Solo: A Star Wars Story

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton

Director: Ron Howard

Writers: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan


Another year, another Star Wars movie, and this time it’s all about everybody’s favourite stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder. As far as Star Wars prequels go, Solo is probably a movie that didn’t need to be made. Unlike Rogue One, this film does feel like there’s a little more puppeteering going on as it recounts the early years of Han Solo’s (Alden Ehrenreich) life with some of the key moments that we know happened from the original films. We see Han meet Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), we see him win the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) in a card game, and we see him complete the Kessel Run (a sequence that goes out of its way to fix a screenplay error in the 1977 film where ‘parsec’ was mistakenly used as a unit of time). Fans of the original movies know that these moments have got to happen and it does somewhat steal away from the sense of freedom that Rogue One had with a story and characters that were mostly divorced from the events of the official saga, but I don’t think that’s a fatal flaw. Solo is basically high-budget Star Wars fan-fiction and it’s pretty fun for what it is.

We meet Han as a young street rat living in the slums of an industrial planet with his sweetheart Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) where circumstances beyond their control force them apart. Han, left on his own, adopts the name Solo and enlists in the Imperial Navy where he’s sent to fight in the front lines of battles reminiscent of the trench warfare in such World War One movies as All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory (a clever way of signifying this movie’s position in the Star Wars timeline as years before that of original trilogy which was itself heavily influenced by Second World War cinema). Han deserts his post and joins a team of smugglers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). They are contracted to perform a train heist like something out of a John Ford movie (another key influence for Lucas) which goes south. They are brought before the displeased crime lord who hired them Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany) and his right hand woman, none other than Qi’ra. She persuades Dryden to give Han and his team one last chance and sends them off on a suicidal mission.

When Han Solo embarks on the quest that will one day lead him to the Mos Eisley cantina on Tatooine, you can almost visualise in your mind the checklist that the movie is ticking off with each step. With every story beat you can see the strings being pulled and the gears being turned as they manoeuvre their way towards the numerous scenarios from Han’s past that fans have heard of but never got to see depicted on screen. It’s difficult enough to create scenes that exceed the imaginations of those who have visualised their own versions for years, what’s more difficult is getting us to those scenes in a way that somehow feels organic and surprising, as if we’re really watching a story we haven’t ever seen unfolding before our eyes. Indeed, the moments where the film works best are usually when it’s not constrained by the machinations of what we know has to happen and is able to do its own thing. The new character I remember the most vividly is L3-37, a zealous droid voiced by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridges who is defiantly devoted towards the cause of droid emancipation. This is a character who didn’t need to exist in a Han Solo origin story and that is precisely why she stands out so much.

When it comes to playing the past incarnation of iconic Star Wars characters, Alden Ehrenreich is not Ewan McGregor but he’s not Hayden Christensen either. To me, it isn’t nearly as important for the actor playing Han to look or sound like Harrison Ford as it is for him to be able to evoke the character and there were definitely moments in Ehrenreich’s performance when I saw glimpses. He’s got the cockiness, the swagger, and the charmingly roguish grin that Ford originally brought to Solo. What he doesn’t have is that sharp edge to his character, the aura of dishonour and danger that you get from a scoundrel who has had it rough, is only out for himself, and who will do whatever it takes to stay ahead of the curve. Ehrenreich is just not severe enough or brazen enough to feel like he could one day become that antihero who calculatingly shot a bounty hunter point blank when his back was against the wall and who only agreed to rescue a captive princess when he realised there was money to be made. It’s a charming and likeable enough performance and it’s enough to carry you through the film, but Ehrenreich is not the Han Solo of your dreams. (On a side note: One thing that would have made me very happy indeed is if they had somehow worked in the line, “Would that it were so simple”.)

The rest of the characters are a mixed bag. Qi’ra is meant to come across as this perfect foil to Han, a rogue cut from the same cloth who changes allegiances with the wind and who always has something hidden up her sleeve. Clarke however, like Ehrenreich, doesn’t bring enough darkness or boldness to her performance to really sell it (she’s also the third white, British brunette in a row to be cast as the female lead in a Star Wars film, which makes it all the harder for her to distinguish herself). I’m also not a fan of the way that the movie tries to invest us in this doomed romance when I’m already satisfied that Leia is the great love of Han’s life. Harrelson, Newton, and long-time Howard collaborator Bettany are all seasoned pros who couldn’t deliver dull performances if they tried but none of them really bring anything unique or remarkable to their roles to make them stand out. The only on-screen performance to accomplish that is Glover’s as Lando, the coolest, suavest, most debonair man in the galaxy. The casting choice is so perfect here that I think they probably should have given Lando his own movie rather than Solo. I, for one, am much more interested in learning how a space hustler became an entrepreneur with his own mining colony than I am in learning how a kid from the slums became a smuggler. He steals every scene he’s in and is only prevented from running away with the whole movie by limited screen time.

