Monday, June 4, 2018

The young Han Solo chronicles


SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

This movie is about the reward its hero received for believing in something; in a flawless example of form following function, Solo teaches its audience not to misplace its faith so easily, too.

2018
Directed by Ron Howard
"Executive produced" by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the poor bastards
Written by Lawrence Kasdan and Jon Kasdan
With Alden Ehrenreich (Han Solo), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Emilia Clarke (Qi'ra), Woody Harrelson (Tobias Beckett), Thandie Newton (Val), Jon Favreau (Rio Durant), Donald Glover (Lando Calrissian), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (L3-37), Linda Hunt (Lady Proxima), and Paul Bettany (Dryden Voss)

Spoiler alert: high


I'm real damn curious to know how much I would've enjoyed Solo: A Star Wars Story if it weren't, well, fucking hideous, and ultimately boring, basically a near-total failure as a motion picture—if not, necessarily, a failure as a sci-fantasy adventure story, or a prequel to Star Wars '77, or whatever else you feel it may have failed as.  I mean, sure: you can complain about its sometimes-misguided script, or its not-everyone's-there performances, or even its questionable decision to reinterpret a key franchise character who never asked for it, given that George Lucas and Irvin Kershner and Harrison Ford and Lawrence Kasdan (one of this film's screenwriters, along with his boy, Jon) already told us exactly who this "Han Solo" fella was, years before most of us were even born.  But there was a potential version of this movie, still beset by all of these littler problems, that I'm sure I'd be very happy to defend, if only that version wasn't (as this one is) one of the ugliest big-budget movies ever made, and also an indefensible 135 minutes long.

Beyond that (although, combined, those two things indeed represent one very big "that"), Solo's not so bad.  The endeavor can be, with only slight glibness, described as a feature-length version of the first ten minutes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, only dedicated to explicating the origins and iconography of Ford's other beloved pulp adventurer with feet of clay.  Like Crusade's prologue, Solo checks a lot of boxes nobody necessarily needed checked, but we didn't mind it when it was Dr. Jones.  Also like Crusade, Solo uses a rising young star to stand in for Ford's inimitable brand of screen heroism.

Unlike River Phoenix, we can hope Alden Ehrenreich won't jam heroin up his arms till he dies; but then, Solo has gotten the kind of scathing that could turn a man to drugs.

Anyway, I use that word "inimitable" deliberately—less because Ford is such a great actor that no one in the current generation could possibly match him, and a lot more because nobody in the current generation could ever step into Han Solo's weird, low-slung, vaguely-sexualized gun-garter-thing in the same way Ford did, back when he walked onto a ramshackle production headed by his American Graffiti director, and decided it was all kiddie bullshit nobody would remember, so why not have fun with it and do the character he wanted to do, representing the sublimation of his contempt for the whole project.

Given this impossible challenge of craft, it's no surprise that Solo would prefer to do something else instead, so what it does is focus on the romantic (both lower- and upper-case "r") side of Han, exploring the origins of the decent man whom we saw about ninety aggregate seconds of in the actual Star Wars, and who (if we're being honest) is mainly a product of The Empire Strikes Back, rather than that original film, where Solo was mostly a precipitous dick who somehow won our hearts by ruthlessly murdering his enemies, failing to pay his debts, and threatening his new friends with Wookiee-related mayhem, and had to be bribed with outrageous sums of cash to do anything good.  Or even do anything well.

To this end, Solo tells the tale of how urchin Han was raised up a thief on the Dickensian shipyard hellplanet of Corellia, under the cruel tutelage of a local arthropod gangster, and how he betrayed his armored mistress in order to buy himself and his first love, Qi'ra, passage to another world, and, Force willing, a better life.  (While you take a wild guess how well this works out, consider the ultimate telltale sign of rote sci-fi writing in Qi'ra's name, that unnecessary apostrophe.)

In a shocking twist, it's just pronounced "Kira."

Three years later, Han's in the service of the Empire as an infantry grunt, scrambling across some anonymous warscape and dreaming the impossible dream of returning to Corellia as a great pilot and finally redeeming the woman he lost, as he once so unwisely promised her.  But today is his lucky day, as he falls in with a team of thieves disguised as fellow Imperial soldiers, and, semi-accidentally freeing a certain Wookiee slave in the process, latches onto these hustlers and their leader, Tobias Beckett.  (Called thusly in an apparent bid to make us think fondly of the name "Qi'ra," which for all its cliched weakness at least feels like a minimum effort.)  Accompanying them on a big score to steal a load of hyperfuel that goes immediately awry, Han winds his way back to Beckett's superior, Dryden Voss, and through Voss to Qi'ra again, who didn't need his help to get off Corellia after all, though, as she blatantly intimates, what she's become to do it has made her a different woman than the one he once knew.

