Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

I liked Solo. It was better than I expected, and even knowing about its troubled production history, I didn’t see anything about the movie that made it appear jagged or flawed or thematically inconsistent. Ron Howard’s mid-production step into the director’s seat appears to have been a good decision, and he delivered a slick space action flick.

At its core, Solo is a heist movie, and it’s a really fun one at that. We see young Han, played charmingly by Alden Ehrenreich, escape from an oppressed life on Corellia, join and then defect from the Empire, and meet his loyal friend Chewbacca (this time portrayed by Joonas Suotamo, who seems to have done a very good job of capturing Peter Mayhew’s physicality down to small gestures and cocks of the head) and his less-than-loyal frenemy Lando Calrissian (with Donald Glover absolutely nailing the role, even if a few moments leaned past Billy Dee Williams imitation to perhaps even parody) as he gets involved with an outlaw crew in a job that quickly goes south, putting them in the debt of terrifying crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany switches fluidly from charming to violent, his personality always domineering and seething with energy). To work off the debt, Han’s new crew attempt to steal Coaxium, an explosive hyperfuel McGuffin, from Kessel and deliver it to a refinery outside of the Empire before it goes boom.

The ensemble cast rounding out the crew Han associates with is great. Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett is folksy, rough-spun, and charming; someone who could be a mentor figure if it weren’t for his unreliability. Harrelson’s delivery suggests a worn and worldly character looking to survive, and the plot gives him the classic heist leader drive of wanting to do one more job to get out of the game. Thandie Newton’s Val presents a cold veneer and trusts no one, but in her softer moments she shows her love for Beckett. Rio, voiced by Jon Favreau, is a sort of weird uncle. Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is an eager dreamer when we first meet her, but when Han rediscovers her after escaping Corellia, she already hides a thousand sorrows and sins. Clarke does a good job of tinging Qi’ra’s manner with guilt and broken spirit, but Qi’ra is also a survivor and a pragmatist and a fierce fighter. We can tell that things will never work out between her and Han as soon as they are reunited–and it’s not just the fact that she’s not around by the classic trilogy. There’s a distance between them, a distance imposed by Qi’ra herself, something we see in her eyes and hear in her voice, even though she still obviously has love for him. It’s a complicated performance and in some ways seems like a dark mirror or inversion of Han’s relationship with Leia (who is an idealist and who refuses to outwardly portray her affection for Han).

Lastly, there’s Lando’s copilot, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a cranky droid revolutionary who secretly loves her captain. There is so much warmth and chemistry between the two. And L3 raises some genuine issues about the treatment of droids in the Star Wars galaxy. Her big moment midway through the film draws a clear connection between the restraining bolts and memory wipes used on droids and the chains and prods used on organic slaves. Disappointingly, most of her revolutionary attitudes are used for laughs, often seemingly at her expense. On one occasion, Lando asks her if she needs anything, and she quips, “Equal rights,” which makes it seem almost as though she’s in on the joke too. Even that big moment I mentioned is initiated by L3 through an incidental afterthought gesture; the fact that it spirals into something bigger is initially an obvious joke and only turns serious as it goes on. Of everything in the film, L3’s portrayal might have been the least tonally consistent. I loved L3, but I didn’t love how she was framed. The character concept was cool, and Waller-Bridge was great, but the droid was played for easy laughs for much of the film. At one point, Lando even jokes that he would wipe her memory if her navigational databanks weren’t so valuable, which seems an incredibly cruel thing to say to someone who is a friend and who is so personally outraged by the treatment of her kind. His joke really only works to the extent that we don’t take L3 seriously and view her ideals as absurd.

