Solo: A Star Wars Story

May 25, 2018
Han and friends watching for the first week's box office

If you’ve ever wondered what Han Solo did before the first Star Wars film, Solo: A Star Wars Story provides all the details. It seems he spent a lot of time flying spaceships and shooting at amazingly incompetent enemies with ray guns. Wow! That was a surprise.

One never expects a Star Wars movie to be dazzling in its originality, but Solo is a tradesman-like effort from Ron Howard, who was brought in to replace dumped directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Howard is merely going through the motions, and who could blame him? Although there may be hundreds of thousands of people hanging out for each new Star Wars installment, these films are monuments to commerce and cultishness.

The Star Wars movies have always been a mash-up of genres but Solo has a bit of everything. There’s a doomed teenage romance between Han (Alden Ehrereich) and his first love, Qi’ra (Emilia Clark), whom he is obliged to leave but later rediscovers. It’s a car chase movie, substituting flying vehicles and space ships for cars. It’s a heist flick, in which our heroes make two protracted attempts to get the loot. It’s a buddy film for Han and Chewbacca. There are even a couple of scenes around a card table, where Han faces off against the foppish Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover– Hollywood’s favourite new ‘cool black dude’). Finally it’s a western, if we can judge by the way Han carries his gun holster.

One might imagine such a mix would make for an exciting, fast-moving narrative, but it actually has the opposite effect. It’s a patchwork – hardly more than a sucession of disjointed chapters in a work of pulp fiction. At no point does one feel the slightest interest in any of the characters, who never evolve beyond the cartoon state. Aldren Ehenreich’s performance in the lead role only serves to remind us that Harrison Ford has a charisma that brings credibility to even the silliest roles. Ehreneich, with his smug look, is not in the same league. It doesn’t seem possible that this Han could ever grow into the one we already know.

The story by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasda, begins with the young Han as a street punk on a slum planet called Corellia, yet another Hollywood set constructed from leftover bits of Blade Runner. From this seedy, crime-ridden backwater he aims to break away and become a pilot. There’s a brief interlude when he fights as a soldier for the Empire, in a scene that seems to be modelled on the battlefields of World War One, before deciding that it’s better to be an intergalactic outlaw.

At the end of his soldiering days he hooks up with the Wookiee, Chewbacca (Jonas Suotamo) and a group of bandits led by one Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). The rest of the movie is spent getting in and out of trouble, as Han and his colleagues try to steal a valuable cache of rocket fuel and avoid the wrath of the dreaded Crimson Dawn, the space age version of the Mafia.

Every chapter is punctuated with obligatory fights, chases and CGI extravaganzas, wheeled out dutifully and efficiently. We’ve seen it all before, many times, but the studio obviously believes – and has research to prove – that this is exactly what viewers want.

I’ve never been a Star Wars fan but one can appreciate an action movie that gets one’s pulse racing even if the story is palpable junk. Solo is a curiously flat experience. None of the shocks were especially shocking. The suspense was non-existent, partly because we know that whatever happens, Han and Chewbacca will live on for all those other movies.

In a male-dominated film the writers have included a bolshie female robot, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who believes in equal rights for machines. Her banter is what passes for witty repartee. Apart from that the Wookiee gets all the best lines, such as “Ooouuragh” and “Grrrrorrh”.

L3-37 comes across as a parody of today’s campus activists, devoted to undoing the wrongs of white, male privilege. At least it’s vaguely amusing, which is more than can be said for Han. I’m happy to report that nobody mentions “The Force”, not even once, or brandishes a light sabre. There’ll be less plastic toys generated by this movie.

Critics have become accustomed to mining the Star Wars mythos, and the endless super-hero movies, looking for deeper significance. Perhaps they feel the need to justify the many hours wasted watching these formulaic concoctions. It’s easy to overinterpret stories that harbour no hidden profundities, or find morals where none exist. With the small exception of L3-37, nothing in Solo lends itself to much cogitation. Solo is an entertainment – but only just. If this interminable series is to be extended in a meaningful way there’s only one solution: bring in Taika Waititi and roll out another Kiwi comedy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dK3ypzMGoN4

Solo: A Star Wars Story
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Jonathan Kasdan & Lawrence Kasdan, based on characters created by George Lucas
Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Joonas Suotamo, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, Phoebe Waller-Bridge
USA, rated M, 135 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 19 May, 2018