Solo: A Star Wars StoryDirector – Ron HowardCast – Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Thandie Newton, Paul BettanyRating – 3.5/5
“Never tell me the odds,” said Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back, staring death right in the face. No character is more quotable in the Galaxy Far, Far Away than Han, and these are perhaps his most famous words. And considering the legendary hurdles Solo: A Star Wars Story has had to cross to make it to our screens; they’ve taken on newer (and graver) meaning.
The odds were never in Han Solo’s favour, not back in 1980, when to evade the Empire’s ships he flew the Millennium Falcon headfirst into an asteroid field, despite C-3PO’s incessant pessimism. And they certainly weren’t in his favour over the last year, when his first solo film had to essentially be made twice.
It’s a rite-of-passage movie about what it takes this free spirited rebel – a reckless kid more concerned with impressing a girl rather than igniting the spark that will eventually fuel the rebellion – to become the character we know and love. And surprisingly for Star Wars, while the stakes are still huge, the motivations – even though they’re spotty – are personal.
Han’s journey begins – like so many other beloved Star Wars characters – on a scrapheap of a planet, called Corellia. Han is a thief, he’s a getaway driver, and he’s on the run. Backed up against a wall, with gangsters hot on his tail and nowhere left to run, he enlists in the Empire. There he meets Beckett (Woody Harrelson, playing Haymitch from the Hunger Games, but with a different wig), who leads a pack of outlaws. Figuring they’re the only ones who can get him out, he cons his way onto their ship.
Together with Beckett and his crew – Beckett’s girlfriend (played by Thandie Newton), his pilot (a CGI character voiced by Jon Favreau), a formidable gangster’s moll and everyone’s favourite Wookiee – he takes on a job, to prove to the world, but mostly to himself, that he isn’t the kid everyone thinks he is.
For Solo to not be the unmitigated disaster that it threatened to be for the better part of the last year is shocking. This sort of relief is similar to what I felt after Justice League – it’s almost like trying out a shady new eatery and not getting an upset stomach three days later – although the cracks were more pronounced in that film. At no point did Justice League transcend what it was: A barely functional blockbuster that felt like it had been concocted in a fast food test kitchen. It tasted fine – satisfying in the sort of way soggy fries are satisfying – but it didn’t leave the sort of impact that makes you want to line up for more.
Unlike Justice League – which, like Solo, also lost its director at a dangerously late stage in production, and was essentially re-done by an expensive replacement – Solo feels more cohesive, more elegantly put together. It never gives the impression that it’s freefalling in outer space, and unlike Justice League, it feels directed, and not… assembled.
And most of the credit should go to Ron Howard, who delivered a $250 million film in a race against time scramble after the original directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, were fired with just a couple of weeks filming left.
It is said that Howard, the veteran Hollywood director of classics such as Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, reshot more than 80% of the film – and you can’t really tell. These films are designed to feel like they belong in a larger series, and not to a particular filmmaker.
But despite everything, Lord and Miller’s fingerprints haven’t been completely erased, and their idiosyncrasies are still there for all to see, particularly in the casting. Alden Ehrenreich, despite the unnerving news that Lucasfilm wasn’t pleased with his performance and even hired an on-set coach for him, is energetic in the lead role. He isn’t at all like Harrison Ford, but in situations such as this, imitation rarely works. It takes a while getting used to, but he has that glint in his eye and that smile across his face – and before long, you know you have one on yours. There’s a buddy movie quality to his relationship with Chewbacca (and Lando!), which has to be a Lord and Miller thing, considering their experience on the Jump Street films.
And it was Lord and Miller who hired cinematographer Bradford Young, who in Solo creates some of the series’ most stunningly bold visuals – part film noir, part western, and if I have my Gordon Willis right, more than a few minutes of The Godfather. His lighting is gorgeously stylised, and unprecedented in a blockbuster of this scale. It’s almost as if everyone was too distracted by the on-set problems that no one really paid attention to Young’s experiments. This validates my belief that he’s the best young DP working today.
While writing about Justice League, I worried what sort of precedent Zack Snyder’s firing would set – if the single most important person on film set was expendable, then what about the vision? Ironically, it took a director – a real journeyman – to remind us, and hopefully Lucasfilm, that a (space) ship can’t steer itself. Every movie needs a pilot. And while we’ll never know what sort of footage Lord and Miller shot, Solo couldn’t have been saved had it not been for Ron Howard.
It’s not going to win the series any new fans – which is a problem, because right now Disney is just preaching to the choir. But with enough callbacks to the original trilogy – all the greatest hits are played, and there’s also room for one scene stealing cameo you’ll never see coming – Solo should be diverting enough for hardcore fans until JJ Abrams’ Episode IX rolls around, even if it can’t help but feel slighter than any of the new Star Wars movies.
Watch our review here:
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