Now that he and Beckett have put themselves in Voss's debt by bungling the hyperfuel job, Han may have the chance to find out how: Voss sends Han, Chewie, and Beckett, with Qi'ra as their overseer, on a no-hope mission to either steal another load of precious hyperfuel on the dangerous slaveworld of Kessel, or die trying.  To get there, they pick up additional members of their party, namely Lando Calrissian and his activist twitterbot/navigational droid L3-37 (that name clearly designed to make us appreciate "Qi'ra" and "Tobias Beckett," and only not "5J-W" because that might've been modestly amusing).  Actually, there's very little that would change about this movie if the latter two weren't present.  But I have to mention them anyway, as we do have to get the Millennium Falcon involved here somehow, and there's all sorts of continuity and fan-service to deal with once we do.

Then again, I'm not sure if it's any more fan-fictiony than Rogue One; and that's an all-too-easy criticism of any movie that dares to be a prequel, anyway.  There are mechanical problems with Solo's story, problems magnified by the way the story's told (notably the way the stakes are totally redefined, in the vaguest possible way, in its final act), but the two big things at the center of it I like a lot.  The first is the way Solo decided (however implausibly) that the story of Han would be the story of an innocent, sharpened and jaded by disappointment and betrayal, thereby making Star Wars a better redemption story for the rogue than it already was, or was even intended to be.  Effectively, Han Solo becomes the Luke Skywalker who got all the wrong breaks, including the wrong mentor, and there's a very solid argument that the film would be stronger if it leaned into this equation between the two characters even more than it already does.  (Though I am fine, in principle, with Han being the Luke Who Fucks.)  The second thing is Ehrenreich's rendition of Han specifically, though I'm apparently the only person on Earth (including the producers of the movie, who hired an acting coach to get him back on track) who thinks he's even good, let alone anywhere close to great.  I'll say why I think so anyway: Ehrenreich doesn't just manage to recapitulate the smuggler's bravado, smarmy charm, and failure-prone humanity in a more adolescent, hopeful register, he also finds a thread of continuity between the more passionate young man he's presenting and the angry, nihilistic jerk Han became.  I'm sure you disagree stridently.

Past Ehrenreich—well, past Ehrenreich and Joonas Suotamo, who fills Peter Mayhew's fursuit well—everyone else is a step down, though no one's bad.  (Emilia Clarke has gotten shit for Qi'ra, but I've seen Emilia Clarke be bad, and at least this isn't thatSolo asks her to be pretty, be emotionally distant, and have a British accent, and she does these three things well enough.)  Woody Harrelson's Beckett gets the best of what else is going on; Paul Bettany, as the film's lousy final boss gangster, Voss, gets the worst.  Somewhere in the middle of it all, Donald Glover's Lando comes out the actual biggest disappointment, albeit in interesting ways: he's dedicated himself to a Billy Dee Williams impression that feels more like an avowed, extended gag than it does either mimickry or homage; Community fans might more easily recognize his performance as Troy Barnes doing Lando in an Abed Nadir Star Wars fan-film than Glover doing Lando in an actual Star Wars film-film.  I like it, and yet I get a little tired of saying such things about Glover's performances in real movies.  But it does clue us in to one of the big—let's not say problems—but issues with Solo, that doesn't feel like it was ever completely resolved.

Solo was the result of an infamously-tortured production history that saw its original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, creatively-differentiated out of the job in favor of safe workhorse and Lucas's longtime-friend, Ron Howard.  I saw this as a neutral change, not because I have no love for Lord & Miller (I definitely do), nor because I have any outsized love for Howard (he's fine), but because it was hard not to trust Kathleen Kennedy when she said it had to happen.  As Disney-Lucasfilm's heretofore-unquestioned dictator, Kennedy had fired lots of people—and interfered significantly with every new Star Wars movie but The Last Jedi (which, obviously, she ought to have interfered with more).  Yet it's generally worked out pretty well.  Remember, Josh Trank and Colin Trevorrow count also amongst her kills.  Nobody's gainsaying those decisions.

It's clearer why Lord & Miller got fired than why they got hired in the first place, really, and it turns out Kennedy's function was delegated way more than it ever should've been, to the elder Kasdan.  Still: Solo feels more of a piece than most rescue efforts.  It does not offer the same "guess who did what" game that, say, Justice League does, partly because nothing here's even close to being that resentful, and partly because Ron Howard effectively remade the whole film—what didn't get reshot seems to have been left in place mostly because it accorded closely enough with the Kasdans' verbatim that they let it slide.  (Alternatively, Howard ran out of time as an arbitrary anniversary-related release date approached.)  But there are fascinating glimpses, here and there, that I'd bet were Lord & Miller's often-improvised, sometimes-even-parodic contributions: besides Glover's performance, there's the occasional meta-humor, like Han not getting a stupid made-up sci-fi reference (Ehrenreich is routinely legitimately funny in this movie, incidentally).  There's much of L3's very existence, too (although her earliest exclamations of droid rights are indeed just clumsy enough to have been scripted), and there's Lando's frankly wonderful third act turn toward discretion as the better part of valor (because whatever else Solo is or isn't, it is emphatically not the story of how Han and Lando became friends, and by the evidence of this film, now canon, I'm surprised Lando didn't gleefully freeze the scoundrel into a block of carbonite himself).  It's also there in the way that certain details dangle, like nobody noticed them, suggesting that somebody with a clever streak got away with something, especially that moment where it becomes clear that Chewbacca has been eating people, like a common Ewok.  (But hell, if this was the Kasdans and Kennedy, bless you.  It's my favorite part of the film.)  More than anything, maybe, it's in the utter oddball weirdness of Lando's Space Closet—weird because it's not a Space Closet, just a Regular Closet, and the last things I ever expected to see in any Star Wars film are right here in Solo.  Namely, clothes hangers.  There's no good reason why there shouldn't be clothes hangers in Star Wars; but it's the most jarred I've ever been in one of these films, and Attack of the Clones had Yoda bouncing around like a damn pinball.

