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Josh Reviews Solo!

Solo takes place in the years prior to the original Star Wars, when the galaxy is still under the thumb of the Empire.  Young Han and his friend Qi’ra (pronounced like Kira, which makes me think of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) have grown up in the slums of Corellia, scrounging a meager existence as thieves for an alien criminal called Lady Proxima.  When an escape attempt goes awry, Han manages to hitch a ride off-planet, but Qi’ra is left behind.  Han vows to return for her, but his plan to join the Imperial navy and become a pilot is thwarted when he’s kicked out of the flight academy for, as he puts it, having a mind of his own.  The result is that Han winds up as a Stormtrooper grunt, fighting the Empire’s wars in the dirt of a nameless world.  But when Han discovers a group of thieves, led by a man named Tobias Beckett, hidden among the Imperials, he sees at last his ticket to freedom.  And so the story of Solo begins.

Ever since plans were first announced, years ago, for a Young Han Solo movie, I thought it was a bad idea.  As a rule I am not a fan of prequels — I’d prefer the story go forward rather than backwards.  And while Rogue One, for instance, expanded upon a part of the Star Wars story about which I was eager to know more (just how DID the rebels get their hands on the Death Star plans in the first place?), I have never craved to know what Han Solo was like as a kid or young man.  The beauty of the character as introduced in the original Star Wars is that I feel we knew everything we needed to know about him.  What was interesting to me was not where he’d been, but how his crossing paths with Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Leia Organa would change his life, and vice versa.

Having seen Solo, I still feel that way.  This is not a movie that needs to exist.  I have never needed to know the origin of Han’s blaster, or those dice on the Millennium Falcon, or how Han got the last name “Solo,” or exactly how and why Han first met Chewie, or how Han acquired the Falcon from Lando, etc.

That being said, though, I was pleased by how much I enjoyed Solo.  It’s a fun, fast-paced movie with some great action, some nice character work, and lots fun connections to the broader Star Wars saga.  I still think the basic concept of the film is a bad idea, but if Lucasfilm was going to make a Young Han Solo film, this is probably about as good as I can imagine it being.

Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!) is good (though not spectacular) as Han Solo.  This is a very difficult character to recast — Han is so inextricably tied with the specific charm and style of Harrison Ford.  Mr. Ehrenreich looks the part, and he’s able to convey the core of Han as a guy who wants people to think is bad but who really, in his core, is good.  His voice doesn’t sound anything like Harrison Ford’s (it’s much too high), which I found distracting.  But as the film progressed, I felt Mr. Ehrenreich was able to make the role his own to enough of a degree that I was satisfied.

The real casting stand-out of the film is Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian.  Mr. Glover is spectacular in the role, absolute perfection.  Whereas I felt the Original Trilogy had already told us everything we needed to know about Han, Lando is a character whose backstory felt far more ripe to me for exploration, and it’s a great deal of fun getting to see Lando in his prime here.  Mr. Glover gives his Lando all of the suave charm the character needs to have, and also his smarts and deviousness.  But we also get a glimpse that, in his own way, Lando is just as desperate as Han is.  (The film never exactly tells us why Lando is willing to go in on the job with Han, Chewie, Qi’ra and Tobias for the 25% of the take he’s talked into — clearly Lando has some debts/problems of his own.  I like that the film doesn’t spell this out for us, by the way.  It’s the type of suggested backstory that worked so well in the OT.)  Lando’s connection to the droid L3-37 also shows us a glimpse of the good guy who will emerge come Return of the Jedi.

Also terrific is Woody Harrelson as Tobias Beckett, the criminal who takes Han under his wing.  I was worried at first that Woody Harrelson, who is such a well-known actor, would stick out like a sore thumb in a Star Wars film, but Mr. Harrelson fits in perfectly into the universe as this clever criminal.  I love seeing the development of the rapport that he shares with Han.  Mr. Harrelson and Mr. Ehrenreich are terrific together.

Emilia Clarke is solid as Qi’ra.  I felt her character was a little under-served in the film, as I’d love to have learned more about her inner life, to better understand some of the developments in the third act.  Because the filmmakers want some of those third-act developments to be a surprise, they keep Qi’ra’s thoughts and motivations somewhat hidden as the film progresses.  I understand that choice, but it’s a shame because this is an interesting character, a sort-of mirror-version of Han himself, and I wish we’d been able to explore her more deeply.  Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) is great as Qi’ra, showing us her connection to Han, but also the ways that her life has hardened her in a different way than has happened to Han.

