Bad Odds

There’s something of a contradiction when it comes to why Han Solo is such a memorable character. He doesn’t have the youthful dreamer sympathy that comes with Luke Skywalker, the spunky attitude of Princess Leia or the history of years-long strife and heartbreak of Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Han Solo is memorable because he’s supposed to be forgettable. He’s a nobody, a schmo, barely even worth mentioning as a nerf herder. Sure he’s charming, cocky and mostly-fearless, but he has no stake in the events of Star Wars. He’s just there, with nothing but the blaster on his hip and the charisma of Harrison Ford to make him one of the most famous characters in movie history. It’s not mystique or history that makes Han Solo cool, it’s just Han Solo.

 

I’m only pointing this out to remind people that Solo: A Star Wars Story had an uphill battle to endure before there was even a hint of who would be directing the movie. And even with all the drama that went down between Lucasfilm and Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the writer/director team behind the 21 Jump Street movies and The Lego Movie who were originally slated to helm Solo before being replaced by groundbreaking visionary sci-fi icon…Ron Howard..this still didn’t make a good enough case for Solo to be made. It was understandable with Rogue One since the story of the Death Star plans being stolen could’ve been interesting (*Arrested Development voiceover* it wasn’t), but with Solo it feels like Lucasfilm are obviously cashing in on the nostalgia of the original Star Wars trilogy. Because despite the potential, telling the origins of a beloved character is a very fine line to walk and the odds of this being a successful endeavor were slim (not that Han would care, of course).

 

Anyway, about that movie: Solo follows everyone’s favorite smuggler in his younger years. Played by Alden Ehrenreich with more feathered hair and a vest with sleeves this time, Han starts as an orphan trying to escape the pickpocketing life with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Sadly fate separates them, but Han then lucks into meeting an angry wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and a shifty thief named Beckett (Woody Harrelson). Han and Chewie end up joining Beckett in his effort to steal some fuel for a testy gangster (Paul Bettany), but they employ the help of a smooth card shark named Lando (Donald Glover), his trusty droid sidekick (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and his spaceship: the Millenium Falcon.

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Solo has elements of different films rolled into its 135-minute runtime: an origin story, another prequel, a space western and a heist movie. Divvying the movie into specific sections is a bit challenging though, considering its pacing moves at breakneck speed with little time left to slow down and take in whatever mood certain scenes set up for the audience. Fortunately the movie doesn’t stop dead for callbacks to the original trilogy (which cut Rogue One off at the legs) and is mostly free of distracting fan service, staying with the events of its own plot and getting right to the action. It is very much its own story and yet it seems to want to get itself over with as quickly as possible. Which is a shame because, like Rogue One, the movie’s depiction of the dirtier bottom-feeders of the Star Wars universe is really interesting to see and shows the possibilities of expanding the cinematic universe of Star Wars. Even the two major action scenes, one being a train robbery and the other being a heist in an intergalactic mine, are well-staged and shot to flow smoothly by Howard. Solo works best when it’s not servicing the Star Wars brand, instead having its action scenes made with the styles of a western and a caper. When Solo is on point, it’s more reminiscent of Firefly and Ocean’s Eleven than a straight-up Star Wars movie.

 

The sets, spaceships, costumes and all-around design of Solo are impressive and immersive, if only the movie would pump its breaks every now and again to let the audience get more invested in the movie. For a movie over two hours long, Solo has an odd paradox of moving too fast and yet somehow feeling stretched out in its final half-hour. That accelerated pacing also doesn’t do much justice to the characters either, as many of the new ones are jettisoned from the movie by death and the established ones don’t have any further development. Which is a shame because there are some likable characters here, but most of them are done away with or don’t get to truly shine in the movie. The movie’s tightness also keeps alot of fun from seeping into its unnecessary drama. It made sense for Rogue One to be a grim and dramatic sense it was supposed to be akin to war movie, but the characters of Solo imply that this could be a looser, more fun adventure movie. Yet there are character deaths and grim moments that throw off any energy the movie gets going for itself. It’s another example of Star Wars thinking its more important than it actually is. The reason why Star Wars is so omnipresent and beloved is because it’s a fun sci-fi adventure with likable characters and a likable universe. So far these spinoff movies have gotten the latter part right but can’t nail down its characters right.

