By Preston Wilder
Critics are generalists; fans are obsessives. It’s a truism, but that doesn’t make it any less true. My interest in Star Wars is roughly on a par with my interest in Spider-Man, or Holocaust dramas, or Reese Witherspoon vehicles, or Iranian ghost stories, or the films of Stan Brakhage; I’m interested in all kinds of movies (or I couldn’t do this job). Star Wars fanatics, on the other hand, may also watch those other genres, but will always think less of them for not being Star Wars – and will surely think less of a critic for treating Star Wars as what it is, or what it’s become since Disney took over and stripped it of its mythical sheen: a series of brisk, undistinguished adventures, set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Solo: A Star Wars Story – its sub-title placing it with Rogue One in the ranks of ‘anthology’ films, as opposed to the main story – is the most undistinguished one yet, though there’s probably enough to keep fans happy. There’s a clutch of geek-pleasing references to the Star Wars universe (a Kessel Run here, a mention of Tattooine there), and our sympathies go out to one Andrew Woodall in the tiny – but vital – role of the recruiting officer who gives Han his surname. (“Han…” muses Mr. Woodall, desperately trying not to fluff this iconic moment; “Han… Han Solo!”) There’s the first meeting of Han and Chewbacca, capped by Solo telling his hairy new compadre, “You’re gonna need a nickname!”. (Does ‘Chewie’ really count as a nickname?) There’s a burst of the Star Wars theme over Han’s first-ever glimpse of the Millennium Falcon. There are two solid action set-pieces, and the kind of tricky climax where cross turns to double-cross. There’s chess played with holograms, and exotic Muppet-like creatures in the corners of murky cantinas.
The cantinas – and other settings – are murkier than usual, in fact the film is surprisingly dark; it’s a bold move, lending visual personality, though I don’t know how the fans will feel about it (there are scenes where you can’t even see the actors’ faces). The plot is simple, with the younger Han (Alden Ehrenreich) as a thief – and brilliant pilot – having to steal a shipment of coaxium for a gangster who works with the Empire, his cohorts (in addition to Chewie) being Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Lando Carlissian from the original trilogy (Donald Glover in the old Billy Dee Williams role) and Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), his childhood sweetheart from the mean streets and alleys of the planet Corellia.
Clarke, from Game of Thrones, makes a fine sweetheart but a rather feeble heroine; there’s just something very placid and deflating about the actress. The others (especially Glover and Harrelson) are the opposite, charismatic actors known for bringing their own private jazz riffs to generic material – but they don’t get much joy here, as if cowed by the whole Star Wars mythos; unlike Marvel, this franchise isn’t (yet?) at the point of being willing to make fun of itself, especially when it comes to its most beloved character. Then again, is Han Solo really so interesting? Sure, he’s a sexy rascal – but his entire arc may be summed up in one scene, when he calls himself an outlaw but Qi’ra shakes her head, saying: “You’re the good guy”. The cocky, streetwise maverick who’s more of a hero than he likes to admit; 40 years after meeting the man, we still don’t have much more to say about him.
Star Wars was in part (a very small part) the story of Han learning to care, viz. his politicisation – which is where things get interesting because rebellion is also in the air in Solo, not just the old Rebellion led by a princess in white but a grassroots rebellion (as befits our more militant age) of the non-human oppressed, the droids and the Wookies. The film’s most memorable character is perhaps ‘L3’, an activist droid trying to stir up her too-compliant fellow robots and engage them in a battle for equality (“They don’t even serve our kind here!” she protests, raising obvious echoes of civil rights). When we non-fans try to recall Solo in 20 years – by which time there will surely be at least a dozen more Star Wars movies – it’ll be the one with the dark visuals and self-consciously ‘woke’ robots. Oh, and the droid sex.
Sorry, I should probably have mentioned. Purists can relax, insofar as you don’t actually see any man/machine nookie – but L3 does talk briefly about getting it on with Lando Carlissian, albeit more as a vague possibility than a fervent desire. (“How would that – work?” asks Qi’ra delicately; “It works,” comes the terse reply.) Solo is a fairly undistinguished movie, a brisk adventure with a simple plot and familiar characters, but it does throw the occasional curveball. “You will never have a deeper sleep than curled up in a Wookie’s lap,” reckons a raccoon-like creature with multiple arms, which is obviously weird – then, in the very next scene, we have Han Solo taking a shower with Chewbacca! I think my interest in Star Wars just went up a notch.
DIRECTED BY Ron Howard
STARRING Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke
SCI FI ADVENTURE
US 2018 135 mins