On rebels, personalities, color palettes, and the difficulty of trying to execute someone else's vision
Solo: A Star Wars Story Walt Disney Studios
Director: Ron Howard
Screenplay: Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan, based on characters created by George Lucas
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, Emilia Clarke, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Bettany, Joonas Suotamo and Thandie Newton
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 15 minutes / 2.39:1
May 25, 2018
(out of four)
Thirteen years ago - the same year Revenge of the Sith concluded George Lucas' contentious prequel trilogy - a deeply mediocre screen adaptation of the smash Broadway musical Rent arrived in theatres. My friend Jeremy scoffed at the paradox of that story about outcasts and outsiders being directed by the ultimate Hollywood insider, Chris Columbus - the quintessential 1990s studio-system company man. The status quo incarnate. Of all directors working at that time, he should've been at or near the bottom of the list. Imagine Michael Bay directing a Simone de Beauvoir biopic from a script by Max Landis.
Not to compare one outsider to another, nor make the presumption that scoundrel pilot smugglers are a misunderstood or underrepresented niche, but watching Solo: A Star Wars Story, it's hard to escape the feeling that maybe Ron Howard wasn't quite the guy to evoke the spirit of the franchise's most beloved iconoclast. We don't have to take this logic too far or too literally; there's no reason Howard can't make a good Star Wars movie, about Han Solo or anyone else. Maybe in another life he would have done just that. But Solo is the first Star Wars film that has no identity of its own. And for a character who always got by on the laconic force of his personality, this seems like not only a drag but a disservice. Howard's a pro, and he has a number of solid movies under his belt. But he's never been one to channel a character's personality (or inject any of his own). He doesn't obsess or inflame or surprise. He's not volatile or bold. He's safe, predictable, capable. And in Solo he's delivered a polished and efficient movie that's never confident in what it is, or wants to be.
I mean, just consider Han Solo for a second. Does this look like a guy who's polished or efficient? Just look at the ship he flies. Is that the vessel of a man of refinement and neat, tidy adventure? Good god no. Rough around the edges, flies by the seat of his pants, constantly getting himself into a jam and having to improvise his way out of it. Coarse, impertinent, hot-blooded, roguishly charming. If this is his movie, it certainly does a poor job embodying any of those characteristics. Maybe Ron Howard and Han Solo weren't the most natural fit.
Not that the circumstances were in Howard's favor - they weren't. He famously stepped in just last summer, several months into production, taking over for Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie, 21 Jump Street, 22 Jump Street), who were fired after reported creative clashes with writer/producer Lawrence Kasdan and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. Hitting the ground running in the middle of an expensive shoot is daunting enough, nevermind trying to reimagine it completely. Surely he was an attractive replacement candidate because he could reliably bring it home, and the studio would know what to expect. Vanilla is what they wanted, vanilla is what they got. That Howard never picks an aesthetic lane is, in fairness to him, probably because he never had the time to do so. He didn't develop this thing - he just shepherded it for a few months.
Seeing the final version we got - most of which is from Howard's portion of the shoot - and then listening to certain details divulged by the cast and crew may be enlightening. According to cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival, Mother of George, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, A Most Violent Year, Selma), Howard politely admitted that he would not have chosen Young for the job if he were starting from scratch. As for collaborating with Lord and Miller, Young said that their biggest visual reference point was McCabe and Mrs. Miller (incidentally, possibly my favorite Western ever). With McCabe's wet, brown haze and warm light in mind, Solo's images make so much sense. In the streets and in the snow, the inspiration is clear, and Young's golds and deep browns - the way his low, handsome lighting catches the ornate details of the set design - give the film a sensibility it struggles to find elsewhere. You can imagine Lord and Miller envisioned something of a Western (no doubt infused with their specific comic voice), and perhaps even Han himself - not unlike McCabe - as something of a perpetual interloper, a naive scoundrel.
But: The version Howard delivered is not a Western. It's just brown like a Western.
