Movie Review: Fantasy/Adventure – Solo: A Star Wars Story
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Johnathon Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan
Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, and Woody Harrelson
Nineteen Seventy-Seven was my favorite year. The world was good back then. Watergate and Viet Nam were behind us and a common man, a former peanut farmer, promised to steer the country toward a fresh new direction, free of corruption and deception. I was still a child with no real responsibilities. I turned 16 in April, but wouldn’t get my driver’s license, my first job, and my first car, a 1970 metallic blue Chevy Nova, for another year. But my best friend Douglas was a year older and he did have a car. The world was our oyster. We drove around all summer doing a lot of nothing but listening to music, playing Asteroids and Space Invaders at the arcade, and going to movies. That was the year that Rumours by Fleetwood Mac broke every record in site, topping the charts for 31 weeks, the year Hotel California by the Eagles, JT by James Taylor, and the sublime Aja, by Steely Dan started off my Columbia House 8-track collection. (12 tapes for a dollar. What a deal!) That was the year I saw Annie Hall and was blown away by the way it used quirky characters, animation, split screens, and subtitles to make an old story seem new and fresh. That was the year I realized Vanessa Redgrave could move me with a simple glow of her eyes in Julia. And that was the year Close Encounters of the Third Kind filled my eyes and heart with a sense of wonder. But mostly, that was the year of Star Wars.
Released in late May, Star Wars was a big deal for a young movie lover like me. Time magazine had already named it “The year’s best movie, so far.” (I still have that cover). After a week of begging, I finally convinced my dad to drive me and my brother to see it. A line of eager fans stretched around the massive perimeter of the old Glenwood theater in Overland Park, Kansas like a giant python about to crush its prey. The theater, long since bulldozed and replaced by a horrid strip mall, housed a huge curved screen that was 70 feet wide and 35 feet tall with 40-foot-tall curtains that slowly opened at the beginning of each movie. The theater itself seated over 800 people and provided the biggest and the best movie going experience the Kansas City area has ever seen. I saw Star Wars six times in that great movie house that year, four of them with Douglas.
I wish I could have seen Solo: A Star Wars Story in that theater, not just because it would have enhanced the experience to see it on a large screen with a large audience (I still remember the communal gasps at the original movie’s opening shot of the massive imperial cruiser soaring overhead), or because of the feelings of nostalgia it would have conjured, but rather because of all the Star Wars movies that have come since, it’s the closest in spirit to the original film, adhering more closely to the innocent sense of fun and adventure that that original film generated. I’m mystified by the negative reactions many have given the new film, particularly fans. After all the bitching and moaning about The Last Jedi being too dark, straying too far from the original formula, and (gasp), daring to show Luke Skywalker as a three-dimensional character who matured over 40 years from the naïve, wide-eyed, optimistic boy hero into a disillusioned old man (watch out, little stans, it might happen to you), it’s ironic and a little disheartening that when we finally get a sequel so joyously in the spirit of the original trilogy, it tanks, at least by Star Wars standards. (The film grossed a not so paltry 390 million dollars worldwide.) There are no grouchy old Jedis, no killing off the entire lead cast at the end of the movie, and no entire trilogy where the protagonist is someone we know will become an evil dark lord of the Sith, just a cheeky, action packed, light-hearted entertainment for children of all ages, just like, you know, the original Star Wars.
Solo takes place before the events of the original film when Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is still a young man. In delightful origin-story fashion, we get to see how he got his name, how he met Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), how he met the double-dealing Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and obtained the Millennium Falcon from him in that legendary card game, and of course, how he made the Kessell run in less than 12, count ‘em, 12 parsecs, a legendary misnomer from the original film that Solo, with a little rearranging of the time space continuum, now renders accurate. (George Lucas planned it all along, right?) Along the way there are the usual high powered action sequences — a frenzied hover car chase and an eye popping heist of a high tech train car on a suspended bridge; some evil crime syndicates; new characters that may or may not be trustworthy (Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, and Thandie Newton); a large assortment of fabulous new creatures like a singing yellow fish thingy, a four-armed monkey, and a giant potato worm (voice by Oscar winner Linda Hunt); and a ruthless new villain (Paul Bettany) who wields a deadly weapon that’s sort of a cross between a Klingon mek’leth and a light saber. And it’s all set to an exciting new score by John Powell, who incorporates many of John William’s original leitmotifs from the first trilogy — the Star Wars title theme, the empire theme, the asteroid field theme, etc. — and adds a few of his own, including a lovely new romantic theme.