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Solo unfortunately bears the burden of being about characters, specifically one of the most famous in cinema history. That’s a lot of pressure on any actor, let alone relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich. He was caught between a rock and a hard place: he could’ve either done a Harrison Ford impression and be called a glorified stand-in or approach Han from a completely different direction and be castrated by the fans for ruining their childhood hero. Ehrenreich has seemingly tried to do both, capturing Ford’s relaxed walk and constant bargaining like a used car salesman while also bringing his own idea of who Han Solo was as a younger man. He’s more chipper, better able to adapt to certain situations, much more optimistic than Ford’s droll pessimism, which is refreshing. But there’s just something missing about Ehrenreich’s performance that’s a bit hard to pinpoint: he doesn’t have a mean streak, he doesn’t have a strong presence and his charm can seem a bit annoying at points. It’s like Han is a blank slate waiting to be filled in, but there’s not enough of a base to his personality to warrant more adventures out of him.

 

Han Solo is actually one of the least interesting things about his own origin story, though he’s not alone. Emilia Clarke actually gets to show off a little more authority and charge, on top of being a gorgeous romantic lead straight out of a 1950s Hollywood classic. But her character Qi’ra is just another space for an actor to fill without anything to truly make her interesting, replaced with ties to the Star Wars expanded universe that bait for sequels. But the blankest of blank slates in the movie is Paul Bettany’s Dryden Vos, a one-dimensional villain whose only definable feature are a bunch of scars on his face that flame-up whenever he gets angry (which is never explained). Bless Bettany for seemingly having fun in his brief scenes, but that doesn’t make up for his lack of threat. Fortunately the rest of the supporting cast is colorful and outstanding in certain scenes, despite how limited some of their screen times are. Woody Harrelson looks like he’s having the most fun in a long time spinning guns around and flexing long coats, while also being a believable father-figure for Han. Donald Glover, who’s arguably overtaken the movie in terms of must-see performances, slides into the shoes and cape of Lando Calrissian with the greatest of ease. While he doesn’t have the full-out confidence that Billy Dee Williams had, the simple act of Donald waving his fingers in the air has an air of swagger and smoothness to it. It also helps that he plays Lando as the straight man to the hijinks of Han and co. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Thandie Newton and Jon Favreau all make their marks as background players who sadly don’t get enough screen time to keep the fun going.

 
And that might be the biggest worry coming from Solo: Star Wars is starting to not be fun anymore. There was plenty of potential with Solo and some of it did make the final cut of the movie, but a combination of underdeveloped characters and rushed pacing to hide how underdeveloped the characters are make Solo feel intermittently fun but mostly hollow. It is an improvement from Rogue One in that there’s some levity and energy to Solo’s events and characters, but the movie miscalculates the need for it to be another “MOST BIGGEST MOVIE STORY IN YOUR LIFE HAIL STAR WARS” and not just a fun side quest. It’s the contradiction of Star Wars: we always want more, but what happens when the more we want is too much.

2.5/4

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The Franchise Awakens

Don’t worry, everybody: it’s good. How good? Well….

Disney had quite the mountain to climb when they announced an entirely new trilogy of Star Wars movies was going into production. Not only would they follow the original trilogy over 30 years after its conclusion, not only would they bring back the original stars (Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill), not only would George Lucas not be involved in the entire process (a good or bad thing depending on who you ask) but it would primarily follow a new set of characters and a new plot line. For any other franchise, that’d be a somewhat tough task. But for one of the (if not THE) most iconic film franchise in history, that’s like climbing Mt. Everest blindfolded wearing a light windbreaker. Nevertheless, the House of Mouse decided to play dirty with one thought; who better to revive this beloved sci-fi space opera than the guy who revived that OTHER beloved sci-fi space opera? J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Mission: Impossible III, Super 8) answered the call and conquered Everest…but not without some struggle.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. The Empire was defeated, but from their ashes rose a new sinister galactic force called The First Order, featuring Sith warrior Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). When they reveal their greatest weapon with the intent to destroy The Republic, a group of outsiders team up to save the galaxy. That group includes scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac)….oh yeah, and these two old smugglers named Han Solo (Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

 

The first thing to say about The Force Awakens is that it’s most definitely a J.J. Abrams movie, as evidence by the visuals and the pacing. As seen in his Star Trek films and Mission: Impossible III, Abrams keeps the movie light on its feet and moving at a brisk pace. That’s a hit and miss strategy since the pacing keeps the movie moving without ever getting boring but also takes the emotional punch out of the more serious scenes (especially in the first half). In fact, the movie’s two main elements are split between the two halves of the 135-minute runtime. The first half has great visuals and builds atmosphere well but the character establishment is lacking, whereas the second half has the audience fully invested in the characters’ actions but the visual wham of it has somewhat worn off. Not that the visuals in the movie aren’t already very impressive, as Abrams glossy sheen on scenes with the Millennium Falcon or The First Order’s reveal of their great weapon. The most of the plot of the movie and the script (assembled by Abrams, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan) are both cohesive plot elements and references to the original trilogy. There are some throwaway scenes that matter little to the pot but just keep the movie going, so The Force Awakens keeps audiences in the seats just long enough to keep them from questioning whether or not they’ve seen this before.

