‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ tells a bland and cluttered origin story

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 5/29/18 2:15am

I’ve said it before (see my reviews of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) and I’ll say it again here: I love Star Wars. But my personal relationship with Star Wars is far less interesting to me than its broader cultural impact. And the popularity of Star Wars is practically incalculable. It may just be a collection of silly stories set in an insane fictional universe, but clearly those stories resonate.

In the universe of film, Star Wars is a massive star at the center of its own system. Its cultural gravity unites disparate people, like so many small orbiting planets. Yet its massive size means that no two views of the franchise look exactly alike. I grew up loving the original trilogy, while my cousins learned the ins and outs of the galaxy from the “Clone Wars” TV show and movie, neither of which I’ve seen. My point is this: for a variety of reasons, I’m sure, I can’t understand why “Solo: A Star Wars Story” innately appeals to some fans in a way it never did for me. I think the same thing about “Solo” that I did about “Rogue One,” the previous anthology spin-off film. I enjoyed watching both, I was grateful that they kept pre-existing lore intact and I have no real desire to see either one ever again.

“Solo” takes place several years before its protagonist, Han Solo, memorably swaggers his way into the original “Star Wars,” later retitled “A New Hope.” After escaping a life of servitude, Han joins a gang of low-level thugs who need to steal a shipment of hyper fuel to pay off a debt to crime lord Dryden Vos. Along the way, Han and his mentor, Tobias Beckett, are joined by Qi’ra, Han’s childhood love, and recruit established fan-favorites Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian.

It’s a simple plot that the execution buries beneath needless clutter. The result is a run-time that is at least twenty minutes too long, and numerous plot tangents that feel underdeveloped. In one example, the film tries to address the issue of discrimination with an “equal rights for droids” subplot that, while admirable, doesn’t fit into this particular story. The clumsy choice wastes time and makes a worthy topic feel underserved and wasted.

“Solo” suffers from “too much information” syndrome — chiefly the urge to provide an origin story for every single piece of Han Solo paraphernalia. Along the way, the filmmakers include numerous tie-ins to other Star Wars entities, as well as set-ups for potential films and TV shows (you’ll know them when you see them). “Rogue One” had the same affliction, but the film was at least smarter about it. “Solo,” on the other hand, contains moments that literally make no sense unless you are intimately familiar with random Star Wars minutiae.

“Solo” does beat out “Rogue One” when it comes to its supporting cast. Although Alden Ehrenreich acquits himself admirably on his own terms as Han Solo, it’s impossible to escape the larger-than-life specter of Harrison Ford. To his credit, Ehrenreich never tries to imitate Ford — but this too can become distracting because Donald Glover’s version of Lando, by contrast, flows seamlessly into Billy Dee Williams’ original performance. Glover’s confidence and swagger might be the best thing about the film. Woody Harrelson is likewise engaging as Beckett, Emilia Clarke brings unexpected depth to her performance as Qi’ra and Phoebe Waller-Bridge earns some laughs as Lando’s droid-turned-revolutionary, L3-37.

While future generations will likely neither know nor care about the production problems that plagued “Solo,” it’s hard not to think about them as you watch the film. The original directors, Phil Lord ’97 and Chris Miller ’97, were fired several months into filming and replaced by Ron Howard, who extensively reshot much of the film. The behind-the-scenes chaos isn’t apparent on screen in the same way it was in “Justice League,” which dealt with a similar transition at the helm, but there are still noticeable moments where you can sense the creative fissures just beneath the relatively polished surface. For instance, while the editing is generally competent, it occasionally veers off course, often losing track of the characters and the geography during major action scenes.

And then there is the film’s tonal inconsistency. Whether you love or hate the newer Star Wars films, it’s hard to deny that they bear the mark of their director. “The Force Awakens” is a very J.J. Abrams film, “Rogue One” is a very Gareth Edwards film and “The Last Jedi” is a very Rian Johnson film. “Solo” doesn’t really feel like anyone’s film. In some of its better moments, the screenplay embraces the weirdness that has been a crucial component to Star Wars. Some of the designs are genuinely bizarre and inspired and feel right out of the Lord/Miller playbook. But these ideas feel like anomalies in a film that otherwise opts for a straightforward, even banal, approach. After all, Ron Howard wasn’t brought in for his unique vision — he was hired because he’s a competent filmmaker and was (probably) willing to give the studio exactly what they asked for. Some moments do seem to justify the director switch. Lord and Miller were purportedly fired in part due to their inexperience with big-budget filmmaking, and a few scenes do play out oddly, like an awkward stage play. While Ron Howard brings nothing exceptional to “Solo,” his experience as a director cinematically elevates the more thrilling sequences.

A friend of mine summarized “Solo” best when she called it “a giant fan fiction.” Whether we disdain fan fictions or not, we all participate in a similar creative process when we imagine what could happen to our favorite fictional characters beyond the bounds of their stories. If the imaginings in “Solo” are to your liking, have a blast. But for me, the film will remain little more than a fun but ultimately needless diversion in the history of the behemoth that is Star Wars.