Friday 25 May 2018

Film Review: Solo - A Star Wars Story

Lucasfilm winds back the clock for a crime caper centred around everyone's favourite scruffy-looking nerf herder – but how does Solo: A Star Wars Story stack up?

Years before he shoots Greedo in the schnozz and meets a whiny farmhand called Luke Skywalker, a young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is an Imperial Academy dropout who finds himself in with the wrong people.

Desperate to find his way back to the mean streets of Corellia and reunite with his sweetheart Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke), Solo teams up with Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton) and Rio (Jon Faverau) for an audacious train heist. Along the way he meets Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and crosses paths with the nefarious Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).

Having undergone the customary troubled production period that is becoming all too common with these Star Wars spin-offs, Ron Howard's Solo (Chris Lord and Phil Miller are credited as 'executive producers') arrives with a number of question marks hanging over its head. How does its lead cope in such an iconic role? Does Howard actually deliver something serviceable? And most importantly, does the film justify its own existence? 

Well, thankfully, the answer to those three are yes, yes and kinda. Having worked for a decade to become an overnight success, Ehrenreich does a pretty great job of embodying the swagger and the smarminess of Han Solo, albeit with more idealism, naivety and less cynicism. He's not doing an impersonation of Harrison Ford; he's just playing Han Solo and trying to give it his own spin, which is probably the better of the two options. 

The plot, unlike Rogue One, isn't as directly tethered to the main Skywalker saga films. With less 'galaxy in peril' doom and gloom and more character-driven stakes, Solo is akin to a crime caper or a Western. The film is split into three distinct sections and it's the second – where Han meets Lando, reunites with Qi'ra and travels to the spice mines of Kessel – which is the strongest. There's rarely a dull moment as the action zig-zags from snowy mountain tops to a swirling maelstrom in space and a barren ramshackle desert outpost. 

Howard stages the action well, with the same panache and intensity he brought to Rush. Bradford Young's (Arrival) grimy cinematography doesn't pop but is suited to the gritty underworld vibe of the narrative. And John Powell's score – complete with original Han motif from John Williams – is great too, mixing original melodies with some recognisable riffs from iconic moments in The Empire Strikes Back

That said, Solo has its fair share of issues. Firstly, the ensemble cast is a mixed bag; while Glover is an absolute riot as Lando and Phoebe Waller-Bridge is equally as fun as his droid co-pilot L3-37, Harrelson essentially just does the same slimy schmuck routine we've seen from him umpteen times before. Clarke barely registers as Qi'ra, with her 'girl next door' vibe often at odds with the seductive moral ambiguity the role demanded. 

An inherent issue is Solo's insistence at showing us all the wink-wink, nudge-nudge stuff that we really don't need to know or see; from how Han got his iconic DL-44 blaster to how he gets his surname, it's the same kind of fan wank stuff that diminished Rogue One. We've spent 40 years hearing about Han's legendary Kessel Run – do we need to see it played out? I digress; after all, that's more a complaint about the nature of prequels.

At the end of the day, you're either going to enjoy seeing Han Solo's backstory strip mined or you're not. Unlike The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, Solo is fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things; future films (oh yeah, there'll be another one) might go further in that regard, but right now Solo feels quite slight and throwaway. A popcorn movie if ever there was one.

The Verdict: 7.5/10

I have mixed feelings about this. While I had fun with the swashbuckling adventures of Han, Lando, Chewie and the gang, this latest foray into Star Wars' past doesn't shock or surprise in the same way that The Last Jedi did. That said, it gets extra points for the score, Lando's sweet cape room and THAT cameo.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas across Australia now.

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