Then there was Emilia Clarke - who plays Qi'ra, Han's one-time sweetheart, now a tenuous ally working (perhaps reluctantly) for a powerful crime lord - providing some insight into her problems figuring out the character under Lord and Miller's direction: "Y'all need to stop telling me that she's 'film noir,' because that ain't a note." Maybe it isn't, but I'm not sure what other notes Howard gave her that would result in the character remaining such a cipher. The performance is perfectly skillful, it's just not really one thing or another. Qi'ra plays various notes depending on the circumstances or the audience, but she's not really mysterious, or enigmatic, or seductive, or persuasive, or threatening, or ... well, much of anything, really. Again, at least with film noir as a reference point, we can imagine there was some intended vision. Some aspect, at least in her corner of the story, inspired by or meant to evoke the deep-seated mistrust and secrecy and dangerous sexual energy of noir.
But: The version Howard delivered is not noirish. It's just shadowy like noir.
To be clear, it doesn't have to be any of those things. But there's an inherent and observable contradiction in place when the images were designed to convey certain ideas, and those ideas were ultimately abandoned. The film's sumptuous, distinctively muted palette is not done justice by what the film became.
And to me, it all comes back to the title character, and how best to serve that character. If Lord and Miller had Westerns and comedies and noir in mind, that tells me something about how they interpreted Han Solo, and that they had a version distinctly in mind. It tells me they were trying to forge a relationship between the character and his milieu. Howard's Solo doesn't tell me a single damn thing about Han Solo.
What we can reasonably assume was going to be present irrespective of director is the basic conceit itself: the humble origins of the character we first met years later in the cantina, when his freelance smuggling career was well-established. In Solo we see Han (Alden Ehrenreich) develop from grownup street urchin to reluctant Imperial soldier to enthusiastic Imperial deserter to smuggler, thief, outlaw - a gig he takes to naturally after latching on with Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his crew of charming crooks. We see him reunite with Qi'ra, the one who got away, who's now the property of Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, in the film's best human performance), whose easy cordiality can slip effortlessly into calm malevolence. We see Tobias and Han, perhaps unwisely, get involved with Vos, offering (with no real alternative, admittedly) to steal a boatload of a rare, valuable unrefined fuel as repayment for a previous heist Tobias never delivered. As part of that mission, we see Han get to know Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, a portrait of sly charm and alpha charisma that Ehrenreich can't match) at the gambling table, where the Millennium Falcon itself is up for grabs. Perhaps more memorably, we get to know Lando's droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the brilliant writer/creator of Killing Eve and writer/creator/star of Fleabag), who provides the kind of comic flair that was likely central to the film's original vision.
All fine pieces for a standalone heist/adventure story, except this one never really finds itself the way the franchise's previous standalone, Rogue One, mostly did. (And that's to say nothing of the film's cringeworthy attempts to explain the kinds of little details that never needed any explanation - like how he got the last name "Solo," or how Chewbacca got the nickname "Chewie," as if the concept of shortened names were somehow a mystery in this universe.)
Admittedly, it's a tall task trying to live up to a character as beloved as this one - or, more crucially, the specific performance of that character. You can't ask Ehrenreich to be Harrison Ford, because no one can be Harrison Ford. In a more or less OK movie, he's more or less OK in the title role. He puts a bit too much mustard on it, as if he's trying to prove he's a movie star. If you're not already familiar with Solo as a character, I think you'd have a hard time putting your finger on exactly who this version really is. He's just sort of ill-defined. The script's biggest misstep is the character's arc, which is far too similar to an arc we already know. He's a maverick, he does things his own way, he doesn't get involved in politics ... and then eventually he gets convinced to pick a side, and he heroically risks his own life to fight for a cause. If he already learns that lesson in this movie, what exactly is the value of him learning that same lesson in Star Wars? At one point Qi'ra insists she knows what kind of person he is, telling him point blank: "You're the good guy." Is he, though? Or is he the scoundrel we met in that cantina?
No one knows what the Phil Lord / Christopher Miller version of Solo would have wound up like. It could have been godawful for all I know, and it's clear there were issues on set. Kennedy and Co. have certainly earned the benefit of the doubt that they're making decisions with the best interest of the series at heart. Not all contentious creative relationships can (or should) be salvaged. Compromises and changes in direction certainly don't have to be red flags. But Solo stands apart from the previous nine films in being the first to feel like little more than brand reinforcement. For a series built, from the very beginning, on huge, weird risks, playing it safe - like Let's Hire Ron Howard safe - may backfire. One thing, at least, seems certain: a Lord/Miller version would have been a Lord/Miller movie, for better or for worse. Now that we've seen the version of Solo that resulted from their departure, one could easily argue that a version with any kind of identity would have been enough.