motions with little in the way of wildly unexpected details. It’s an empty promise of future derring-do — or maybe just studio chutzpah — that seeds are planted for a possible sequel or two, as if we have anything left of Han’s story to learn. The origin of his vest? The origin of calling Chewie “fuzzball”? Someone telling Han “Don’t get cocky”? Wait, no, I just realized — Han meeting Jabba and owing him money. There. Bam. I just earned a “Story By” credit for the next one. IMDb, here I come.

I was afraid I’d have trouble accepting Alden Ehrenreich as the new Han, and I was right for a while. Eventually I got used to him, like watching different actors play Hamlet, but his version — ostensibly a bit more naive and vulnerable among so many experienced ruffians — never feels invested in what’s going on around him. Technically that might be true to the spirit of Harrison Ford, but his personal take on a younger version of the galaxy’s greatest rogue seem prematurely, undeservedly unflappable. As an average space hero he’ll do, but it’s hard to imagine him growing up and impressing Carrie Fisher.

Keeping in mind what Rogue One taught us about the disposability of any characters inserted into prequels, it’s still dispiriting to see the potential wasted in those that are systematically offed. It’s even more annoying to see one character from a previous film name-checked and declared dead offscreen in the same sentence.

Also, is it beyond declassé to pick on Star Wars physics? Sometimes on the Millennium Falcon passengers are told to buckle up before action scenes begin. At other times, characters run hither and yon around the cabin while the pilots are racing through space, often while spinning like a top at the same time. And yet no one is hurled into a bulkhead or gets carnival nausea.

So what’s to like? Anyone who complained about Chewbacca’s shortage of screen time in the other recent films should be satisfied here. All seven feet of Joonas Suotamo have plenty of scenes tangling with Han and their crews, engaging in battles as well as maximizing his body language to the full extent, finding subtler ways to communicate with viewers beyond waiting for everyone else’s reflective dialogue to speak for him.

As in Atlanta and Community, Donald Glover continues winning in every medium and venue he enters. Harrelson fans can enjoy Harrelson doing a space-cowboy shtick, a sort of comfort TV in its own way. Conversely, the film suffers from a lack of Jon Favreau, and gives short shrift to Phoebe Waller-Bridge (a Broadchurch bit player who went on to create the BBC America hit Killing Eve) trying to make the most of her itty-bitty role as a droid sidekick with fierce activist leanings that burst forth at really bad times.

Established professional Ron Howard still knows his way around action scenes, and bookends the film with a pair of winners — one an old-fashioned heist on an out-of-this-world locomotive that inverts like a sickening roller coaster; the other a final hand-to-hand showdown between Our Heroes and a gleeful Paul Bettany, enjoying a round of screen villainy complemented with a new variation on Star Wars’ trademark stabby laser tech. Not all the chase sequences thrill equally, though scenes launching through hyperspace still capture the fleeting feel of yore.

…which, really, sums up this latest Star Wars product. Solo is meant to do for Star Wars fans what NCIS does for elderly CBS viewers.

Also, thanks to a few choice throwaway lines, my wife was greatly amused that three of the worst books in Star Wars Expanded Universe history are now officially in the New Canon. Maybe there’s hope yet for some of its better creations.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Solo end credits, though the Special Thanks section includes a shout-out to “the patient and generous families of our cast and crew”, possibly for putting up with so much uncertainty during the extended shooting schedule after the regime change. If only the early box office returns could offer them any added comfort in hindsight.

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