Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

What a Piece of Junk!
or
Too Many Crooks Spoil the Plot

As a witness to the fan-meltdowns that occurred after The Last Jedi, one would think that one would be quite capable of living up to the expectations of adhering to one's own philosophy; in my case, it is "don't go into a movie with expectations." That path leads to the fan-tantrum.

But, unfortunately, I did. I went in to Solo: A Star Wars Story besotted with the fan-speculation: "What if 'Chewie' is the smart one of the two?" I've managed to convince myself that he is in the couple years since I first heard the idea and just has confidence issues.

But, the name of the movie is Solo, he's a fan-favorite and the movie is directed (or re-directed should be the proper term, after Lego Movie directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were sacked over "creative differences") by Ron Howard, who has made a career out of making movies that are exactly what you think they will be going in. 
"Opie" the director doesn't surprise.

Which is why his last Lucasfilm project—Willow, way back in 1998*, done after his movie Gung Ho tanked and before he revived his career with Parenthood—was such an underwhelming dud of a film. I mean, let's face it, Howard is an artist who paints by numbers. He keeps things in focus, follows the shot-lists, doesn't go over-budget, "plays well with others" and is a dependable work-man with a good temperament. But, as a filmmaker, he's no "visionary." He's a general who holds the line but doesn't win the war.

Reportedly, in the creative tumult, he ended up shooting 80% of Solo, so...this one's on him. And the result is that I'd kinda liked to have seen what Lord and Miller were making of the film, because even if wrong, it might, at least, have been interesting.

