“Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018): Shooting Itself First (Review)
There’s a moment in Solo: A Star Wars Story where a character who had previously chewed out our main character for improvising and thereby not sticking to his well-crafted plan (of which we were never told) commands him to start improvising. He does it, and the film follows suit. The shift is so sudden yet so predictable, for it is the only crutch this hollow story has for itself.
There will be no spoilers in this review. That’s because the only thing to spoil is something you wouldn’t even believe if I told you. I shall say nothing more about it, but will otherwise avoid overly detailed explanations of the plot. This is, unlike its anthological sister Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, not a movie about a specific event but a known person with an unknown past.
I will, however, say that the past isn’t interesting. I don’t mean “this movie’s choice of story is boring.” Instead I mean it literally – this movie isn’t interested in Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich)’s past. It’s not interested in who he is, who he was, what drives him, shapes him, or even just to tell a fun little myth about him that you could decide was or wasn’t real.
So what’s Solo interested in? I honestly can’t tell you, but it’s not because I can’t figure the movie out. It’s because the movie never figures itself out, and it thinks it’s all the cooler for it. It plays out like a series of bizarre circumstances that merely equips a mildly familiar person with stuff that merely makes him look more familiar, but without making him realer. In that sense, it really is like the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade stretched out for an entire film. But there’s a crucial difference. Young Indy’s mini-prequel adventure was ten minutes long and zeroed in on one massive emotional moment for the character’s relationship with his father, which the rest of the film would spend reconciling. All the cameos from the fedora to the snake-phobia to even the scar on his chin was just playful screw-balling around as means of getting there.
With Solo, the “there” is a highlight of spectacle or two at given moments, but always over too quickly and never even minimally contextualized. I don’t need word dumps spoon-fed me to be convinced that something is supposed to make sense, but if I’m never at any point shown or told what’s supposed to happen at any given moment, how am I supposed to fear what might happen instead? If I don’t know what shape or form a plan is supposed to take, how am I to know or feel any sense of dread when it starts to unravel? Rogue One had this problem in the final battle sequence, where the kitchen sink is thrown onto Scarif with no management of its moving parts. But in Solo, this doesn’t just happen once. It happens again, and again, and again, and in only one sequence early on does it make sense to go that route.
I know it’s getting old to bring up the originals again now that we’re four films into a nu franchise, but the clarity they provide for their battles was a lesson you’d have to force yourself to forget. Yavin, Hoth, and Endor all were pre-contextualized with characters sitting or standing to hear out and/or see mapped diagrams of what the plan was supposed to be. So when Vader shows up in a TIE Fighter or when the Death Star fires, your brain understood them as monkey wrenches into their works.
In Solo, characters begin and end in freefall. Their motives, ideas, and functions are never established, and change on a whim with no logic whatsoever. Even scenes that are framed as twists or reveals are still just purposelessly hiding the ball, with no intention of putting it anywhere. There’s even a scene where a character takes off her mask – the movie acts like this is a familial reveal even though we’ve never seen her before, and, as I have now learned, she was created in a card deck specifically for this film. What kind of pretentious universe exploring is that? I’d say more about that moment, since it’s a perfect illustration of what I’ve spent the bulk of this review talking about, but instead I’ll just say this. Imagine if the Matriarch society from Mad Max: Fury Road only flipped one small car over in the final battle of that movie.
This might have all worked if Solo had been intended and framed in some sort of acute genre or action terms that could structure its beats accordingly. Deadpool 2 just came out, which manages the task of making a lot of the same stuff work as parody (like with Domino). We forgive martial arts movies for the cliche bad guy always dropping his weapon before a fateful fight with the good guy because we understand that we’re basically watching a violent dance. The Sting is a great film precisely because it puts you in the right kind of headspace for a twisting grift caper. But Solo can’t find a version of itself to embrace with any gusto. And at this point, it’s not hard to guess why. This movie has been in development hell from conception, and we’ve all followed it with far too much interest. Different scenes feel like they were shot by different camera crews, different directors, perhaps even different species, and have almost no connective tissue. The energy Ron Howard fueled into his nail-biters like Apollo 13 and Rush is nowhere to be found, but we can’t really blame him either. This is sheer studio malfeasance.
After two unholy nu-trilogy disasters both circle-tracing themselves in constant phony reverence of the original, and now two anthology movies both aimlessly making noise to get recognized as add-ons to them, what exactly do we have to show for Star Wars? What, other than the amorphous “representation” (ironic, since apart from Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian, Solo is whiter than a line dance at a Klan rally), has this nu-franchise brought us? You can say that they’re just popcorn movies and that’s okay, but Star Wars was always more than that. You wouldn’t be into popcorn movies in the first place if the original movies hadn’t penetrated your subconscious and spoken to you on a level that made the galaxy far, far away feel like your closest home. You wouldn’t even pretend to care about trivial details about Han Solo’s life if he was just a cool-looking action hero in movies that meant nothing to you. There is nothing in any of these films that carries the kind of integrity and meaning that would’ve made you a fan of Star Wars in the first place.
“The next one will be better!” I hear some of you saying. Perhaps it will, and we’ll find out together. Until then, in the unlikely event that someone with authority on these movies happens to be reading this, allow me to offer a friendly piece of advice, at least for these anthology pieces.