Joonas Suotamo is fantastic as Chewbacca, stepping proudly into the big feet of Peter Mayhew.  You’d never know there was a different actor in the suit.  He’s fantastic.  (Mr. Suotamo also played Chewie in The Last Jedi.)

There has been a lot of ink spilled about Solo’s behind-the-scenes turmoil.  A month before the filming was scheduled to end, the film’s original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired and replaced by Ron Howard, who apparently reshot 70% of the film during four months of extended shooting.  It’s hard to imagine what Miller & Lord’s version of Solo might have been.  Based on their comedic backgrounds, I suspect that might have been a jokier film, perhaps with a tone more in line with that of Guardians of the Galaxy.  There are some silly moments in Solo that feel like they might be remnants of that version.  (I’m thinking specifically of an early moment in which Han pretends a rock is a thermal detonator.)  But we might never know.  I am happy to report that, whatever the behind-the-scenes tumult, the final film feels like a unified whole.  (It’s not at all like Justice League, where the evidence of the film’s dramatic re-workings mid-production were painfully obvious.)  Ron Howard has acquitted himself quite well behind the camera, helping shepherd a film that works and that very much feels like Star Wars.

Nowhere in Solo does the film exactly state where it falls in the timeline.  My guess is that the main events of the film are set about a decade before the events of A New Hope.  (On-line I have read guesses of between 15-10 years prior to A New Hope.)  This is a fascinating period in the timeline, and I have enjoyed the way Rogue One, the animated Star Wars: Rebels show, and now Solo have explored this dark time.  I particularly enjoyed the way Solo delved into the criminal underworld of the Star Wars universe.  Ever since we saw that line-up of bounty hunters in The Empire Strikes Back, this has been an area of the Star Wars saga ripe for exploration.  We got some interesting glimpses in the animated Clone Wars show (in the episodes featuring Cad Bane, Aurra Sing, and other bounty hunters), but Solo is the first film to really go there.  I loved the time Solo spends with these underworld elements.  I loved hearing references to the Hutts and the Pykes.  (A deep-cut Star Wars reference, we saw the Pykes in the animated Clone Wars show, involved with the “Shadow Collective” crime syndicate run by Darth Maul — more on this in a moment — and it was cool to finally see some live-action Pykes when we get to the Coaxium-processing camp on Savareen late in the film.)  I was also, by the way, intrigued by the offhand mention in the film that Beckett killed Aurra Sing.  (This bounty hunter was first glimpsed in The Phanton Menace and developed in the Clone Wars show and other Star Wars media.)  That feels like a story that will be told in full someday.  But I digress.  My point here is that I liked the ways in which Solo, despite being a prequel, finds ways to expand the Star Wars universe and to introduce us to new characters and planets.

As has been the case for all of these new Star Wars films (starting with The Force Awakens), Solo looks amazing.  The production values are through the roof.  The sets, the costumes, the props, the space-ship effects, everything is marvelously well-crafted and gorgeous to look at.

There is a lot of fantastic action in the film.  The entire magnetic-train heist is magnificent.  The visual effects are gorgeous, the train itself is a cool new Star Wars vehicle, and the whole sequence is thrilling and exciting.  I also loved the Kessel Run chase in the maelstrom.  You sort of knew that a Han Solo prequel film would include the actual story of the Kessel Run about which Han boasts in A New Hope, and I was quite pleased with the bizarre, exciting sequence they came up with.  The chase around the “maw” was very exciting, and I loved the look of that humongous, fierce space squid thing.  Props to screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote Empire, Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Force Awakens) and his son Jake Kasdan (who wrote and directed the vastly underrated Walk Hard) for coming up with a workable explanation for George Lucas’ famous mistake in Star Wars, in which Han boasted about making the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.  (Parsecs are a unit of distance not time.)  Well done.

As we move deeper into this review, we’re going to hit upon some SPOILER TERRITORY, so readers beware!!

