Sunday, May 26, 2024

‘Solo’ Works More Than It Doesn’t

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Solo is a slow burn of a Star Wars movie. It’s never out and boring, but at times you can feel the movie creaking along until the tail end of the second act. Regardless, it’s a perfectly fun little movie. At times Solo feels like the director, Ron Howard, is having a good old-fashioned joy ride in a movie that wasn’t his, to begin with, but is wholly his by the end.

Howard is a director more at home with the style of no style. For Howard, the story dictates the style and not the other way around. As a director, Howard cut his teeth on the low budget drive-in features of the legendary producer Roger Corman. He learned to make movies on a lean budget and even leaner production schedule.

Knowing this it makes sense that Kathleen Kennedy called on Howard to take up the director’s reigns for Solo after the much-publicized firing of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Howard’s debut was a fun, if inconsequential, but delightfully nutty movie called Grand Theft Auto. A movie about a young boy who stole his girlfriend’s father’s car so they could drive to Vegas in a mad dash to get married. The father, of course, doesn’t approve and essentially puts a bounty on his car and daughter. Hilarity, as they say, ensues.

It would be a stretch to say Solo is a remake of Grand Theft Auto but the two do share similar traits. Unlike what the advertisements would have you believe Solo is less a heist movie and more of a film noir western about a heist. But, much like Grand Theft Auto, Solo hums along largely at ease. Even when the script by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan begins to feel labored as Solo begins to lay what is clearly groundwork for later payoffs; it’s never out and out tedious.

Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is easily one of the most infamous and popular rogue characters in the latter half of the 20th century. Except Solo isn’t nearly the rogue, he wants to be. Or as much of one as he wants anyone else to believe. Growing up on the mean streets of Corellia he’s learned to depend largely on himself. Quick on his feet and maybe just a little too quick with his mouth he’s been taught by the noirish Dickensian off-world to be resourceful.

With him is a girl, as there always is in stories like these, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Much like Han she is, what I can imagine the Kasdan’s would describe as “plucky and resourceful.” Unlike her roguish counterpart, she is a little more careful with her words. Han is impetuous and brash where Qi’ra is cautious and strategic. The two attempt to escape both Corellia and their Fagin and Sikes like ‘family.’

Corellia seems to be a planet whose atmosphere is nothing but shadows, steam, and run down warehouses. Bradford Young, who shot Solo bathes the movie with a sort of lush bleakness. What light that the scenes do have only illuminated the grime and filth on Solo’s face. Noirs are a genre of film that trade visually in lights and shadows.

Young’s camerawork dives headfirst into the genre’s atmospheric tropes. But noirs also come with story requirements. The beginning must have an unhappy occurrence. For Han, it is fleeing Corellia without Qi’ra. Now we have our haunted hero, and what’s more, we have a hero with a purpose. He vows to come back and rescue Qi’ar from the very fate he’s escaped.

Solo is a movie that behaves according to all the rules set down by whatever genre it happens to be traveling in. So much so it feels at times as if the Kasdans and Howard are checking off boxes as they go along. Howard, however, is a consummate professional and even though the story may feel rote, it still works. He’s worked with less.

 Han joins the imperial forces so he can get into flight school. I must admit for a while I kind of enjoyed the odd Black Adder turn Solo takes. For a solid 10 minutes or so we’re treated to Han Solo running into battle and then running away from battle only to stumble upon a battalion of smugglers disguised as imperial soldiers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson).

For a while Solo ceases to be a noir and becomes a sort of Gomer Pyle in the army type military comedy. Han can’t help but overhear the smuggler’s conversations, and we see a twinkle in the young man’s eyes. These people are talking Han’s language.

If anything, what Howard brings to Solo is his understanding of genres. He traverses from genre to genre often within a few scenes of each other and somehow always manage to keep the same tone. From meeting the smugglers, Han finds himself thrown into a brig of sorts. Right about that point we in the audience start to think, “At some point, he has to meet Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo).” One guess who Han meets while in the cell.

Ehrenreich has some mighty big shoes to fill. Despite Harrison Ford’s legendary antipathy towards Solo, it remains one of his most beloved roles. I liked him. Ehrenreich teases us with glimpses of the Solo he may become while still showing us the eager young man trying desperately to prove something, anything, to himself. Within the first few seconds Ehrenreich comes onto the screen we buy it. At least I did.

Chewie and Han fall in with the smugglers. Before you know it, Solo has turned into the heist movie all the advertisements promised us. The two aren’t exactly welcomed by Beckett’s second in command, both in crime and in life, Val (Thandie Newton). Rio Durant (Jon Favreau) a multi-armed toad-like alien, seems taken with the two tagalongs. Although since Rio is the crew’s pilot, we expect he will be exiting before the next act begins.

Predictability doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. The mark of a great storyteller is the ability to keep you interested even if you know what’s going to happen. Better yet when the storyteller knows that you know what is going to happen. I wouldn’t call Howard a great storyteller, though he’s told some great ones, he is skilled enough that he knows what to do and when to do it.

