Movie of the Week: Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

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Ron Howard directs Alden Ehrenreich, Donald Glover and Emilia Clarke in this prequel where the “scruffy nerf herder” meets Chewie, steers clear of any imperial entanglements and flies the Millennium Falcon for the first time.

Solo is an absolute blast. A pure space western adventure that plays around with old cowboy tropes as much as it does the Han mythology. You get one tremendous action sequence – a prolonged mountain train robbery where the rails resemble a rollercoaster and hovering speeders are the horses. Later, you get to see the famous “Kessel run” with its ominous mists, swirling meteorites, maelstroms of anti-gravity and Lovecraftian planetoids. You get to explore young Lando’s cape armoire. Donald Glover performs a marathon of knowing charm in a few sequences… racing through impersonation, embellishments and re-suaving the galaxy’s coolest betrayer. Even for the casualest of Star Wars fans, this is the shit worth seeing.

Does it all work? No… Emilia Clarke is a little too ambiguously sketched (there’s plot reasons behind this) for you to care about her character, she ends up being a well used, plucky clothes horse for some intergalactic noir outfits. The ending goes for soapy resolutions rather than spectacle. That’s not the end of the world but it is pointedly not the end of the world. Visually, it can be noticeably murky at time. The film starts in the slums then goes to the muddiest trenches, only brightening up once the Falcon becomes the centre stage. And I’d say we’ve probably reached and exceeded peak comedy sidekick droid at this point.

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Infamously, this was a troubled production. On first watch you scour the high time for signs of a rush job or sloppy parenting. Reshooting from scratch an almost wrapped movie was always going lend any endeavour an air of a flop, no matter how undeserved. But the end product is really simple and spirited. Sharing the same energy and middleweight scrappiness as Spider-Man: Homecoming or Logan. It isn’t rewriting the summer blockbuster rule book but it is breathlessly entertaining. Cough… Cough.. Howard did after all direct Willow.

The Han and Chewie double act is given a chance to shine. In fact, “Han & Chewie” might have been the more family enticing title for this retro-styled experience, one that taps into its truest power, Solo’s easy accessibility. Like the triumphant Rogue One, it is a Star Wars that can be enjoyed with zero knowledge of the previous entries. And like Rogue One, it is a Star Wars episode that middle-aged men will get a pleasing pang of deja vu from. The way Howard marshalls his Han, Chewie, Lando and Falcon is with same the zippy playfulness as a kid playing with his toys on the bedroom floor. The occasional off the wall joke (the shower gag) is welcome but better in small doses. Star Wars barely lends itself to self-aware winks not constant parody.

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I genuinely think Lucasfilm did the right thing with Miller and Lord OUT / Howard IN. I get the feeling their spoof-ish take would have been detrimental and utterly divisive. The mine robbery sequence does play out as a very scrappily shot five minutes and I can’t help but feel it is the work of two guys going “wouldn’t it be great if Lando did this or Chewie did that” for a week on set rather than composing well framed storyboarded shots or shooting coverage so you can make a coherent exciting set piece in the edit. A fresh take on Star Wars, in theory, is a great idea but who wants a Star Wars that has indulgent impro sequences like 22 Jump Street or Pineapple Express. Miller and Lord are the types who should punch up the final draft of a script for a project of this scale to give it an anarchic flavour but never rang true as a pair who should have been given a directorial free hand when so much relies on delivering a clean product that can be merchandised and appease a very intolerant fan base. The result was 100 million dollar reshoots and tarnished reputation. 

Star Wars as a franchise is now on a very public correcting course. It relaunched wanting to inject new voices into old worlds and characters and instead has realised it is too beloved a series to allow that much experimentation. I think it hit a nice groove as THE perennial Christmas blockbuster which, like the LOTRs 15 years ago became a tradition that the whole family (grandparents, uncles and aunties etc) went en masse to see together each year. By moving from that sweet spot, to a very busy, World Cup squashed summer, with a story that wasn’t essential, was tainted with bad hype, and a marketing campaign that was weak willed… Made Solo a baffling experiment of a release! Almost a cruel test to see how robust the Star Wars box office is. 

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Why no trailer before The Last Jedi? Why no trailer before Infinity War (there wasn’t at my opening weekend showing)? Solo was doomed to a lacklustre opening. It still made more in 4 days than most movies gross in their entire run but in the current marketplace that just isn’t enough. Solo has the one saving grace that Jurassic World 2 seems in the same boat hype-wise and is its only competition for six weeks. Maybe those legendary Star Wars legs will save it. Maybe…

Solo suffered from corporate over confidence. It is a great, unadulterated family action film… one I’ll go see a few times more… But there should have been a sensible conversation or a Venn diagram drawn before production was greenlit. Who cares about this story? Who cares about this film if it doesn’t feature Harrison Ford? Turns out I’m one of the few people in the centre of that crossover. 

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Why do kids care about Solo? They don’t. Why would they care about Kylo Ren’s dad’s youth? And there is the integral problem. There’s a generation who love the Lego sets and Rebels cartoons but already got their essential summer blockbuster fix with Infinity War. So if you are a parent on a budget, why are you wasting £30-50 dragging your kids to see a film they aren’t pestering you about? Why take them on opening weekend when the sun is out? Why take them on opening weekend when you might have to sit next to us sweaty geeks with no social skills, stinking the auditorium out with our awful message board fostered attitudes, honking laughs at obscure fan service, bitching in the lobby afterwards? Spending three hours in that kinda company by choice is akin to going to football match on derby day when you are a casual sports watcher. Not an attractive option. 

Solo’s lacklustre rep and unlikely ability to reach a profit has now happened. Lessons will be learnt. I reckon the mooted Boba Fett or Obi Wan prequels will be quietly shelved. There’s think piece questions about whether the franchise has been exhausted in the short space of half a decade? Whether Kathleen Kennedy at Lucasfilm has any kinda end game or grand narrative planned out? A similar blueprint like what has worked so well for Kevin Feige at Marvel hidden in a safe? But not every franchise has to be Marvel… Seriously. There’ll eventually be a game changer movie series that’ll make the Feige machine seem old hat. I’m not saying Marvel will crash and burn, just that eventually someone will unlock another way to make billions from a series of movies. My money would be on James Cameron if he wasn’t lost in Avatar sequels.

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The Fast and Furious films became behemoths by giving a core fan base more of the same and tapping into a greater audience with its diversity and daft scale. They are the closest we have to the Roger Moore Bonds and I bet there isn’t a long term narrative road map even scribbled on the back of Vin Diesel’s D&D player’s handbook. Likewise Bond seems to manage to bloody his fan base’s nose constantly with controversial entries and chaotic journeys to screen. No one is predicting the end of that franchise. 

Star Wars still needs to figure out what it is that makes it essential in the current marketplace. Nostalgia alone won’t do it. Overlong, uncertain entries won’t do it. An absolute thrill ride that appeals to kids and adults and couples alike will. Solo is almost that film. They just needed to sell it harder to the kids and not the “faithful”. 

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PS Coming from a massive Ford fan, I thought Alden Ehrenreich was fantastic. He was an over confident rapscallion, a romantic and his chemistry with Chewie was a joy to behold. I hope Solo’s middling reputation doesn’t stop him from returning to a galaxy far, far away.

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My Top 10 Prequel Movies

1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
2. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
5. Casino Royale (2006)
6. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

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7. The Godfather Part 2 (1974)
8. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
9. Prometheus (2012)
10. Batman Begins (2005)

 

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