Solo – A Star Wars Story (2018)

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Contains no plot spoilers

Long time readers of this blog, if there are such things, will know that I rarely go to the cinema these days. The only films that can tempt me back to the multiplex tend to be the latest instalments in the Star Trek, James Bond and Star Wars franchises and then mainly for sentimental reasons – not having missed a new theatrical release in any of the three series since the late 1970s.

I was starting to think that Solo – A Star Wars Story was about to be the one that finally got away. A busy period of work meant I didn’t have time to get to the cinema for several weeks after it came out (and is also the reason for the lack of new posts here, for which I can only apologise), and its growing reputation as a commercial flop for Disney meant that it was already being ushered out of the local Odeon in favour of evermore superheroes and dinosaurs.

This week was probably my final chance to see Solo on the big screen – and to be honest, I was sort of non-plused about the whole idea anyway and not even sure if I wanted to make the trip. But I did, and I’m glad I did, because I can report with no little relief that I enjoyed the film.

At the same time, I came out of the cinema with thoughts of Battlestar Galactica rattling around my head. The original late-1970s one, not the brilliant 21st century reimagining. My first experience of Galactica was at the Southend ABC, because the feature-length TV pilot was released theatrically overseas as studios scrambled to get a slice of the post-Star Wars pie. There was a second movie released a few months later which was two or three hour-long regular episodes edited together for international distribution.

So why was Battlestar Galactica on my mind after seeing Solo? Partly it’s because it had the same sense of simple, unsophisticated fun that those original Galactica – old fashioned action adventure films that are great to stumble across on a Sunday afternoon on the television when there’s nothing much else on. But of course you expect rather more than ‘decent Sunday matinee TV movie’ from a film bearing the strapline ‘a Star Wars story’ – and certainly from one costing this much money to make.

The other reason I was reminded of those Galactica films was the way that the first half of Solo is so incredibly stop-start, a frustrating staccato rhythm that feels like a string of 20 minute TV episodes edited together to make a feature-length running time. Characters, scenarios and locations are introduced and then dispatched one way or another with almost unseemly haste, gone before you really knew them. A lot of good actors disappear before they can make any real mark.

As a result I got the feeling that the film never really had enough trust or faith in its material. Every time it starts going one way it suddenly stops and bolts in a different direction like a startled horse. Later on, the second half of the film becomes an extended justification for a line of dialogue in the original Star Wars IV: A New Hope that misused a unit of measurements (parsecs are distance not time) – and I’m not sure I was even really all that interested in a film that spends an hour retrospectively pedantically justifying why Han would boast of doing the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.

As well as that, you also get to see Han meet Chewbacca for the first time, and how he acquires the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian in a rigged card game – all the key bits of the character’s history as revealed in dialogue from the original trilogy. Did we need to see any of this? Not really. Is anything gained from the depiction? Again, not really. So what’s the purpose of the film other than to make the studio a lot of money – which is the primary purpose of almost every film ever made of course, but some hide that aim more artfully than others. Solo doesn’t really make that effort.

It’s not that everyone isn’t trying really hard to make a good movie. In fact for a film that should be light and brief and bouncy and frothy, it’s really notable just how much strenuous effort the cast and crew are having to put into this to get it off the ground. Alden Ehrenreich in particular is working overtime to channel the spirit of Harrison Ford in the title role, and by and large he does a commendable job of it – although for me it doesn’t quite all come together until the first time he gets into the pilot’s seat of the Falcon. But at least it does coalesce, and that’s no mean feat given the long shadow Ford leaves.

Fur and prosthetics mean there’s no problems with the film’s portrayal of Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo had already seamlessly taken over the role from the elderly Peter Mayhew for the most recent Star Wars), while Woody Harrelson gets his meatiest role in years as Tobias Beckett, a notorious smuggler who is something of a role model for the young Han. Emilia Clarke (unrecognisable from her signature role as the Khaleesi in Game of Thrones) is also very strong in the role of Qi’ra who is an icy, English-accented love interest for Han prefiguring his future romantic attachment to Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy.

Other characters come and go – Paul Bettany puts in his usual quality turn as the film’s ostensible ‘big bad’, Dryden Voss – but there’s only one other character who really captures the eye and that’s Donald Glover’s portrayal of Lando. In Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, Lando is sketched in as a charming hustler but the wafer-thin character mostly coasts by on the charm of Billy Dee Williams. Glover is certainly a match to Williams in terms of star charisma and screen presence, but he’s also doing a lot more intelligent shading with the part to make it deeper and more interesting. The film’s problem is that he succeeds in doing this all too well, so that the film comes alive every time Lando is on screen only to flag a little every time he’s not.

Otherwise the film is stuffed full of the usual fan service we’ve come to expect from the modern series of Star Wars films. The holographic chess game makes yet another appearance having also been nodded to in The Force Awakens and Rogue One for example. However, to its credit it does it more artfully and is less fawningly obvious than the former film.

Eventually, from all of these different threads the story does start to pull itself together and find a direction, and more importantly a reason for existing at all as Han learns important life lessons that will be put to good use when he eventually meets Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. The ending carefully ties the film to the beginning of A New Hope to the extent that it seems there was never meant to be any room left for follow-up Solo sequels, at least not for the character of Han. Strangely it does feel like a follow-up story for Qi’ra is being set-up by the way things are left, but realistically she’s not a compelling enough a character to carry that venture on her own – even before news that Solo itself had underperformed at the box office which meant that films starring Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi are now on indefinite hold.

It’s a shame that Solo is being seen as a ‘franchise killer’ because it’s a fun, entertaining film certainly worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time. You’ll enjoy it when it’s shown on Sunday afternoon TV in a few years time. In that regard it reminds me of John Carter, another expensive flop that Disney won’t like to hear invoked but which I thought had more going for it than people gave it credit for.

While Solo is not as exhilarating as The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, and fails to pack the devasting emotional punch of Rogue One (which left me snivelling in the cinema for a number of quite different reasons), it’s still a much better entry into the Star Wars canon than the misfiring prequel trilogy ever was.

But in this era of the non-stop production line of superhero movies coming out every three months, not to mention giant dinosaurs on constant rotation, it seems that there is simply no room left at the blockbuster high table for cheerful but admittedly inessential films coming to us from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Wrong time, wrong place?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Solo is currently on general release in cinemas. It will be released on DVD and Blu-ray toward the end of the year.

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