Sunday, June 10, 2018

Not So Low, After All - Solo, Reviewed

Let's get one thing out of the way: Solo: A Star Wars Story is not a movie that ever needed to be made.

My re-engagement in this universe as a lapsed fan returned to the fold is tenuous at best, buoyed up by a certain degree of cynicism and a Townsendian desire to not be fooled again. I was drawn back by J.J. Abrams kickoff to the new trilogy, impressed by the storytelling bravery displayed in Rogue One and intrigued by the boldness of The Last Jedi. Following this boldness with a nostalgic backstory movie is honestly the very last place I wanted to go.

But I had a great time anyhow!

Ron Howard is like the king of B+ directors. With three decades of directing behind him, he has a number of very good movies under his belt (Rush, Willow, Frost/Nixon) but only one great movie to his name (Apollo 13). Howard has earned a reputation that is less that of a visionary and more of a journeyman who is adept at getting things done.

This is the kind of person it is good to have answer the call when you fire the writers/directors of a multi-million dollar tentpole movie from a beloved franchise mid-way through principal photography. The on-set reports about frictions between the filmmakers and producers, combined with rumours that an acting coach was brought in for the leading man, Alden Ehrenreich, has led to a lot of uncertainty about this film, both in Hollywood, and in theatre lineups:

Combine this with the number of aggrieved fanboys staying away because they don't agree with that casting, or the movie's placement in the canonical timeline and so on, and it is hardly surprising that in a crowded summer movie marketplace, people are hedging their bets a little regarding a Star Wars movie that was once a guarantee of at least decent entertainment.

And that's a shame.

If you are a fan of Star Wars, or space-fantasy movies in general, you could do a lot worse than see this film. It adroitly borrows from the cinematic lexicon of westerns, juvenile-delinquent flicks, caper films, mob movies and war movies like The Dirty Dozen.

I think Harrison Ford is an almost impossibly hard act to follow, but I think Ehrenreich does a fantastic job capturing the balance of insecure swagger and good-hearted cynicism in a manner that is at least a bit reminiscent of his predecessor. And it is certainly evocative of one of the silver screen's most beloved scoundrels.

There is a fantastic cast of supporting characters, some of whom are left behind while the intrigue is still building, and a brilliant backdrop of interplanetary settings and alien faces, many of which were done with practical effects, which I found delightful. Donald Glover's young, suave Lando Calrissian was especially good, particularly when exploring (or even just suggesting) his relationship with his irascible and principled navigator droid, L3-37.

Sure, I have some quibbles about the film, even beyond its intrinsic lack of necessity. Most egregious to me is the fact that this movie almost completely de-mystifies one of pop-culture's most endearing characters, part of whose charm was his unpredictability and mystery. What was he like as a teenager? Check. Who were his parents? Check. How did he meet Chewbacca? Check. How did he meet Lando? Check. What about that Kessel Run? Check.

Pretty much everything ever hinted at three to four decades ago in snippets of dialogue from the original trilogy has been blown out, dusted off, shined up and presented, which feels a bit contradictory to the nature of the character. The movie itself was probably an inevitability, but the comprehensiveness of his unmasking still feels like gratuitous fan service, or perhaps disservice.

In fairness though, Solo also tries to give us a new perspective on the Star Wars universe, a gritty, street-level view with crimes both petty and larcenous, glimpses of the organizations that profit from them, and is also the first Star Wars movie which does not not mention the Jedi or the Force a single time.

I'm the only real Star Wars fan in my household, lapsed or otherwise, and I had a great time at Solo, as did my wife and youngest daughter. It is a solid space adventure movie with a couple of surprises and a handful of well-earned emotional moments as well. Even in a summer as crowded as this one, Solo is a cinematic salvage job that, based on rumors at least, may not look like much on the outside, but still has it where it counts.

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