Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Star Wars is a series choking on criss-crossed continuity and the expectations they invite. The individual Episodes, no matter how they are told, revolve around chosen ones discovering and exploring their destinies, usually at the forefront of galaxy-spanning warfare. They are a prestige brand churning through the same basic set-ups; change and re-evaluation deployed as archetypal modifiers that upset and please in apparently equal measure. Surely, the promise of the A Star Wars Story sub-brand then is to upend these assumptions and hurtle off somewhere new? The Journal of the Whills is fine but isn't there also room for Rogue One's tales of the army-builders?

Solo: A Star Wars Story, despite its big fish lead character, at least starts somewhere pleasantly messy. Alden Ehrenreich's Han is a Dickensian orphan, bullied into lifting techno bric-a-brac for an enormous, incredulous Muppet in a smoke-clogged Armaghetto. Writers Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan use their hero's introduction as an opportunity to pay tribute to both franchise creator George Lucas and original Solo actor Harrison Ford. Naturally, given his pedigree, Han is a Bob Falfa-esque speed-freak, at home gunning around shipyard slums in a stolen sports car that combines the basic design principles of Luke Skywalker's hovering Landspeeder with the ratcheting oomph of American Graffiti's V8 monsters. Armed with Kasdan, one of Lucas' favourite collaborators, Ron Howard's film covers all the testimonial bases.

Regardless of this obvious talent, Han is still a nobody. He isn't related to anyone important and no Jedi hovers on his periphery, ready to step in then whisk him away. This is fertile ground for Disney's spin-off line. In a universe that ebbs and flows on their achievements, it must be crap not being a Skywalker. Other people have to scam and grift to stay afloat. Solo's path off home planet Corellia involves him enlisting with Palpatine's plastic bovver boys to serve as cannon fodder in some pointless, deliberately ill-defined war. Howard's film, more so than any previous Star Wars entry, really leans into the idea of the Galactic Empire as a lightly dressed stand-in for Britain's slathering colonial ambitions. Reasonable aliens are othered into blood-sucking monsters; dying for the Navy is positioned as aspirational for the dirt poor; and all wars revolve around mud, misery and a misplaced sense of competence.

It's a shame Howard's film isn't a bit more interested in Solo as a lowly grunt bumping up against the machinery of intergalactic oppression. Before long Han is caught in a criminal conspiracy that tracks towards an unspeakably tidy solution, despite Donald Glover's extra-louche interpretation of Lando Calrissian and Paul Bettany's tiger-striped cad. Several parties are undermined by dramatic developments that speak to the kind of corrective numb you expect from a well-oiled production line. These victims include a gang of jet-biking wizards and Emilia Clarke's Qi'ra. Han's compromised, secretive love interest trades a moment of credible, meaty selfishness to quake in the interlaced shadow of an incompetent Sith. In a series seething with spikey, exciting ideas that pointedly go nowhere, straight-laced sequel plotting leaves a medicinal taste.

Unusually, for a set of films built on kaleidoscopic special effects technology, the stars of the Solo show are Howard and his stunt team. For all the medium talent acquisitions thrown the director's way, Howard at least creates readable movement, happy to explore the pure visual mechanics of physical objects hurtling from point A to point B. Set pieces, while not necessarily fraught with the palpable danger of a Tom Cruise vehicle, are instead built around the brief, unmistakable buzz of being a successful show-off. This bluster also finds its way into key CG sequences. Han, on a roll, uses his knowledge of drag-race minutiae to oversteer the Millennium Falcon through an impossibly dense asteroid field. This approach is nothing new for Howard, 1988's Willow described fantastical adventure using the yeehaw language of a Wild West Stunt Spectacular, but these earthy, meat-and-potatoes thrills sing in a series obsessed with luminescent baton twirling.

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