“Solo: Star Wars Story” is one of those backwards origin stories where the main dramatic tension is drawn from seeing how the threesome from the original story (Han Solo, Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon) get together. Director Ron Howard does a solid job of pacing with the explosions and dare-doing, but there are significant problems of characterizations and what I’ll call the Disneyfication of the Star Wars franchise.
There is no opening crawl. Instead, we get static text that tells us this is a “lawless time” when “crime syndicates compete for resources.” We’re on the planet of Corellia where the Imperial Army attempts to quell these syndicates, but we dive into a heist that leads to a high speed chase with our hero, Han (Alden Ehrenreich), who has boosted a cool ride.
It is hard for this SoCal girl to think of Disney without thinking of Disneyland and even Walt Disney who was a presence through TV reruns. The first sequence of “Solo” made me think that this would eventually become a Disneyland or Disney World ride. I could see all the tracking and even a place for a certain droid to pop up.
At the end of the chase, he’s back in the what looks like sewer passage ways and reunites with his lady love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) because while his mission failed, he did get something that they can use to escape Corellia and their crime overlady, Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). This is not a match made in Hollywood heaven and while they look good on screen as a couple, the chemistry is tepid.
While casting Clarke may seem like a perfect meeting of the worlds of Geekdom–HBO’s “Game of Thrones” queen becomes a major player in the Han Solo backstory, queenly is not what is needed for the role of Qi’ra (pronounced like Kira or Keira). The initial problem are the accents. She sounds like royalty or at least educated and he sounds like an somewhat educated American and they are in Corellia but don’t seem to have grown up and been educated in the same place. And for living in servitude, they are too well coiffed. You don’t get the feeling of grime and slime with these two lovebirds, but you do with the wonderfully otherworld creatures and their pets and domestic livestock.
These two kids are locked into a nefarious underground world of Corellia where they are thieves under a centipede-like female overlord. I was thinking “Oliver!” in Outer Space and surely in some future cosplay adaptation, someone else with bring music and artistically smudged street urchins to this scene as well, but this is an action movie and we’re late for a date between Han and Chewie and the Millennium Falcon!
Han makes a break with Qi’ra having with that valuable something–volatile liquid which powers this world–something he was unwilling to turn over to Lady Proxima. (Rhydonium in its refined state?) Wanted by the authorities and Proxima’s crime syndicate, they need to escape the planet so he uses the substance to buy them entry into transport out of Corellia (Anna Francolini as the uptight but dishonest Imperial Emigration Officer), but they are betrayed and only Han makes it out with Qi’ra being detained by our beloved Imperial thugs. Han promises that he’ll return for Qi’ra, but how?
Han, not knowing exactly where he wants to go and without the required documentation to immigrate out, he decides to enlist in the Imperial Army after seeing the advertising (“Join the Empire” and “Learn new skills”). Thus, we have a quick explanation for how he gets military training in weaponry and piloting. Since he is alone–a self-proclaimed orphan, the recruiter (Andrew Woodall) dubs him “Solo.”
Three years later, Han has completed his pilot training, but finds himself stuck on the mud planet of Mimban, fighting trench war battles without meaning not unlike World War I. (Are we to associated Han Solo with the Great War and the Greatest Generation?) He’s told they are at war to “bring peace and prosperity” but he points out that “This is their planet and we’re the invaders.”
Han notes that a certain Captain Beckett (Woody Harrelson) has some mad weaponry skills and being a pilot without a spaceship, he tried to join up but Beckett has him arrested and thrown into the pit with the Beast. And, you’ve already guessed who the Beast (Joonas Suotamo) is, right?
The father and son writing team of Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan seem to being giving kudos or pilfering movie classics, depending upon your point of view, in his script. As with many movies, male-bonding begins with a fist fight and then a unified front for a con artistic escape. The man and beast are chained together (I couldn’t help thinking of “The Defiant Ones”).
Han and Chewie are able to join forces with Beckett who isn’t really a captain in the Imperial forces, but a pirate under a more affluent crime lord, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) and has been hired with his crew on a train heist on a snowy mountainside. This could be a Western train robbery but with space pirates fighting other space pirates (and not the Pinkertons).
Beckett’s crew includes his best gal pal Val (Thandie Newton) and the well-armed pilot Ardennian Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau), but having the brawn of Chewy is an asset for any gang. Beckett advises Han to never trust anyone and apparently he also doesn’t trust his lady love (“Assume everyone will betray you and you won’t be disappointed”) and someone is definitely betraying Beckett because a rival pirate keeps showing up.
Dryden Vos also has a gal pal, but can he trust her? Can Han trust her? What follows is the introduction of Han to a slick Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) who runs off his mouth and faces everyday like a walk on the runway. If nothing else, this Star Wars movie continues the traditions of being fashion fantastic and Lando never met Edna Mode because he a man who loves the cape. Star Wars has generally romanced capes but not for its crusaders as much as its criminals.
Lando is a gambler and owner of the Falcon so this is also the tale of how Han Solo gets his famous ride but the high stakes game lacks tension even with the gotcha moments. Lando’s best bud is a droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) who takes issue with the enslavement of her kind so we do get civil rights. That civil rights issue and the rival pirates will be an important part of the daring mining heist that follows. Fans of many-legged creatures won’t be disappointed because at one point space seems to be inhabited by creatures one might associate with the oceans.
While I’m not providing any spoilers, this movie might spoil the delight of the original Han Solo and his subsequent romance with a princess. For people familiar with the original series, there will be precedence for the “who shot first” question.
As is the case with the progressive movie world of today, “Solo” features many black performers in key positions (e.g. Sema-Tawi Smart as the chanteuse), but let’s not call it multiculturalism melting pot triumph because in our real world, 60 percent of the population is Asian and of that about one-fifth of that is Chinese (18.54 percent being the population of China with 3.7 percent ethnic Chinese living outside of China). That means East Asians (China, Japan, Mongolia, Taiwan, South and North Korea) make up a large percentage of the world population. You will see East Asian-looking people in the general crowd, but despite the casting of the 2016 “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” which featured Mainland Chinese-born Donnie Yen (Chirrut Îmw), ethnic Pakistani Brit Riz Ahmed (Bodhi Rook) and Cantonese Chinese Jiang Wen (Jiang Wen) you won’t see any casting like that in “Solo.”
Overall, this has great CGI and makeup, but a flat story with questionable chemistry, but if you love cosplay and capes, this will please you and help you predict the future of the Star Wars at Disneyland and Disney World.