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Solo: A Star Wars Story

Year: 2018
Production Co: LucasFilm
Studio: Disney
Director: Ron Howard
Producer: Kathy Kennedy
Writer: Lawrence Kasdan/Jonathan Kasdan
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jon Favreu, Warwick Davis, Clint Howard, Anthony Daniels, Ray Park

Sometimes a review can change completely depending how long after the release of a movie you write it. As I write these words it's a little over a month since Solo came out and for the longest time beforehand, the narrative was about the very public firing of original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. In the weeks since it's changed to something even worse – Solo being the first Star Wars -related movie in history to officially bomb at the box office.

Usually a Star Wars movie would more than make up for its budget in merch and DVD sales, and Solo might do so too, but with a global haul of $342m versus a supposed production budget of $300m, the balance sheet looks grim. Disney overlords probably just wanted to put the misfire of A Wrinkle in Time behind them, confident that another Star Wars movie would wash away the stain in a green flood.

What's more, when negative opinions started to bubble up about The Last Jedi so quickly after it came out I ended my review of it with an offhand comment about whether Star Wars might become just another tired franchise we're collectively bored by. I certainly didn't expect it to happen this fast.

All of which seems unrelated to the content on screen. Who cares how much movie a money makes (apart from shareholders and whatever executive heads are going to roll)? It shouldn't affect our opinion about a movie, but unfortunately films are inextricably linked with the world into which they're released, and the assumption about Solo being a dud inevitably colours our view of it.

That's especially so because there's been so much post-mortem comment about what went wrong. Is it because Alden Ehrenreich didn't have enough charisma, his wide eyed street urchin possessing none of the sardonic suave of the Han Solo we know? Did film fans punish LucasFilm for the ouster of beloved filmmakers Lord and Miller? Was it in cinemas too soon after The Last Jedi (seemingly confirmed by no less than Disney's distribution head soon after release)? Were there just too many diehard fans of different ages and eras to please? They're all questions you're concious of going in so you watch out for them.

But here's something I haven't seen anyone else pick up on, and it's especially pertinent now they've announced Obi Wan Kenobi and Boba Fett standalone movies. Even though we think we might want origin stories for every beloved character, alien and robot from the original franchise, less is sometimes more. It might be that the results can only disappoint us after 40 years of cultural impact, their reputations and influence having grown much bigger than the acting and script originally warranted.

The only other non-franchise entry, Rogue One, did something very different. It took a single idea from A New Hope (about the rebels stealing the Death Star plans), a very slender thread from which it spun up characters, worlds and a tale all its own. Putting them amid regonisable Star Wars trappings like the iconic stromtrooper armour and the sound of X Wing fighter laser fire just made it better. As a movie, Rogue One perfectly embodied the most powerful sequel maxim – give the audience something that's both new and familiar.

Solo did none of that, and like The Last Jedi, it was visually pretty flat and uninteresting as well. However much it was to do with Lord and Miller, Ron Howard after he took over or cinematographer Bradford Young, it has the kind of war movie look we saw in Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, very flushed out and colourless as if the film stock had been put though the wash.

Working with Denis Villenueve, Young's approach – which seems to be his signature style – worked to sublime effect on Arrival, but the Star Wars universe is supposed to be colourful and vibrant, even the places and planets where everything's rusty and broken down. The visuals are at least half of the appeal, and for a Star Wars movie to be so visually drab is like making a comedy with no laughs.

I've heard the story described as being a modern Oliver Twist. Solo grows up scratching out a living among the scummy criminal classes on his home planet of Corellia, using wit and guile to rise up and beat them at their own game. With his girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) he belongs to a colony of slaves, but Han is a great driver and a wannabe pilot, so he and Qi'ra are preparing to rip off their owners and make their escape from Corellia forever.

Cruelly separated at the Imperial border post by fate, a despondent Han has no options or ideas other than to join the Imperial Navy, figuring they'll train him to fly but finding himself a few years later as a common grunt slopping through a muddy battlezone with AT-STs and laser fire everywhere.

In the melee, he spots a criminal gang engaged in a sting posing as Imperial officers and after a quick aside that introduces him to lifelong friend Chewbacca, the pair are recruited to Beckett's (Woody Harrelson) crew. Their first job is to steal a shipment of coaxium (the volatile, pre-refined form of hyperdrive fuel), but when the elevated train heist so prominently shown in the trailer goes south, Beckett and Han have no choice but to return to their paymaster Vos (Paul Bettany) and grovel.

The first surprise is that Qi'ra is Vos' right hand, having apparently made it off Corellia and ended up part of his criminal syndicate, while Han was trying to enact his promise to return for her.

The second is that Han finds the cocksure swagger we know the adult Solo for (even if, as many critics have said, Ehrenreich doesn't have much screen presence) and suggests a jaw-dropping alternative. They'll go to Kessel, the planet coaxium comes from, and steal enough from its mines to set everyone up for life.

Vos agrees, commanding Qi'ra to go with them, and the first stop is to meet with a smooth, suave pilot Qi'ra knows who frequents Sabbacc dens and owns a former shipping freighter/the most famous spaceship in cinema which might make it in and out in time.

It's full of the moments and introductions we're waiting for in Lando, Chewie, the infamous Kessel run, etc, and there are even some nice new ideas. In one, Han and Chewie give huge amounts of the refined coaxium to the pirate band that turns out to be the good guys and will go on to form the nascent stages of the rebellion (ie Han Solo unwittingly equips the emerging rebel alliance).

There's not a lot in the script or the performance that stands out – although Bettany is really good finding a new way of doing a villain – and the visual concepts that should be the cornerstone of any Star Wars movie are okay but not fantastic. Disney are probably hoping as hard as the rest of us that the fatigue will wear off by the time the third instalment of The Force Awakens/Last Jedi trilogy comes around at the end of 2019.

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