I want to circle back to Ehrenreich for a moment. He does a fantastic job of portraying a young, good-at-heart Solo who desperately wants to be a rogue outlaw (even if he’s always going to be a hero). He was funny, he was charming, he was clever, and he managed to convey Han’s often-backfiring efforts to quick-talk his way out of every situation. I liked him. I like that Star Wars was able to recast a major character and was able to find someone who had a loose physical resemblance to Harrison Ford but who, more importantly, could capture the speech and body language of the character. Even more so than Glover’s take on Lando, Ehrenreich’s reinterpretation of a classic character is less imitation and more adaptation; he brings something new to Han Solo, and I think Star Wars benefits from it. (But let me be clear: Glover is a tremendously joyous delight as Lando, and I love him more with everything new I see him in. I’d love to see a Lando film starring Glover getting up to wacky adventures.)

Interestingly, the plot of the film leaves young Han revealed as a fundamentally good and heroic person who can’t just walk away from people in trouble. By the end of the film, he’s had to make some hard decisions and he’s seen a lot of people die, but he’s still largely done the right thing whenever he has enough information to know what the right thing is. Sure, he steps away from open rebellion against the Empire at the end, but it certainly feels like he’s deluding himself into thinking that he can stay away from an idealistic cause for long. Quite a lot more must have happened to Han to make him the cynical criminal of A New Hope, but he’s still got plenty of years and employment with a certain Hutt to go by the end of this film.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Solo is that it is a film that can be enjoyed basically on its own, with very little understanding of the larger franchise, yet it has so many clever allusions to Legends and the new canon and provides an interesting new way to view The Empire Strikes Back [minor spoilers to follow]. I might go so far as to say that Solo is to Empire what Rogue One is to A New Hope (makes sense, given that the elder Kasdan wrote the screenplay for Empire).  We even get a new way of conceiving of Han and Lando’s relationship with the Falcon! Han’s relationship to Lando, in particular, feels very fresh and explosive and dynamic. A lot of the little attempts to explain Han’s background felt cheesy at worst and unnecessary at best, but I thought that giving Billy Dee Williams’s consistent pronunciation of Han a layer of irony-laden meaning was quite clever! (For an example of one explanation I didn’t like: how Han got his name. He has no family, so the Imperial recruitment officer assigns it to him? That’s fine, but it seems contradicted by the fact that Han reminisces about his dad working in the shipyards before he was laid off. Even if Han was lying to the Imperial recruitment officer, why would he continue to use Solo after deserting? Sure, we can fill in some possible reasons–maybe he didn’t like his dad, for instance, though he seems to remember him fondly and with heartbreak). While I liked the charisma between Han and Lando, I would say that Jonathan Kasdan’s assertion that Lando is pansexual is pretty flimsy within the film itself (his played-up flirtiness with Han in the Falcon as seen in the trailers is largely in response to a sarcastic comment from his copilot L3-37, and outside of that moment his flirting is basically directed toward females, specifically attractive human females for the most part, even though Glover’s delivery does always project a simmering self-confident sexuality).

Oh, and as for references, there are so many that I’m sure I missed a lot. Some that I noticed include:

And before I get into larger spoilers, I’d like to point out that Solo feels rather like Rogue One in showing more of a gritty, boots-on-the-ground, everyman’s view of the Galaxy Far, Far Away. The hot rod enthusiast, street-racing young punk Solo, the grimy and broken-down environments, and the consistent action tinged with genuine emotion suggest to me that George Lucas himself might rather like this film. But it also has great attention to tone. We start off in a Dickensian sort of setting, and Corellia does have an industrial nineteenth-century vibe to it. When Han gets caught up in the Empire, he has to slug it out as an infantry grunt on Mimban, where the muddy trench warfare, senseless deaths, and even the uniform designs evoke World War I. And I know I’m not alone in noting that, as Solo becomes more heroic and his prospects for a more exciting future, free from servitude to a street boss or military officer, grow brighter, the film’s lighting in turn grows brighter, away from shady, dingy, mucky locales to environments that often pop with color. So at the least, I think director of photography Bradford Young and costume designers David Crossman and Glyn Dillon did some excellent work (not to mention the colossal art department–and it should be mentioned that the variety of aliens new and old was great, too!).