Solo is not a movie that is always two steps ahead of us. But it never pretends to be. Howard and the Kasdans are more interested in just telling a fun story about a young man realizing who he is. Granted it would be nice if a different man other than a white heterosexual cisgender one were at the center. Or even a woman.

When the heist, predictably, goes sideways, two things happen. One is the unfortunate fridging of Val. Fridging, just for clarity, is when a writer kills off a woman character solely for so that a man could grow emotionally or give something for the man to overcome. It is not, as some have incorrectly leveled, merely killing off a woman. The death of Val falls onto the uncomfortable line of in between the two.

As I said earlier, Solo is at its heart a noir film. Whatever genres Howard and the Kasdan’s may traverse through, at its core it’s a noir. It’s how Solo is able to keep its consistent tone. One of the rules of the noir story is that morally compromised characters must die. I’m not sure if that’s actually a trope of the genre or a byproduct of the Hays production code that happen to exist during the genre’s heyday. Regardless it’s so ingrained to how noir stories are told that it’s baked into the genre’s DNA.

Knowing this we can correctly predict that all, if not most, of the characters we meet, will die, or at the very least will not be granted the same happy ending as our hero. Enter Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra, stage left. After the heist, Beckett must go back to the man who hired him Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) and explains what happened. He is, as all crime bosses must be, slightly disfigured. Dryden is deeply irritated by Beckett’s news. Qi’ra intercedes to diffuse the situation. As Dryden’s first lieutenant we’re given a glimpse of the wits she’s had to rely on after Han left.

Of all the things I liked about Solo, the thing I loved the most was Clarke’s Qi’ra. Which is saying something because I’ve never been impressed with her work up until this point. Her Qi’ra is the best thing about Solo, aside from Lando (Donald Glover). She may be draped in noir tropes, but her character is the one I find myself ruminating on the most. Haunted by her earlier life with Han and the separate paths their lives took.

She’s conflicted between her simmering feelings for Han and her devotion and allegiance to Dryden. Her conflict is the most fascinating because it’s played out in her eyes as opposed to her words. Which if there is anything to groan about Solo is its tendencies to not trust our intelligence.

The opening crawl has certain words in all caps. Words like “Corellia” or “Han Solo.” The words being capitalized being the words that are most important for us to know and understand. I don’t mind if a movie is dumb, but I do mind when a movie thinks I’m dumb. Early on Chewbacca tells Han his name. “Chewbacca? We’ll have to come up with something else to call you. I’m not going to be saying that all the time.” Why in the world was that exchange necessary?

Chewbacca introducing himself is important. But why waste precious time with Han whining about the length of the name. Did the filmmakers really think without that scene we would hear Han call out “Chewie!” and wonder “Who is he talking about?”

Solo simply doesn’t have faith in itself or us. Which is a shame because once the third act gets going, it becomes a real joy ride of a summer movie. A simple heist that turns into a mini labor riot which evolves into a grand space chase through space, and culminates in the classic noir finale of everybody pointing a gun or weapon at somebody else.

By the end, Han discovers he has a moral compass despite what he may believe. As Qi’ra leaves Howard cuts between her looking out of the ship and Han looking up as she flies away. Clarke almost mutters “I love you.” Or at least I think she does, Clarke never says a word. But her eyes all but scream it. When Howard and the script allow the actors to do the telling and not the dialog, the result is a sort of gentle movie magic.

Despite the visual functionality of Solo, Young’s frames are at times breathtaking. He captures natural vistas in a way that calls to mind shots from a John Ford western. Sadly, movies like Solo, suffer from a lack of visual ingenuity because of the amount of VFX work. Directors aren’t allowed much input on these scenes because they are usually filled in long after the director has completed his job.

The reveal of Han at the beginning of the film is rote. The camera goes from a medium profile shot and pan’s slightly before cutting to a full close up of Han’s face. Because of this scenes heavy with special effects are often gorgeous and impeccable but have a sort of bland rote-ness to them.

I’m reminded of Avengers: Infinity War where we were inundated with scenes of characters faces taking up the right or left side of the screen. The opposite side, of course, being filled with negative space. It’s repeated ad nauseam throughout the movie, and while it looks good, it does nothing to alter the mood or convey any meaning about the characters.

Take the scene I mentioned where Qi’ra watches from the ship and Han watches from below. Nothing is said. The music plays. All we’re left with are the faces. They tell us everything we need to know. The camera moves away Qi’ra as she watches from above and repeats the motion as Han looks on. The camera placement and movement fill in the blanks.

As summer blockbusters go, it’s a perfectly fun time at the movies.  Solo works best when it understands when to use words and when to let the actors’ faces do the talking. It’s not the best Star Wars movie, but it’s not the worst. As summer blockbusters go, it’s a perfectly fun time at the movies.  

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