It’s not perfect and, for me, it’s probably the weakest of the ‘good’ Star Wars films but Solo is enjoyable enough and it’s a miracle that it got there at all considering how messy it got behind the scenes. The fan service is more blatant than it was in The Force Awakens and the movie doesn’t even dare to be as irreverent (or sacrilegious if you prefer) or as contemplative as The Last Jedi was, but that’s all fine if you know that’s what you’re signing up for. The film wears its heart on its sleeve and leads you by the hand all the way through, but it does it with enough style and spirit that you’ll enjoy getting there anyway. I’ll have to watch it again before I can appreciate its visual craft because the cinema where I saw it left the 3D filter on during its 2D screening, making everything look unnaturally dark, but it is a film that I will watch again sometime quite happily.

★★★

Advertisements

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr.

Director: Jon Watts

Writers: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers


This movie is a big deal for Marvel. For decades Spider-Man has been the comic book company’s flagship character; he is to Marvel what Superman is to DC. After two movie franchises in a little over a decade, one that became too silly for its own good and one that crashed under the weight of all the characters and stories it was trying to juggle, Sony has finally made a deal with Marvel to bring Spider-Man into the MCU. After a wonderfully received debut by Tom Holland in Civil War, Homecoming now marks the character’s third cinematic introduction a mere fifteen years after his first. It’s a bit different this time because Peter Parker is now a part of a larger world, one where the idea of the superhero has already been well established and where the world has already been threatened by gods, aliens, an artificial intelligence, sorcerers, and a guy with energy whips. Thus, to focus more on the themes of growing up and taking responsibility, Homecoming scales back on the epic fantasy and instead gives us a high school movie with superheroes.

After being drafted by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to fight for the Avengers, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is told that he’s not ready yet to join the superhero team and is sent back to school to focus on his studies. In the meantime Stark encourages Peter to be more of “a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man” and assigns Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to look after him. Peter however struggles to balance his school life with his crime-fighting life. His best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) keeps pestering him about his ‘Stark Internship’, his decathlon team, led by Peter’s crush Liz (Laura Harrier), is getting frustrated with his inability to commit to the upcoming championship, and even his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) must be kept in the dark about his alter-ego. Meanwhile Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a salvager who was driven out of business years ago by Stark Industries, has gone into the arms trafficking business, dealing weapons based on Chitauri technology recovered from the Battle of New York in The Avengers. When he learns of Toomes’ activities, it falls onto Spider-Man to stop whatever it is he has planned.

Holland plays a much younger Peter Parker than either Maguire of Garfield ever played and his youth plays a prominent role. Spider-Man’s arc as a character has always been that he’s a young man learning to grow up and take responsibility, which is exactly what makes him so identifiable and relatable, especially to teenagers. In Homecoming his youth is emphasised in order to set him apart from the Avengers, most notably Tony Stark, who are pros at being superheroes and who understand the dangers and responsibilities of the job far better than Peter does. Although Peter is smart, talented and well intentioned, he’s also just a kid and he possesses all of the liabilities of youth. He is cocky, naïve and is in way over his head. Spider-Man has never just been a superhero fantasy, it is at its core a coming of age story and this movie embraces that by drawing inspiration from the filmography of John Hughes (which is good, but a little on the nose in one scene referencing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Angst, awkwardness and adolescence all come in abundance and the movie does a great job of showcasing those sides of Peter Parker.

The superhero side is also very good, but there is a slight disconnection there. The one thing I never really got from this incarnation of Spider-Man was a sense of what was driving him, a motivation. It’s hinted at in his first scene in Civil War but in this movie it is never elaborated in any meaningful way. Now, I’ve seen the other movies, I’ve read the comics, and I’ve watched some of the cartoon. I know full well what Spider-Man’s motivation is. The problem is that this movie throws us straight in without giving us some kind of foundation on which we can plant our feet. Uncle Ben, the lessons he taught Peter, and the role Peter may or may not have played in his death, we have no idea how relevant these are to this version of Spider-Man because they are never addressed. There is something of a stigma these days against superhero origin stories and not for no reason (we have after all seen two Spider-Man origin movies within ten years of each). I’m not saying that Homecoming had to be origin movie, but the crucial details of the backstory that fundamentally make Peter who he is do have to be addressed, even if it’s only in a couple of sentences. Leaving that out is bad storytelling.

Homecoming however is far from a bad movie. It is engaging, funny, thrilling and just delightful. Not only is Holland terrific as Spider-Man, he is hands down the best Peter Parker in any of the movies. His Peter is nerdy and awkward enough to make him a believable social outcast but also charming and eccentric enough to be likeable. Keaton as the Vulture is spot on and for me is easily the second best villain in the whole MCU after Loki. He is menacing, but also entertaining; villainous, but understandable. In addition, there is a twist with the villain (because there always are these days) that works incredibly well, bringing the conflict between him and Spider-Man to an entirely higher level. There are a couple of action scenes that don’t quite work, such as the climatic fight that takes place almost completely in the dark, but the ones that do work really well. As well as being his usual acrobatic self, this Spider-Man also makes effective use of the gadgets at his disposal such as his iconic web-slingers and a ton of other goodies provided by Stark’s suit. It’s not the best Spider-Man movie ever made but there is a lot to enjoy and a lot to be excited about going forward.

★★★★