The risk of making huge budget movies can sometimes be a gamble worthy of beloved Corellian chancer Han Solo himself. However, there were – until recently – not many franchises more set for success than Star Wars, so a prequel movie covering the early years of Han Solo was seen as the closest thing there is in Hollywood to a sure bet.
And yet Solo: A Star Wars Story wasn’t the success that it should have been. It didn’t help that it was beset by problems throughout production. Stories of actor Alden Ehrenreich, taking on the main role of the young Han Solo, struggling to give directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller the tone of performance they were aiming for. Lord and Miller struggling with tone themselves, after Lucasfilm realised that they were aiming for a far more comedic movie than was expected – followed by the duo leaving the production, citing (unsurprisingly, given the reports) creative differences; these are just a few examples of issues plaguing the movie in the early stages of development and filming.
Despite Ron Howard being brought in as a safe pair of hands to finish production on the movie, outside of Solo, Star Wars was – despite remaining financially successful – facing a bit of a backlash with fans due to the divisive nature of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. Audiences, perhaps burned out on Star Wars in general following a number of releases in quick succession (including the not-exactly-beloved, aforementioned eighth chapter of the Skywalker Saga), didn’t exactly flock to see Solo; the character’s fate in The Force Awakens, rendering any revelations from his past somewhat redundant, didn’t help either.
It says a lot about the nature of Hollywood blockbusters that Solo was considered a failure though. Despite earning close to $400m at the global box office, Solo’s production and marketing budget – and, no doubt, a bit of good old fashioned Hollywood accounting – meant that it needed to gross at least $500m to break even. That a Star Wars movie failed to reach even that lofty target, however, is still a bit of a surprise.
Yet it’s actually a bit of a shame that Solo: A Star Wars Story is regarded not only as a commercial failure but as a failure in general. It’s a fun, fast moving, well made film that’s a decent attempt to give us a definitive glimpse into Han Solo’s past.
It suffers from the same issues that most prequels have, however. By attempting to cover so many events and details that have been alluded to over the last forty years or so of Star Wars lore, it makes them feel so much smaller and perhaps more coincidental or convenient than they’ve been made out to be. The fact that Han gets his name (don’t ask), rescues Chewie, meets Lando, performs the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, wins the Millennium Falcon and then goes off *spoiler alert* to carry out his doomed job for Jabba all essentially as part of the same adventure robs the character of a certain mystique and a storied history. These events are no longer part of a few decades as a rogueish, daring smuggler; they basically happen over the course of a few days (or thereabouts – I wasn’t keeping count). Other issues that befall a prequel include the knowledge of certain characters surviving; we know that Han, Chewie and Lando are in no danger, so it’s difficult to create much tension in the dangerous situations they find themselves in; yeah, we want to see how they escape, but it’s not the same as watching a story featuring characters whose fates have yet to be determined.
Why is it that the droids so often steal the show? Regardless of the answer, Solo’s main droid is another highlight for the franchise, with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s excellent L3 pilfering every scene she appears in (the uprising she incites in one sequence is absolutely sublime).
That said – and as mentioned – it’s actually still a really fun time. There’s an awful lot of very subtle references to Star Wars lore, which are way more interesting and fun than the almost groan inducing, very obvious ones; of particular note – especially for me as a gamer – was a mention of martial art Teräs Käsi, a callback to the crappy Star Wars PS1 beat ’em up Masters of Teräs Käsi. Lando talking briefly about the Sharu civilisation – recalling now non-canon 1983 novel Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu – was another highlight for me. I could have done without the hint that Han’s actions have a hand in creating the Rebel Alliance, however.
That’s not to say that the other characters slouch at all; Ehrenreich is – perhaps surprisingly, given how strongly Harrison Ford is associated with the character – a charismatic and likeable presence as Han Solo (and even gets a chance to bring back an important aspect of the character that was lost in the Greedo-shot-first debacle). Donald Glover is, as ever, brilliant in the role of uber-charming cape aficionado Lando Calrissian (can we at least have a Lando film, please Disney?). Other characters new to the franchise are well handled too, with Emilia Clarke and Woody Harrelson making good use of their not entirely trustworthy roles.
Paul Bettany, as decadent, deadly gangster Dryden Vos isn’t too bad in general, though his wandering accent is a little distracting (his casting was a late addition to the production – to add to the woes, Michael K. Williams was unavailable for the reshoots that took place after Lord and Miller left, leaving Paul Bettany to take it on – and the role was adapted accordingly for him).
Ron Howard’s direction – particularly his handling of the breakneck action – is surprisingly satisfying too, though this may well be partly thanks to the work done by Lord and Miller prior to Howard’s arrival. There’s certainly some great moments that bear some hallmarks of the brilliant, character-based humour that Lord and Miller brought to films such as 21 (and 22) Jump Street, The Lego Movie and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, but it’s difficult to tell what occurred before they left production. That is, however, to Howard’s credit; that the film doesn’t feel like a patchwork or made by committee is a minor miracle, given the variety of production issues.
Effects-work is, as you’d expect, stellar; there’s a few CGI characters who are as strong as anything we’ve seen in recent Star Wars movies (Jon Favreau’s simian Rio Durant is a particular highlight here) and there’s some great practical effects work too. Production design, with the action taking place in a variety of different worlds and shady corners of the galaxy, is wonderfully textured and varied, with an awful lot of the ‘lived-in’ feel that is evoked so strongly in Star Wars.
A very late stage cameo by the true head of crime syndicate Crimson Dawn is nicely done, but does raise quite a few questions that will likely be unaddressed given Solo’s disappointing commercial performance (of course, fans familiar with the animated Star Wars series may be better acquainted with this particular character’s post-Skywalker Saga appearances).
So despite the usual prequel pitfalls that Solo doesn’t manage to avoid, it’s actually still a very well made film with great action, a lot of humour and plenty of heart. It doesn’t do anything too drastic (thankfully) to change who Han Solo is (or was), but that’s a relief, in all honesty. There’s definitely worse Star Wars films out there, that’s for sure. It’s a shame that we’re unlikely to see further adventures with Alden Ehrenreich in the role; for what it’s worth, I’d quite like to spend some more time with the younger incarnation of the spacefaring rogue we know and love.
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