Solo: A Star Wars Story came out last weekend. I put it in a poll against Deadpool 2 and it squeaked out as the movie for which people wished to see me write a review. So here we are. Here’s an odd thing. When I walked out of the theater I was pretty sure I hadn’t enjoyed the movie. But the more I thought about it as I was preparing to write this review the more I realized that yeah, I did enjoy it.
It was a pretty generic summer blockbuster but there’s value in that kind of movie, too. They don’t make you think hard, they don’t make you cry too much, they don’t piss you off. They’re there. They’re the pretzels at the bar. Comforting and offering a pleasant distraction with their familiarity even when they aren’t particularly note-worthy.
One thing I think is of particular interest is that this movie demonstrates Disney’s continued desire to implement large chunks of the old Expanded Universe stories that they axed out of the canon in one of their first moves after purchasing the IP. We’ve seen this before in Disney asking Timothy Zahn to write a new Thrawn book to add to the new canon before they added the character to the TV show Rebels. The writers of this film also borrowed from the young Han Solo trilogy written by Ann C. Crispin. The original story was a trilogy of books so some chunks of the story are condensed while others are left for possible future films and some of the details are different but many of the same major character moves for Han still exist in both stories very similarly.
Even being a very generic movie, there were a few things that stood out, both good and bad, in the movie. Let’s look at those, shall we? SPOILERS ahead!
The trailers were misleading
The trailers made this movie look like it was going to be a heist movie in the vein of Ocean’s 11 set in space. You may recall that one of the first articles ever posted on this website was one in which I hoped that Jon Snow’s trip beyond the wall in Game of Thrones was going to be turned into a miniature fantasy version of a heist flick. Heist movies are one of the few genres that greatly intrigue me outside of fantasy and sci-fi. Every time I think I see a meshing of the heist with one of the other two I always get excited and this movie was no exception. But it didn’t really happen at all.
The train robbery that the latest trailer focused so much on was really just the end of the first act of the movie. It involved something of the highly specialized crew but the recruitment phase that is a staple of the genre doesn’t really exist and the entire story arc is over so quickly that it doesn’t feel very heist-y. The infamous Kessel Run was used as part of the second act of the movie, but again it only gets an act devoted to it instead of an entire movie and again omits the necessary crew building step as they only make one stop to add to their team and there’s little to no specialization among the various group members. The movie also ignores all three opportunities it has for describing intricate plans, another staple of the genre.
The movie works as the generic sci-fi action flick it ends up being but it’s always confusing and frustrating when trailers lie directly to the potential audience like that.
It reintroduced the Kessel Run workaround
As I mentioned above they included a story arc about the infamous Kessel Run. For those of you who are not nerdy enough to remember what that is, let me explain. In Star Wars: A New Hope, when Luke Skywalker meets Han Solo for the first time Han brags that the Millenium Falcon is one of the fastest ships in the galaxy and that it even made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. Now, in the context of only that movie, it was probably a writing error because parsec sounds like a fancy futuristic unit of time. A parsec is a unit of distance, though, and some people endlessly made fun of the movies. (The script apparently indicates that Han was lying through his teeth in an attempt to con Obi Wan and so one could interpret that to mean that Han was the one making the error rather than the writers. George Lucas also later indicated that Han was both telling the truth and that the distance unit is used because the Falcon accomplished the feat with superior navigating rather than velocity. So there’s definitely some mystery, here) In the expanded universe a workaround was introduced wherein getting to Kessel required flying past a cluster of black holes known collectively as The Maw. A faster, smaller ship could do the run in less distance because it would be able to fly closer to the black holes while trusting the lack of mass and velocity to keep it from sucked in.
The movie changes some things. Instead of flying through/past The Maw ships are forced to navigate a deadly combination nebula and asteroid field known as The Maelstrom (which is pronounced bafflingly by Lando as “The Maw-lstrsom”). When they flee Kessel after successfully performing their theft they are forced to flee through the Maelstrom without using the safe route that has been inexplicably blockaded by Imperial forces (Yes, it’s a pretty glaring plot hole but is really just a means to an end, so we’ll let it slide.) During their flight through the nebula, they do come across The Maw, but it’s not the same. It’s described by the characters as a single massive gravity well instead of a cluster of black holes. I’m not sure what the difference between a massive gravity well not created by a planet or star and a black hole is, but that’s how they describe it. Eventually, Han and company escape and he immediately starts crowing about how they made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. It was a nice call-back to both the original series and the Expanded Universe many of us grew up with.
