Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Ron Howard (2018)

In a lot of minds, the opening weekend of Solo: A Star Wars Story was a box office disaster, netting “only” some $83 million domestically over the three-day Memorial Day weekend (it will be about $101 million after Sunday), and an even more dismal $65 million internationally. The latest entry into the Star Wars cinematic universe was on shaky ground at its very conception: how could anyone take the iconic character that made Harrison Ford into the pop culture juggernaut, who piloted some of the most beloved blockbusters in the history of cinema, and have some young pipsqueak portray him in some trumped up “origin story,” the only purpose of which seemed to be to rake in as much cash as possible? Strike two came with lifelong Star Warsfanaatics’ wildly negative reaction to The Last Jedi, and their howling for the head of Kathleen Kennedy, current Disneyfied president of Lucasfilms, for allegedly turning the Star Wars brand into militant feminist propaganda—while at the same time feminists condemned Kennedy for choosing twelve white male directors to helm the Star Wars projects that have come to fruition or are in development under her leadership. Add to that what was apparently strike three—her “creative differences” with Solo’soriginal directors. Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (who had previously teamed up on 21 Jump Streetand The Lego Movie) that impelled her to replace them midway through shooting with veteran director Ron Howard, who, critics suggested, was more likely to see things her way. Even from the time the very first trailer for the film came out on Super Sunday, the fan base was complaining that, while Donald Glover (from TV’s Atlantaand  Spiderman:Homecoming) seemed to get it right as Lando Calrisian, Alden Ehrenreich (from HailCaesar! and BlueJasmine) was a terrible choice to play Han. And this became a truism among fans before anyone had seen any of the movie beyond a two-minute trailer. A boycott of Solowas organized, and a look at the Rottentomatoes.com page for the film shows only a 60% audience score for the film, with the majority of negative reviews coming from fans who were boycotting the movie.

But to be fair, nobody short of the Second Coming of Christ would have satisfied fans as a replacement to play Han Solo. Lando was another story. Sure, Billy Dee Williams had a certain flair but his secondary role was never the icon that Harrison Ford’s was, so fans have been much more accepting of Glover’s Lando. But Han? Nobody else could be Han. It would be like revisiting Mary Poppinswith somebody other than Julie Andrews…oh, wait, I guess Disney has that in the works, too.

But let’s take a deep breath and approach Soloas if it’s just a movie and Ehrenreich is just an actor who’s not carrying 40 years’ worth of baggage for an overnight trip. Solois an initiation story in the general pattern of the Hero archetype, the mythic background in which George Lucas originally imagined his creation. Like all mythic heroes Han is forced to leave his home after a traumatic event—in his case, he is being pursued, along with his girlfriend Qi’ra (a no-longer-blonde Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones) by the authorities on his mob-dominated home planet of Corellia. He escapes, but has to leave Qi’ra behind, vowing to come back for her.

Along the way, the young hero will often gain the assistance of a wise old man figure, sometimes even a supernatural helper, like Gandalf, or Merlin, or, in the case of Luke Skywalker, Obiwan Kenobe. In Han’s case, the wise old man happens to be a very reluctant mentor in the shape of Tobias Beckett (the always welcome Woody Harrelson), a renegade, thief and smuggler whose chief lesson—and an important one for the naïve young Han—is “never trust anybody.” The hero will also usually pick up a sidekick somewhere, who might be a faithful friend and companion, like Frodo’s Sam; a complement, like Don Quixote’s Sancho; a conscience, like Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket, and so on. Sometimes it’s a helpful anthropomorphic sort of animal figure, like the aforementioned Cricket, or Tarzan’s Cheetah. Han Solo acquires one of the great animal sidekicks of all time in the form of the Wookiee Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, who took over the role from the original Peter Mayhew in Episode VII).

After Han’s escape from Corellia, he enlists in the Imperial military with aspirations of becoming a pilot and returning to rescue Qi’ra. Three years later, he’s still nothing but a grunt on a chaotic battlefield where he’s expected to blindly follow his commander’s orders—at which, being Han Solo, he’s not very good. He befriends Chewie, then deserts and takes up with Beckett’s team of brigands, which includes Val (Thandie Newton) and a wisecracking alien pilot with a plethora of hands named Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau). The group is engaged in a plot to steal a shipment of coaxium, a valuable hyper-fuel. But that mission, Han’s initiation into his heroic role, goes south.

What every hero narrative needs is a quest. Often, that quest is set for him by a beautiful beloved lady, like Guinevere in tales of Sir Lancelot, or Princess Leia in the original Star Wars. Or, the lady is the object or reward of the quest, as Arwen is for Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, or, indeed, Guinevere is in the tales of Sir Lancelot. Han’s quest is set for him by the gangster Dryden Vos (a delightfully evil Paul Bettany of the Avengersmovies), and has to do with finding another supply of the valuable MacGuffin coaxium—a quest in which Han perceives the resurfaced Qi’ra as both the promoter and the prize.

The story, penned by Lawrence Kasdan and son Jonathan (Lawrence worked on The ForceAwakens) is a perfectly serviceable origin myth, and the archetypal narrative arc should appeal to most viewers. And it looks good, with typical Star Wars special effects alternating with some haunting set designs that conjure up parallels with twentieth-century history—World War I- evoking battlefields and a Middle-Eastern third-world-inspired planet exploited by coaxium fuel interests. Bettany, Harrelson, and Thandy are fun to watch, and Glover stands out so remarkably that a Landomovie is rumored now to be in the works. As for Ehrenreich, he is brash and cocky, if not quite yet as cynical as the Solo we all knew and love, but taken by himself, without the pressure of comparisons, he is a likeable hero. It’s no surprise to learn that the elder Kasdan also wrote the screenplay for Silverado, that delightful tribute to classic Western tropes, as Soloitself does homage to the John Wayne of The Searchersand the Humphrey Bogart of Casablanca.

For me the most memorable character in the film is Lando’s radical robot copilot L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge). L3 is all about the liberation of robots and freeing them from their second-class status. The Kennedy-bashers have channeled a whole bunch of hate in L3’s direction, holding her up as proof of the producer’s liberal feminist agenda. But the whole thing is presented here as a kind of parody, and anyway, this robot-freeing motif is as old as Isaac Asimov’s I, Robotfrom 1951. A far stranger aspect of L3 is her delusion that Lando is in love with her—a delusion that a number of the film’s critics and viewers have taken seriously, going so far as to label Lando’s orientation as “pansexual.” Seriously? This is comic relief, folks. You’re not intended to take L3 as a reliable narrator.

The one thing that is a little bit annoying about the film is the fact that it seems very consciously to be ticking off a certain list of things that the filmmakers felt obliged to cover in the course of the movie: Han meets Chewie? Check. Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando in a card game? Check. The Millennium Falcon makes the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs? Check. Come up with a reason for Han to head for Tatooine? Check. It feels not a little bit contrived.

But in the end, Solo: A Star Wars Storyis an enjoyable summer action flick. No, it’s no The EmpireStrikes Back. But believe me, it’s no Phantom Menaceeither, thank heavens—you won’t have Jar Jar Binks to kick around. Don’t listen to the haters. I give this one three Tennysons. Try it, you’ll like it.

 

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