Meanwhile, it's tempting to blame Howard for what Solo does wrong, and some of that blame is earned: I have no compunction about attributing the get-on-with-it mess of Solo's ending to Howard (it's kind of his thing lately).  It strives for slow Space Western gravitas, and even succeeds in some important respects, but mostly it manages to be confusing and dull, introducing new elements that don't belong (a proto-Rebellion from, essentially, out of nowhere, and that we cannot be expected to give the first shit about, though Han somehow does) while mishandling everything that was potentially compelling about some of the elements already present (for I am convinced beyond all arguing that somebody, probably named Lord, Miller, or maybe even Kasdan, were adamant that Han had to kill an ascendant Qi'ra in order to close out this Star Wars Story, thereby making their relationship about something, rather than wasting her character on an action that doesn't even really register as a betrayal—but then someone else, possibly named Kennedy, nixed that idea and gave us the lukewarm bathwater of what actually happens, roaring with a menacingly-unwanted sequel hook, along with some badly-choregraphed swordplay that literally ends with one villain bringing a knife to a gunfight—and after I'd prayed that Solo might be the first Star Wars movie that abstained from silly melee combat, too).  The whole last half hour does indeed stink of reshoots, conceptually and visually.

But when there's not any shot in this movie before the final act that doesn't feel, for better or worse (and I obviously mean "worse"), like it isn't "supposed" to be there, I can't blame Howard completely for hewing to the ridiculously terrible aesthetic Lord & Miller were apparently allowing cinematographer Bradford Young to get away with.  (It's easier to suppose that Howard let replacement editor Pietro Scalia run wild, however, and Solo is indeed edited like an atrocity too, though the photography is so dire I don't know if even good editing would've made it noticeably better.)  Nine-tenths of this movie is underlit, badly-lit, and color-corrected to almost-unreadable obscurity (and then blasted straight to hell with CGI smoke), and for the first little while, you keep thinking it must be part of a grand design—once we make it off the industrial dystopia of Han's birth, it's bound to get better, right?


"Three years later," and we're in the middle of an Imperial counterinsurgency operation that doesn't even pretend to be more than a hill and a digital fogbank—but once we get past these dour combat sequences, it must get better.  By the time we're on the first hyperfuel heist, it's become plain that no, this is just what the movie Young's shooting looks like, and while "dimness" is very much the most overused tool in Young's kit (I have no love for his cinematography in either Selma or A Most Violent Year, and even Arrival only looks right, not good), I've not seen the likes of this much abusive underlighting since Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, still probably the most unattractive major studio picture I've ever seen, though God knows Solo is right up there with it.  This is "there's something wrong with the projector" bad.  (Worse, between the sets and the creatures, Neil Lamont's production design deserved so much better.)  At least John Powell's Williams-raiding score is fine; it helps more than it probably should.  Even when it's Lord & Miller's meta-fixation at its groan-inducingly dumbest (ain't no way this was Howard): "The Imperial March," serving as the backdrop to a recruitment ad.

All along, Howard's/whoever's very best attempts at rollicking action-adventure are only competent, and the worst attempts (continuing the New Star Wars tradition of incredibly lackluster space warfare, a streak broken only intermittently by The Last Jedi) verge on the wholly imparsable.  That turns what should've been Solo's absolute centerpiece, the famous twelve-parsec Kessel Run (explained better in an EU novel written decades ago, and exposited into mush here), into a mere shrug of a scene, with one nice image of the Falcon's exhaust becoming a tiny arc of light upon a sheet of black, and little else worthwhile otherwise.  This is despite the fact that this time the Kessel Run includes a brush with a black hole-dwelling space monster.  How do you make that uncool?

I don't know (yes I do: by not having it eat the Star Destroyer that's right there; why didn't I direct this? or you? we'd have done just as good a job, at least).  Anyway, somebody managed it.  What I like about Solo, I like a lot; but I'm certain the only reason I like it at all is because it says "Star Wars" in the title.  And that's a thin reed, even for me.

Score: 6/10

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