The action was abysmal
As I’ve mentioned before, I am by no means any sort of expert on combat sequences. But even I could tell that the action scenes in this movie were abysmal. I’m not sure what led to the issues but the majority of the fight scenes were so shaky and filled with so many cuts that it was quite impossible to figure out who was doing what to whom at any point until the fights were finished.
The relationship between Han and Chewie was great
The action was abysmal, but a lot of the emotion was terrific. I think if you asked casual fans what they most wanted to see in this movie they would say the beginnings of Han and Chewie’s relationship. I don’t know that that item would be as high for the more hardcore fans but it would probably be on the list, too. And you absolutely get to see that relationship from the very beginning and follow through as they gradually go from guys working on a criminal crew because they don’t even know what else to do into lifelong friends who just want to stay one step ahead of everyone and anyone who might want to kill them.
Perhaps the best part of their relationship is how the movie allows it to grow alongside the plot instead of trying to force things. It happens very naturally and organically as the story unfolds and it’s really terrific. Aldon Ehrenreich was not a 100% pitch-perfect Han Solo, but he wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the rumors indicated he might be and his best moments were always with Chewie which would be the place I’d want the strongest moments to go, anyway.
Emilia Clarke is maybe not a very good actor
Emilia Clarke gained fame and notoriety for her role as the Dothraki Khaleesi, Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s Game of Thrones. She’s a hot ticket for any movie that wants to add some female star power. But the more I watch her the less convinced I am that she actually has much acting talent. I noted in several of last season’s Game of Thrones reviews that while the plot was still treating her as a superhero her actions and emotions were far less consistent with that reading of her character. Watching her as Qi’ra in this movie I again felt like her actions and emotions were out of sync with who and what the movie wanted us to see her as. In Game of Thrones, I figured it was bad writing, but now that the sample size has increased I start to wonder if it’s actually the acting.
Her character doesn’t seem to feel anything strongly throughout the entire movie. The most animated she gets is when Han kisses her, but she doesn’t otherwise act particularly as though she likes him. Unless you count that she seems to stick her neck out for him at the beginning of the second act but that could also be read as her seeing an opportunity to take out Vos. The problem with either interpretation is that she never expresses a desire to accomplish either of those things until she gets the latter at the end of the film.
Apparently all she ever wanted was a chance to kill Vos and take his place in the dastardly criminal organization, Crimson Dawn. But without any sort of foreshadowing for that moment it reads as a writer choice to keep her separated from Han so that it will be just him and Chewie when Luke needs a ride off of Tatooine in a decade rather than a reasonable conclusion for her character arc.
Don’t get me wrong, it could still definitely be the writing. For all Solo’s high points it’s got some low ones and not writing her character well would easily fall within the bounds of the other issues with the movie. But this is the second time I’ve been able to watch her and think, “Clarke seems to only be able to act one beat per scene, max, and it isn’t even always one of the beats that belongs there.” and that probably isn’t all on bad writing.
Donald Glover’s Lando was amazing
When I saw 2009’s Star Trek reboot there was one actor who completely out-did everyone else, for my money. Karl Urban was given the responsibility of bringing DeForest Kelley’s Leonard “Bones” McCoy back to life on the big screen despite not looking anything like the original actor. Urban was so good in the role that he solidified his position as one of my favorite current actors. He didn’t just duplicate the acting and emotional choices the original actor might have made but he also duplicated mannerisms and intonations that Kelley may never have even been consciously aware of.
I bring this up because Donald Glover did the exact same thing with his version of Lando Calrissian. His first lines were spoken from off-screen and, out of context, I would have been hard-pressed to tell you whether that was a line spoken by Donald Glover or Billy Dee Williams. He brought that level of authenticity to the character throughout the entire movie. This shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone, though. Even from the very first trailer, it was obvious that Glover embodied the charisma of the Williams’ interpretation of the character and during the press tours it came out that Billy Dee actually met with Donald for lunch and answered questions about how to play the character. My one complaint about Lando Calrissian in this movie was the decision to change him from a gambler who was so very good at it that it was nearly a super-power into a common cheater and grifter. But there could definitely have been worse things. There are rumors swirling that Disney may greenlight a Lando spinoff and if they can get Glover on-board for it I think that might be their best decision with this IP, yet.