So why the lukewarm reaction? Don’t blame director Ron Howard. Howard was an inspired choice to helm this film. Called in to replace the original two directors who were sacked for “creative differences” with production company Lucasfilm, Howard has a full resume of solid genre films, numerous critical hits and an Oscar for directing. I feel bad for him because he’s an able director who did fine work on this film and deserves a shot a sequel, but that probably won’t happen because of the film’s lackluster box office performance.
And you can’t blame the cast either. Ehrenreich’s smart-assed, devil may car attitude is right out of the Harrison Ford playbook. Clarke is the perfect , “just out of reach” romantic counterpart. Smart, convincingly self-aware and sensibly coiffed, she’s everything Princess Leia would have been if Star Wars were made today with this film’s $275 million budget instead of a $10 million dollar one. Donald Glover’s Lando is a more believable scoundrel and decidedly less of a panty waist than Billy Dee William’s Lando, who was never more than a token to begin with. Glover, a comic actor, writer, and musical superstar extraordinaire, brings the right air of likeable sleaze to the role. And Bettany’s crime syndicate boss may lack the colorful cartoonish villainy that made Darth Vader, Darth Maul, Emperor Palpatine and the gloriously malevolent Snoke so memorable, but he’s sufficiently threatening in a ruthless gangster sort of way. And the always dependable Harrelson provides the right touch of self-preserving duplicity.
So what went wrong? Some have blamed the script for its predictability and formulaic structure. But seriously, who didn’t know the rebels were going to succeed in destroying the original Death Star or the second Death Star? These films are predictable by nature. And would any fan be happy if they decided to forgo the prerequisite action sequences or Mos Eisley bar scene imitations that we’ve come to expect? Star Wars isn’t about plotting or in-depth character study. It’s about action, corny humor, adherence to formula and fun.
If anyone is to blame, it’s the greedy Disney money machine. I knew from the beginning when the mega corporation announced it had purchased Lucasfilm, that it was a bad idea to schedule a new film in the series every year. The original series spaced its sequels every three years as did the second which came 16 years later. Back then, a new Star Wars movie was an event. But Solo: A Star Wars Story was released a mere six months after The Last Jedi and barely 2 ½ years after The Force Awakens. That’s Four films in less time than the space between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. That kind of overkill is bound to wear out audiences. And it’s just bad marketing in the name of greed. Marvel studios, another Disney property, has so far avoided a similar fate, due largely to its wider variety of product and characters, but I suspect it will happen to them eventually if they don’t pull back the reigns and slow down a bit.
But a another factor may be the audience, or rather, audiences. Keep in mind that there are three generations of Star Wars fans out there, each with its own series, and each with its own generational tastes. Many of the naysayers who pissed on Rogue One and The Last Jedi, were likely old school fans who preferred the earlier trilogies. While those who loved the newer films were likelier younger fans who barely remember the simple, good nature of episodes V – VII, and the change of pace from the stark realism of the day those films offered.
Those were simpler times, before the internet, when fans just collected magazines, calendars, and dolls and didn’t stay up late on school nights fretting over which Jedi was related to which, whether Vice Admiral Holdo was a good commander, or whether Jar Jar Binks was Satan incarnate. Personally, I’ve enjoyed all the films to some extent but none of them as much as the original. And even then, at 16, Star Wars wasn’t my favorite film of the year. That was and still is Annie Hall. And like Luke Skywalker, I’ve aged four decades since then and life is more complicated. I have a job now, and bills to pay. And Douglas is now a sniveling whiner who never grew the cojones to live a self-examined life.
There’s nothing wrong with mass-marketed, blockbuster entertainments, especially if they make you happy. But personally, the best of these kinds of films will never come close to bringing me the kind of exhilaration I feel when I watch an exquisitely crafted drama like First Reformed or Roma. Still, on occasion, it’s fun when a movie helps me relive the carefree innocence of my youth and those happy days of my favorite year. And that’s what Solo: A Star Wars Story did for me.