 

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John Boyega and Daisy Ridley Photo Credit: JoBlo

 

The Force Awakens hits a real home run with its casting, specifically its new lead characters. John Boyega (Attack the Block) and Daisy Ridley (Scrawl) have fantastic chemistry between each other and with the Star Wars universe in general. They and Oscar Isaac bring the energy and humanity missing from the prequels because they’re allowed to look like they’re excited to be here. They want to fly the Falcon, they want to shoot Stormtroopers, they want to be involved in the legacy of The Force. It’s clear from the two leads of their passion for the movie as to how invested they are in the universe around them. Boyega’s Finn is searching for a new purpose throughout the movie after exiling himself (rather abruptly, though) from The First Order. Maybe it’s because of the pacing that his transformation feels a bit too quick, but his charisma carries him through. Adam Driver (Girls) makes for a surprisingly compelling villain as Kylo Ren, even if he is essentially a Darth Vader fanboy gone to the extreme. He gets a bit hard to buy once he takes that helmet off, but the way he uses his backstory (no spoilers) to make his transformation fully-formed sells the whole thing (and yes, his lightsaber is awesome). The heart and soul of the movie is Ridley as the scrappy dreamer Rey. In no way, shape or form is she a damsel in distress. Instead, she’s the one who moves the whole story forward as the dreamer looking to escape her wasteland planet (basically a discount Tatooine) and discover herself. She’s leading Finn through the perils of The First Order, she’s the one piloting the Falcon, she’s the one challenging Kylo. She’s no Furiosa, but Ridley makes Rey feel fully-formed and, for the first time in the Star Wars universe, inhabits a character that the audience wants to see more of in later movies.

 

Despite the excellent job the two main leads do with their work, there’s also a feeling of missed opportunity with some of the supporting players. The likes of Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o and especially Gwendoline Christie are criminally underused in their small roles. They’re clearly happy to join the Star Wars universe and some ham it up to show their appreciation (Gleeson especially as the hilariously sniveling General Hux), but their characters deserved a bit more to do. For those wondering why I haven’t mentioned the original cast, it’s because they’re barely in the movie. The Force Awakens is probably the most Han-centric Star Wars movie to date, but Harrison Ford brings nothing really new to the character. Not that it’s a bad thing, since Ford is one of those guys who out-acts people in his sleep. He and Carrie Fisher still have that chemistry that audiences loved from the original trilogy and even in the elder state, there’s a warm love still felt between the two. And all I’ll say about Hamill is that he’s in the movie.

 

I want to cap this off by emphasizing that, again, The Force Awakens is a good movie. Abrams and his production team establish a universe that is both undoubtedly Star Wars yet unique from previous installments. The production design is fantastic, the effects (both practical and special) are great, and the movie has some of the best cast and characters seen in Star Wars since Return of the Jedi. But here’s the rub; The Force Awakens is less a directly connected sequel, but the purest definition of a “soft reboot.” This movie clearly wants nothing to do with the prequels (maybe in every shape and form) and everything to do with the original trilogy. From a business standpoint, bringing Star Wars movies back into production was more about the maddening hype and excitement of the event more than the event itself. But perhaps out of pure luck or maybe actual passion for this franchise, Disney got a director and team that actually wanted to create something new with Star Wars. Abrams and company’s work feels like that of a team that dressed up in cosplay, wrote essays on the subtext of the movies, made fan-films and alternate endings to the movies. Everyone involved in The Force Awakens (aside from maybe Ford, but that’s forgivable) cared about what they were doing. The Force Awakens is actually similar to the miracle of The Lego Movie: a purely corporate business decision meant to make money and generate marketing revenue that was given actual effort and passion put into it. Granted, The Lego Movie is far better than The Force Awakens, but this movie accomplished its mission. The world wants more Star Wars, Hollywood wants more Star Wars, I want more Star Wars.

 

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4