' ' Cinema Romantico: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Monday, June 04, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

The seminal Han Solo moment occurs, I’d argue, in “The Empire Strikes Back” when the smuggler cum rebel leader, being pursued by the Imperial Starfleet, sets two-seven-one – you know, piloting the Millennium Falcon directly into an asteroid field. It was brilliant and reckless, but also unpredictable. He knew how to calculate coordinates to make the jump to light speed, but he still flew by the seat of his pants. That’s why in “Star Wars” Solo could so memorably go in an instant from not just wanting to hang around while Ben Kenobi de-activated the tractor beam to yearning to stay put when Leia’s rescue is proposed. And if narrative rules dictated that he’d turned back up in the end to help save the day, it still felt spur of the moment because of the way Ford played the part and how the character’s groundwork was laid; you could never really be sure what he’d do.

In “Solo: A Star Wars Story” you are almost always sure of what Han (Alden Ehrenreich) will do. That’s because this is an origin story, of sorts, and other films in the franchise have referenced events – the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, the card game that won Han the Millennium Falcon – that must happen, forcing director Ron Howard to slalom between story points rather than telling it his own way, like Robert Towne being assigned mandatory action scenes for his “Mission: Impossible 2” screenplay. This lends “Solo’s” proceedings a pre-programmed air decidedly, distressingly at odds with the eponymous character’s spontaneity.

These obligations are made doubly frustrating because “Solo” thankfully forgoes the bothersome way in which “Force Awakens” and “Last Jedi” forewent quoting movie genres in the manner of Lucas’s original to only quote Lucas’s originals themselves. “Solo” begins as a kind of “American Graffiti” plunked down in a “Blade Runner” world before giving way to a war movie and then brief dalliance with “The Defiant Ones” in demonstrating how Han met his Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) before finally settling into an old cowboy picture, right down to the bad guys going good to help the burdened locals. But though the genre-hopping is welcome, the rendering is less joyfully kitschy than summer movie functionality. More room to narratively maneuver might have helped, and a brighter visual palette might have helped too. Much of “Solo” is shrouded in darkness, like the Millennium Falcon reveal, where what little we see mirrors what little we are shown, the movie not even reveling in the legendary ship’s liftoff. This gloomy photography inadvertently underlines the movie’s odd languor, save for isolated spirited bits, like the cape closet of Donald Glover’s appropriately debonair version of Lando Calrissian, which is destined more for eternal GIFdom than cinema lore.

If the story leans hard into what we already know, however, Solo himself is not always familiar. If he famously remarked “I take orders from just one person – me”, it is therefore perplexing how frequently this Solo acts out of the interests of others. Indeed, that famous surname is revealed as something lesser and dumber than you probably thought, as disappointing a reveal as learning the genesis of, say, “Catfish” Hunter’s nickname. No, this Solo does it all out of love for Oi’ra (Emilia Clarke), who is introduced in the movie’s opening alongside Han trying to flee the Corellia coop. He gets out; she does not. As such, all Solo’s schemes connect to her potential rescue, though eventually they link up in real time when he finds himself in the employ of a bland baddie (Paul Bettany) whose right hand woman turns out to be none other than Qi’ra.

Another movie not indebted to inflexible backstory might have made Qi’ra more the point. How exactly she winds up in a life of such high class crime might have made for a riveting concurrent storyline, though here it’s mostly brushed over because the movie’s focus must remain rooted to Han. What’s worse, Clarke’s goodie-goodie aura strains belief that her character would have fallen in so close with such a nefarious character. She and Han, really, are just so…nice.

From this point of view, the through-line of “Solo: A Star Wars Story” suggests the eponymous smuggler’s hardening worldview. After all, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), captain of the plundering crew that Han joins, spends much of the movie issuing time-honored reminders about trusting no one because everyone will betray you. And Han is betrayed, fairly often, no double cross more memorable than the one in which our beloved smuggler steps forward, makes a theatrical bluff, and then steps back when the bluff is sort of cosmically called. But then, if all this is intended to alter his worldview, setting us up for the cynic of “A New Hope”, the performance of Ehrenreich never brings that notion home.

If Ehrenreich was given something close to an impossible task, trying to replicate a role made famous by someone who wasn’t playing a part so much as a version of himself, the 28 year old actor nevertheless comes through by not really trying to be Ford. If anything, Ehreneich’s Solo is more Rick O’Connell in “The Mummy”, a scamp rather than a scoundrel, one who never really stops having fun even when the stakes are theoretically dire. On those terms, the performance succeeds, even if Ehrenreich’s gentlemanly version of devil-may-care intrinsically deflects the movie’s attempts to harden his heart. And so even as the prescribed beats are hit, Eherenreich still manages to take the movie as it comes at him, making you wish the “Star Wars Story” thing had been scrapped to just let him fly, well, solo.

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