Friday, May 25, 2018

Solo: A rip-snortin' space adventure

Solo (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.25.18

Among this film’s back-story revelations, large and small, the one that raises the quickest smile is the origin of Han Solo’s name.

Not yet at home: Han (Alden Ehrenreich, center) reluctantly sits back while Lando
(Donald Glover) and the overly chatty L3-37 pilot the Millennium Falcon to their
next destination.
I’d expect no less from a script co-authored by Lawrence Kasdan, who — let us not forget — collaborated with sci-fi legend Leigh Brackett on 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, arguably still the best of all Star Wars films.

Lawrence and his son Jonathan share writing duties on Solo: A Star Wars Story, which tells the origin (more or less) of the lovable rogue who introduced himself to Luke Skywalker by sliding behind a table at the Mos Eisley cantina, pointing to himself and saying, “Han Solo. I’m captain of the Millennium Falcon.”

Rather plain-vanilla, as character debuts come. How could we have known?

Solo joins 2016’s Rogue One as another side story that “fills in the cracks” between episodes of the primary Star Wars mythos. Unlike that earlier film, though, Solo clearly marks the beginning of its own two- or three-film franchise, given that it concludes quite neatly by dovetailing with a character from 1999’s The Phantom Menace.

Meanwhile, director Ron Howard’s Solo is a thoroughly engaging — and frequently suspenseful — depiction of the people and events that will shape Han into the lone wolf-turned-rebel hero who proves so important in the battle against the evil Empire.

Well, not entirely lone wolf. Kasdan père et fils also supply origin stories for Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian and even the Millennium Falcon’s holochess game.

Fans couldn’t ask for more.

As always is the case with the best Star Wars films, this one hits the ground running: Young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) do their best to escape the Dickensian White Worm Syndicate on Corellia, where they’re in thrall to a rather disgusting, otherworldly Fagin dubbed Lady Proxima (and voiced by Linda Hunt). This hell-for-leather opening concludes with Han — having no other choice — joining the galaxy-cleansing Empire as a foot soldier.

Fast-forward three years, at which point Han has had enough of wallowing in the “mud planet of Mimban,” while helping Empire troops decimate peaceful planetary civilizations simply trying to mind their own business. (Production designer Neil Lamont crafted this setting from our own history’s horrifying WWI trench warfare. It’s a chilling echo.) Enter Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a career criminal, thief and smuggler who heads a small gang that includes tough-talking Val (Thandie Newton) and the multi-limbed Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau).

Oh, and along the way Han meets up with Chewbacca.

Following this franchise’s planet-hopping template, Beckett and his crew plan to steal a priceless cargo of coaxium being transported by train through the Iridium Mountains of Vandor. (It’s a rare and valuable mineral used as starship fuel.) What follows is a terrific, superbly edited heist sequence — Pietro Scalia, take a bow — with nail-biting tension, unexpected setbacks and truly stunning visuals.

Not long thereafter, we finally meet this saga’s Big Bad: the sociopathic Dryden Vos, head of the Crimson Dawn syndicate that has plundered treasures throughout the galaxy, and played with quiet malevolence by Paul Bettany. He perfectly demonstrates the vile, terrifying power of the truly evil, who never need to raise their voice, and are scariest when they smile and seem friendly.

Dryden roams through the galaxy in a “space yacht” filled with all manner of guards, flunkies and sycophants, all looking right at home in the vessel’s wildly opulent, Art Deco environment. Settings and clothing always are highlights in Star Wars epics, and this one’s no different; Lamont and costume designers David Crossman and Glyn Dillon did themselves proud.

Longtime fans also will appreciate references to earlier films, most notably Vandor’s Fort Ypso Saloon, where Han first encounters Lando, during a sequence that strongly echoes Tatooine’s aforementioned Mos Eisley Cantina. We also spend considerable time in the dread spice mines of Kessel, not to mention finally getting the skinny on Han’s infamous boast that he “...made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.”

All that aside, everything comes down to character, and — in great part — whether we buy into Ehrenreich being a younger version of Harrison Ford. Frankly, that’s a tough sell. Ehrenreich definitely has presence, as he demonstrated with his scene-stealing performance in 2016’s Hail, Caesar! — he was, in fact, the only good thing about that misfire — but it’s not quite right for Solo.

Ehrenreich is too pretty; he doesn’t have the scruffy, mussed-up appearance that we’d expect from a kid who grew up in a hell-hole such as Corellia. (Think back to Mark Hamill’s much more realistic presence as a Tatooine farm boy.) Howard also allows Ehrenreich to overplay his signature smirk, which rapidly becomes irritating; there’s a world of difference between youthful cockiness and insufferable arrogance, and this film’s Han too frequently crosses that line.

Perhaps we can excuse that as character development. Trouble is, Ehrenreich also winds up struggling for camera focus when in the presence of Harrelson, Clarke, Newton and Bettany, all of whom — as stronger actors — have a much better handle on their characters. Clarke, in particular — recognized as Daenerys Targaryen, from Game of Thrones — displays both graceful bearing and a hint of mystery, which make Qi’ra quite intriguing.

Harrelson’s Beckett also is far more than the sum of his surface parts. This film repeatedly plays with our expectations, in terms of characters who eventually reveal unexpected complexities.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a stitch as the voice of L3-37, Lando’s droid co-pilot and longtime companion, who “reconstructed herself” with a level of self-awareness absent from most Star Wars droids. L3-37’s best running gag is her militant campaign for “droid rights” in a universe where all mechanical beings are treated like chattel.

John Powell delivers an appropriately rousing symphonic score, shrewdly holding back on John Williams’ memorable situation and character themes until precisely the right moment, which — each time — generated an enthusiastic cheer from Tuesday evening’s preview audience.

Indeed, there’s much to admire in this new Star Wars sub-chapter. It’s another breathtaking example of cinematic sci-fi universe-building, and the engaging story is populated by compelling characters. Let’s just hope that Ehrenreich gets a slightly better handle on his role, the next time around.

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