I’ve been debating after seeing Solo how I feel about the film’s ending, in which Han (mostly) does the right thing.  Does showing Han being a good guy undercut his turn at the end of the original Star Wars, when he decides to return and help the Rebellion?  I think it does, which is a great example of why I generally think prequels are a bad idea.  If Solo shows us that Han was already a good guy, then his choosing to be a good guy and do the right thing at the Battle of Yavin isn’t really much of a character turn, is it?  On the other hand, I understand how they couldn’t really end Solo with Han being selfish and letting innocents suffer.  In the context of Solo, the ending does work, and I suppose I can live with the idea that in the original Star Wars we didn’t see a selfish guy learning to do good, but rather a guy who was always good finally choosing to allow himself to openly be good.

I wrote a moment ago that Han (mostly) does the right thing at the end, because he does shoot Beckett without warning, which is cold.  I loved the filmmakers’ effort here to have Han shoot first, a great play on the “Han shot first” disagreement amongst Star Wars fandom.  (In the original version of Star Wars, Han Solo shoots Greedo in cold blood in the Cantina.  In the Special Edition re-working, George Lucas used CGI to adjust the scene and had Greedo shoot first and miss, and only then does Han shoot him.  This not only was a silly softening of Han’s character — Mr. Lucas at that point felt that Han wouldn’t shoot first, which didn’t sit well with most fans, myself included, who valued Han’s transition from bad-ass who WOULD shoot first into a hero over the course of the movie — and also resulted in a ridiculous ruining of the scene, as there’s no way Greedo could have missed Han from one foot away.)

These new Star Wars films have introduced some great new droids, from BB8 to K-2SO, and Lando’s friend and co-pilot L3-37 is another fantastic addition to the canon.  She’s voiced brilliantly by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (who also performed the character’s movements via motion-capture).  I love L3-37’s obsession with robots’ rights, which is an interesting new spin on the Star Wars universe in which droids are treated as servants, even though we’ve seen ever since R2-D2 and C3PO in the original Star Wars that these droids have individuality.  L3-37 is very funny and her ending is one of the more emotional moments in the film.  (Though the idea that she winds up merged with the Falcon computer is a weird one.  That doesn’t seem to connect with anything we’ve seen before.  Also, because of Lando’s bond with L3-37, that Han eventually wins the Falcon away from Lando is given a cruel twist that I don’t think the filmmakers intended.)

I also really liked the character of Dryden Vos, played by Paul Bettany.  Vos was originally played by Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire), but he was recast and replaced after original directors Miller & Lord were fired, and Mr. Williams was unavailable for the needed reshoots.  That the talented Mr. Williams was cut out is a terrible disappointment — I would have LOVED to have seen him in a Star Wars film!!  But that being said, Mr. Bettany (who has been having a BIG summer between this and Infinity War!!) is terrific in the role as this master criminal.  He’s refined and dangerous.  This is a very different type of master criminal from the thug-like Hutts or the loner bounty hunters who we’ve seen before in Star Wars.  Vos is a high-class criminal.  This is an interesting new character and Mr. Bettany is terrific.  (I wonder whether we are supposed to read anything into the similarity between Dryden Vos’ name and that of Jedi Master Quinlan Vos, who appeared in the Star Wars comics and then briefly popped up on the Clone Wars animated show?)

The biggest surprise in Solo was the appearance of Darth Maul, revealed as the leader of the Crimson Sun criminal organization.  I loved that!!  That was a HUGE surprise to me.  As fans of the animated Clone Wars and Rebels show know, Maul was revealed to have survived being cut in half by Obi-Wan in The Phantom Menace and led a tortured life seeking vengeance on the Jedi and the Sith.  I’m a little puzzled as to where and how Maul’s appearance in Solo fits into what we know of his life from those shows.  We know that in The Clone Wars Maul did form a criminal organization, the Shadow Collective, and so seeing Maul in charge of Crimson Sun fits.  But when last we saw Maul in The Clone Wars, he’d been taken prisoner by his former master Palpatine.  That would be about two decades before Solo, right?  By the time Maul popped up again in Rebels, set a few years after Solo (depending on where exactly Solo falls in the Star Wars timeline) and a few years before A New Hope, Maul was a wreck.  But here he seems fit and in full command of his powers.  So I am eager for future stories to put Maul’s appearance here in full context.  But for now, I am very happy.  It was super-great to see Maul again.  He looked awesome on-screen.  I loved the metal legs.  I loved that Maul’s appearance here was a combination of the work of Ray Park (who played Maul originally back in The Phantom Menace) and Sam Witwer (who has voiced Maul on both animated Star Wars shows). Very, very cool.