Because Solo is the first "Star Wars" film I didn't like...or even admire for its ambitions, such as they are. Even though I have no "Han Solo movie I want to make," I can see why fans get upset when things "go South"—not that I've seen that happen, having avoided "The Holiday Special," "The Ewoks" TV movies and the entirety of the "Star Wars" animated series that give the characters such large Easter-Island-carved heads. This is one where there doesn't seem to be anything "Star Wars" about it and just goes through the motions.
"Star Wars" means something to different people, of course (with a bottom-line of competence, which also means different things to different people). But, this is the first really incompetent "Star Wars" film I've seen. And this one is incompetent from the git-go. Han Solo is the not the best character to make a movie of (as I'll get into later). Oh, he's beloved, but that's pretty much because of the first movie where he displayed some change-of-heart from his scoundrel days and found...dare we say it...redemption. Here, he's just a scoundrel. And not a very smart one. And he has no idea what he doesn't know. So, throughout the movie we get to see him stumble around a lot and learn a couple of lessons along the way...about how to be a scoundrel. That's not a great idea for a movie, unless your idea of a great film is Butch and Sundance: The Early Days.
So, the movie is basically "wrong," from conception. And the script from Lawrence Kasdan (who should know better) and his son Jon (who's got a screen credit) doesn't improve things one bit. In fact, they imagine a sort of space-spaghetti western where everybody's within a few shades of dark from each other...but nobody distinguishes themselves (certainly not character-wise) as being worth your attention, let alone trust. It's a movie filled with unreliable narrators and, as such, things get a little confusing.
What's really confusing is where it all fits in the Star Wars timeline. One can assume it fits in between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode VI: A New Hope, but where is a little difficult to pin. Harrison Ford's Han Solo was in the 29-31 age range (Ford was 34 at the time of filming) and Young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) looks to be a young 20's. The film takes us from "The Adventures of Han as a Young Man" to the point where he's going to Tatooine to work for Jabba the Hut. So, how long was he doing that? A few years? We only know about the disastrous last job where he dumped his cargo and had the slug sending bounty hunters after him, but that was about it. He didn't do anything else? Per this movie he didn't do anything really legendary—in fact, the Kessel Run isn't made much of, but, still, even if Han was a low-grade smuggler down the ladder of the profession, what's with the ego? Is he merely deluded? Is Chewie the smart one? It seems this story is there mainly to put a younger guy in the role. It certainly isn't there to broaden the character. So, the conception is ill-conceived and the ambitions for it a bit weak.
So, what's the story? You remember when Obi-Wan Kenobi said of the Tatooine backwater Mos Eisley "you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." Well, he obviously never went to Corellia, home of many crime syndicates ("food, medicine, and hyperfuel") as well as young Han (not yet dubbed "Solo") and his lady-love Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke). They're two street kid "scrumrats" "olivered" into the White Worms gang run by Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt) who have managed to squirrel away some hyper-fuel called coaxima, which they could either turn in to the syndicate or use to get off the planet. They decide on the latter, starting a chase through the back-alleys and passageways pursued by Moloch (voiced by Andrew Jack) and Rebolt (Ian Kenney) in a desperate bid to get to a transport depot. After crashing their speeder, they have to continue on the run, but Qi'ra gets captured, but Han uses the coaxium to bribe his way to become a pilot for the Imperial Fleet (they have to bribe them?). The recruitment asks him what his name is. Just "Han." By itself. He has "no people." The recruiter calls him "Han Solo."** Roll credits.
It's three years later and Han is an Imperial fighter and not loving it. He's been kicked out of the Flight Academy for insubordination and has the innate ability for "stickin' your nose where it don't belong." he's advised by an Imperial, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who, with Val (Thandie Newton) and pilot Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau), have less to do with the Empire than they appear. Then, Han (being Han—"Nobody cares," he's told), after voicing his suspicions of the three is disciplined, taken to a prisoner hold with what is called "The Beast," with the clear implication he won't emerge in one piece.
It's at this point that Solo starts becoming such a "call-back" machine that a checklist should be provided in the lobby with every purchase of a large popcorn. Meeting with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo)? ✓ Meeting Lando "He has a lot of capes" Calrissian (Donald Glover, who's the best player in the movie)? ✓  The Millenium Falcon?✓  "The Dice?"✓  Bar scene with lots of aliens?✓  Han gets his iconic blaster-pistol?✓  Han shoots first?✓  Chewbacca plays with the hologram board-game?✓ Hyper-space jump?✓  The mentoring by a scruffier older guy whose loyalties are questionable?✓  The passive-aggressive Han/Lando man-hug?✓  Re-meet with Qi'ra only to find she's not the woman he left behind?✓  A variation of the "I love you"/"I know" line?✓ 
Around the time Han dumps his cargo (✓ ), I had checked out. That last one happens fairly early on with a sci-fi variation of a train robbery on a monorail, up high in the mountains while going at a very fast clip, but without much wind resistance impeding their progress.*** Not that the way Howard shoots it gives you any sense of where anybody is, or just how much danger being on such a crazy contraption would pose. There's not an awful lot of detail about how the thing works—heck, nobody comes close to being ground in any gears—and just how bloody precarious the monorail is to evoke any sense of real danger for the people scrabbling along the top of it. Chalk it up to the perils of digital film-making; you can't imagine being crushed by megapixels.
That's one episode. But, the whole thing is built around the idea that there are so many roving gangs around every asteroid that eventually you can't tell one band of pirates from another, not what their loyalties might be. At some point, I stopped caring. So much scattered skull-duggery to so little effect. There is a through-line of a mission, but the goal is rather porous and Han and crew spend most of their time just running away—from everybody—for it to seem worth it or even have a clear goal in mind. After awhile, you're just going from one murkily imagined planet ('the subtitle could have been "Fifty Shades of Gray") to another with no distinct end-game.
New bad guys are brought in right up to the end to challenge our less-than-heroes, but you begin to suspect that the only difference between any of them is that the more powerful ones have merely lasted longer. Everybody has larceny in mind with no moral compass (and the way the thing is so dodgily shot, no compass at all!)
An Imperial Destroyer shows up in a nebular cluster during the Kessel Run.
No, no, really, it's in there.
This is Star Wars? The series with the Good Side and the Bad Side? And you have to make a choice between them? In Solo, there is no choice and the morality of things doesn't much enter into it at all. The series with such tag-lines as "Trust your feelings" and "May the Force be with you," sinks to the level where the most sage advice is "Trust nobody...and you'll never be disappointed."
Swell.
Finally, one must wonder why—except that Solo is a "fan-favorite"—that a solo Han Solo film was made in the first place. The main character arc for Solo had already been filmed in the first Star Wars, where Han turns from doubting scoundrel to turning around and diving out of the sun—a sun—to run defense for Luke in taking out the Death Star. That's the character's pivotal moment—a change in character and function. Before that, Han is just a drifter, talking big and not really living up to his own image of himself. He's a supporting character, a big brother, but less of an influence on Luke than Kenobi or Leia. It's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," not "The Cynic with a Thousand Faces." Anything before that is preamble and not emblematic. It's just more of the same and not the most interesting aspect of the character at that.
It's a cautionary predictor of the type of shallow thinking that fan-wishes can produce and one hopes that the folks making the decisions at Disney don't heed when there are stray calls for a "Boba Fett" movie (to what end and why?) or the pursuit of a "Darth Maul" series—again, the character's presence (although alluded to as having survived his bisection from The Phantom Menace in "The Clone Wars") had no influence at all in the events of the original trilogy. Why, then, bother, other than appeasement to the voluble fan-base.

As William Goldman was fond of saying "Nobody knows anything" (an example of which is the many studio rejections of Star Wars when George Lucas was first pitching it). Don't entrust it to folks who know less than nothing.



* You don't remember it? Of COURSE you don't. It was a planned trilogy that never got past the first movie.

** Supposedly, it was this scene in the "pitch" to Disney head Bob Iger that prompted him to say "I'm in." Yeah, but, it's not exactly a "binary sunset."

*** Hey, I recently re-watched Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery and Sean Connery was getting knocked around when that train was going 35 miles an hour!

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