Tobias Beckett is inconsistent for the sake of the plot
Tobias Beckett, as played by Woody Harrelson, is a complex character. But he’s a bit…too complex. When Han meets this character he’s a very happy-go-lucky scoundrel, much in the vein Han grows into by the time of A New Hope. He puts on a tough face, but you can tell he has a heart of gold. The easiest way to tell if a scoundrel has a heart of gold is always by the crew they surround themselves with. Chewbacca seems threatening in ANH, but he never hurts anyone. His actions tell a story of giant furball who knows his strength and size are intimidating to strangers and has enough of a sense of humor about it to mess with them from time to time. If Han is hanging out with an honorable warrior with a sense of humor like that then you can tell he can’t be as bad as he wants you to think he is.
Tobias’ crew is much the same way. He has a woman who has a clear, strong sense of honor who obviously desperately loves him. The pilot is a good sort with a calm sense of a humor who tries to draw the new guys out of their shells. There is no way a truly evil dude would have worked with a crew like those two for very long. And, yet, the movie telegraphs very early in the second act to even the least genre-savvy viewer that Beckett is absolutely going to betray Han at some point. That’s not entirely unexpected or unreasonable; scoundrels with hearts of gold are still scoundrels, after all. We’ve seen before how such characters might abandon the other heroes for selfish reasons – heck, just look at how Lando abandoned Solo and Beckett at the refinery when Enfys Nest shows up. But when Beckett’s betrayal comes it has nothing to do with personal gain or keeping his hide. He does it simply because he apparently likes working with Paul Bettany’s evil criminal mastermind character, Dryden Vos.
There are some villains who disguise themselves as scoundrels with hearts of gold but there’s always something foreshadowing about their behavior or their associates to give it away. It takes more than a warning to assume everyone will betray you to make that shift work.
Han shoots first
After Beckett betrays Han he also betrays Vos and then tries to make off with the hyperfuel. Han wants to give the fuel to the rebels because it’s the right thing to do but once Han escapes Vos and catches up with Beckett. Beckett, unfortunately, is not interested in splitting the treasure and so he monologues for a moment as he tries to distract Han, who already has the drop on him, so he can shoot him and escape with the booty.
There has been a grueling debate among the Star Wars fanbase ever since George Lucas released the special editions of the original trilogy. You may recall that in ANH Han runs into the Rodian bounty hunter Greedo after agreeing to transport Luke, Obi-Wan, and the droids to Alderaan. In both versions of the scene, Han is forced to sit down at a booth at gunpoint by Greedo. In both versions, they have a conversation where Han tries to convince Greedo to let him go. In the original version, this conversation is mostly a distraction so Han can get his gun out and blast the villain, ruthlessly but necessarily in order to save his own skin. In the modified version, Greedo shoots first but inexplicably misses a seated Han from less than three feet away before he gets blasted. Lucas wanted to make Han look less scoundrel and more heart of gold but it’s a far weaker interpretation of the character and most fans argue that “Han shot first”
As Beckett tries to distract Han in Solo, Han doesn’t fall for it and he doesn’t hesitate. He guns down his mentor and friend before Beckett can shoot him. This is Han the scoundrel with the heart of gold. He didn’t want to shoot Beckett, you can tell from his actions before and after he does so, but he knows he has no choice if he wants to live and Han is a survivor. You can’t survive in the criminal underworld without being a little ruthless sometimes, and it was good to see that acknowledged as we continue to hurtle to a new world with fresh takes on Star Wars.
Solo is not a perfect movie. It’s not even really a particularly good movie by most measures. But it’s a fun movie that does nostalgia in a significantly better, if more specialized, way than Ready Player One. It’s easily the kind of movie that your average Star Wars fan can keep around the house for a bland but quite enjoyable palette cleanser in the years to come. As long as you aren’t entirely opposed to the idea of a Han Solo origin story, you’re not expecting some sort of cinematic masterpiece, and you have a large, friendly bucket of popcorn to munch you should find this movie plenty enjoyable.