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.

★★★

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Cast: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow

Director: J.J. Abrams

Writers: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt


This is the film I’ve been waiting all year to see. Honestly, I was more excited about this film than I was about Christmas. Like most Star Wars fans I absolutely love the original films and despise the prequel trilogy. I cannot think of any other series of films that has accomplished what the original trilogy did. Not only did they create three incredible films complete with timeless characters, an epic story and groundbreaking visual effects, they created an entire living, breathing universe. Through ingenious storytelling, astonishing creativity and amazing imagination the Star Wars films transported viewers to another world and took on a life of their own. The cultural impact Star Wars has had and its influence on cinema as we know it is astronomical. It is no small task for any film to live up to that kind of legacy and, after an entire trilogy of films that threatened to destroy it, many people including myself were hopeful yet cautious about this film. While the adverts showed much promise I didn’t want Star Wars to let me down again. Thankfully whatever reservations I had were relieved as soon as I saw The Force Awakens.

Picking up thirty years after The Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone missing and the Galaxy is now in the midst of a civil war between the First Order and the Resistance. When the scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) comes across BB-8, a droid holding the secrets to Luke’s whereabouts, it falls onto her and Finn (John Boyega), a rogue stormtrooper, to deliver BB-8 to the Resistance. Along the way they encounter Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) who agree to help them in their quest. Meanwhile a search for the droid is underway led by the dark Jedi Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) of the First Order. Together they command the Starkiller Base, a great weapon of planetary destruction that threatens to destroy the New Republic. As Rey and Finn are drawn further into this conflict they both must decide who they truly are and whether this is a cause they are willing to fight for.

The biggest criticism I’ve heard about this film is that the story is essentially a retread of A New Hope and so I thought I’d start by addressing it. While I do agree that the film borrows heavily not only from Episode IV but from all three films, I wasn’t as bothered by it as other people were. Now, if there is one positive thing to be said about the prequel trilogy it is that Lucas did introduce a lot of original and creative ideas that showed promise. Those ideas however were let down by his failings as a writer and director. Since the prequels caused so much anger and hate amongst Star Wars fans (insert joke about path to the Dark Side here), I think it does make some sense for this film to try and relieve that resentment by bringing fans back to the original trilogy. While I certainly would have liked a more original story with some newer ideas, my biggest concern going into this film was whether or not it would actually be a good Star Wars film. If showing everyone that they could make a good Star Wars film meant recycling plot elements from the original trilogy, then I can live with that. I’m very happy with the result and am now optimistic about the future of this franchise.

Once it gets started the film makes the clever decision not to show us any of the familiar characters from the original trilogy until we’re a good half hour into the movie. This allows the audience the opportunity to get to know the new characters a bit before they’re allowed to welcome back Han and Chewie and all the others. I am very thankful that this film opted for this route because it was the new characters who ended up selling this film for me. Rey and Finn are both fun and interesting characters and I enjoyed following their journey every step of the way. I also enjoyed Kylo Ren who I thought provided Star Wars with a unique and fascinating villain. While I don’t think the criticism about Rey being a Mary Sue is necessarily without merit, I also don’t think it necessarily makes her a bad character. While it’s true that she is unusually resourceful and does succeed at just about every task she sets out to do, I think the struggle is still there. I felt like there was a lot of effort and investment behind her actions which is why none of her victories felt unearned to me. I was very much invested in her journey and thought that she was a terrific protagonist for the film.

With that in mind the inclusion of the old faces of Star Wars was very welcome indeed. I thought the film handled them in just the right way by employing them when they were needed to serve the story without ever making them the central focus. Harrison Ford is particularly good as an old Han Solo who has remained a scoundrel at heart but has been noticeably wearied by the events that followed Return of the Jedi. Carrie Fisher has also returned as Leia who is now the leader of the Resistance. Fisher falls naturally into her new role as a general and is still able to convey the same resolve and spirit that Leia possessed in the original films. Despite the amount of time that has gone by I had absolutely no problem believing that these were the same characters that they played all those years ago.

Is this film perfect? No. Does it rely too heavily on plot elements from the original trilogy? Probably. Is it the best Star Wars film ever made? Absolutely not. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some issues with this film. However at the end of the day they don’t really amount to much more than nit-picks. The Force Awakens is a fun, exciting and wondrous space adventure that boasts of great characters, thrilling action and stunning visuals. The film’s decision to utilise real sets and practical effects pays off beautifully and allows for an engrossing and absorbing spectacle. Whatever issues I may have with it, The Force Awakens looks and feels like a Star Wars film and is one of the best viewing experiences that I’ve had all year. It has captured the magic of the original trilogy and I look forward to seeing where this series goes next.

★★★★★