Other thoughts:

* It was cool to see the Falcon looking clean and brand new!  And I loved all the great action-shots we got of the Falcon, especially during the Kessel Run sequence.  (However, I didn’t love how they’d reworked the Falcon to have a connected front end.  It didn’t look as good as the classic design, and in the prequels we’d seen other Corellian ships with the Falcon’s split-front look, so why they’d remove that look for the Falcon’s original design didn’t make much sense to me.  And then they revealed that Lando had added an escape pod there and once it launched, the Falcon’s front-end looked like it used to look — which was a weird anti-climax that went by so fast in the movie that I doubt most audience-members even noticed, so I’m not sure why they bothered with that whole thing at all…?)

* Speaking of Corellia, it was neat to finally see this planet (which had been established as Han’s home planet) on-screen.  I loved the shots of the Star Destroyers under construction (in orbit above the city… and also there’s a shot of them building those weird dome-things that are on the tops of Star Destroyers, which was a very nice touch!).

* So this was the first Star Wars movie without an appearance by R2D2 and C3PO!!  It’s sad to see that tradition end, though I am glad the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to force them in if it didn’t make sense for the story.

* I’m also happy that, as with Rogue One, Solo is a Star Wars film without any Jedi.  I love the Jedi, but I am excited for future Star Wars films to explore other aspects of this universe.  (I believe the only Force-usage in the film is that moment when Maul zips his light-saber into his hand!)

* I loved seeing Warwick Davis pop up, not hidden inside an Ewok costume or another bulky prosthetic this time!  (Apparently Mr. Davis was actually reprising his character from The Phantom Menace, which is a cool bit of trivia though you’d never know that from anything you see in the actual movie.)

* I was super-excited when Ron Howard announced that bumbling Imperial officers Tag and Link (from a series of hilarious Star Wars comic books) would appear in Solo — but apparently they were cut!!  Bummer!  Hope they make the blu-ray special features…

* So we finally saw Chewie pull someone’s arms off!  (Something Han mentions in the original Star Wars but which we never saw the mostly-gentle Chewie actually do.)

* Han’s “I’ve got a good feeling about this” line was a groaner for me (an obvious twist on the tradition, begun by Han himself in the original Star Wars, of having a character say “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”), but I did love the Han/Lando “I hate you”/”I know,” exchange, a quick and funny call-back to Han and Leia’s iconic exchange in Empire.

* I need to see the film again to be able to focus more on the score, but my initial feeling is that John Powell’s score for Solo is very solid, and a bit more successful that Michael Giacchino’s score for Rogue One.  (So far, these are the only two Star Wars films not to be scored by John Williams, though as Disney continues making more Star Wars films, I know that soon there will be lots more.)  I enjoyed the way Mr. Powell wove many of Mr. Williams’ classic themes into the film.  Without overplaying things in too obvious a way, Mr. Powell was able to make me smile by giving us hints of familiar heroic music at several key moments for Han and also the Falcon.  (I especially loved the use of the “Asteroid Field” music from Empire for part of the Tie Fighter chase sequence during the Kessel Run.)  One moment I didn’t love?  Using a version of the Imperial March for a video recruitment ad for the Empire.  That was too silly.  (And yes I know Rebels did a similar thing once, and I didn’t like it then either!!)

Overall, I’m pretty happy with Solo!  It was a fun movie and it held together remarkably well considering all of the behind-the-scenes turmoil.  It felt like Star Wars and didn’t do anything to make me groan in pain like the Prequels did (over and over again).  It feels like the most disposable Star Wars movie made thus far, in that little of importance — or that we didn’t already know everything we needed to know about — happens.  (The Prequels might be terrible, but I can at least say that the stories they were trying to tell were important to the wider Star Wars saga.)  But Solo is fun to watch, and its fast-paced heist-movie vibe serves it well.  I think I am relieved more than anything!  I am curious as to whether this film will rise or fall in my estimation after letting it percolate for a bit, and after seeing it a few more times in the coming years.  But for now, I am happy.

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