I had some issues with the film, but to discuss them involves bringing up BIG SPOILERS. So if you haven’t seen it yet, I’d suggest you stop reading now. Though I hope you’ll come back to finish after you’ve seen the film–I’d love to hear others’ thoughts!


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My biggest complaint with the film is more of a nagging sensation, really. I don’t love how the film treated women. But at the same time, they were equals in capability and importance to the plot. And while the background figures still had a male-dominated bent, the main cast was closer to balanced than most films in the franchise.

The film used several characters’ deaths to motivate our central protagonists. Val and Rio die early on. Val dies in a way that hardens Beckett, makes him even more self-interested, and prompts him to repeatedly caution Han not to trust anyone. Rio, dying, tells Han that you shouldn’t die alone. And L3 dies later in the film. I don’t think her death counts as fridging because she dies in a significant way, and she dies accomplishing her life’s mission–starting a revolution. Her death is still about her and not about furthering another character’s emotional journey (though it hits Lando really hard). It was also incredible to realize that her processing core becomes one with the Falcon’s computer–she is the ship in a very real way. It certainly puts a different spin on how Han and Lando talk about the Falcon, right? Suddenly the metaphoric seems more literal.

I say that I don’t think L3 is a fridged character. But I’m not sure if anyone is. While being stuffed into a fridge isn’t exclusively a trope about women, its sexist overtones certainly arise because of the tendency of female characters to be fridged for male protagonists’ emotional development. Characters become plot devices when they’re fridged. Are Rio and Val fridged just because they die early? I don’t know. The trope might apply here, but at the same time, it’s less odious when it’s not just women dying in that role and when there are enough women in the cast that losing one doesn’t substantially deplete the non-male presence. Women viewers might disagree with me, though! And I’d be inclined to listen to those women viewers who express dissenting voices. Maybe the fact that it was a little uncomfortable to me should be enough to tell me that representation of women in this film is still somewhat problematic. At the very least, it was weird to have Val and Rio portrayed fairly significantly in promotional materials when they would have so very little screen time.

On the other hand, there are some cool women characters here. The surprise reveal about Enfys Nest’s true identity and actual purpose is awesome, and Enfys becomes a really cool early rebel figure! Now I want to know more about her backstory–and more of what happened to her after Solo. (Probably nothing good–was that one of the Two-Tubes lurking around in her posse, or am I being a fantasy racist who thinks all Tognath look the same?) L3 brings droid rights to the center in a Star Wars film, and she’s got a sarcastic attitude that makes her a perfect counterpart to Lando. Val is cool, though we see very little of her (I can’t help but draw comparisons to Brand, though, and wonder why black women can’t have other roles than ice queen assassins in Star Wars; even Sana Starros fits that mold to some degree). And Qi’ra is a complicated character acting in her own best interests; she has her own narrative. As Beckett tells Han, “It was never about you.” I was so glad to see that the filmmakers found a way to sever Han and Qi’ra by the end of the film without needing to kill her off. Too bad she squarely falls into the outdated femme fatale trope.

I guess what I’m saying is, the film did some things right, but I’d echo the many women out there who say that Star Wars needs more women in creative positions to improve representation in the stories that appear. Men–here, Howard and the Kasdans–don’t typically set out to tell stories that are disrespectful to women. I think everyone here tried to tell a good story and wanted fully developed men and women. But women in the writing room, or a woman directing, might have led to some improved outcomes here.

I have two other complaints. Both are fairly small.

First, before this film, I could just assume that Han picked up Shyriiwook some time over his life as a smuggler and outlaw. It didn’t really matter how; it was just an interesting element to his character and reflected his bond with Chewbacca. This film, however, answers a lot of minor questions about Han but now makes this language question one of the central mysteries remaining. Han knew Shyriiwook before he met Chewbacca; he understood it pretty well and could even speak a little bit of it. He meets Chewie three years after he leaves Corellia, and that time in between was spent in the Imperial Academy and then in the infantry. So…when did he learn it? Probably not on Corellia. Corellia was locked down by the Empire, and Han was on the low end of society. He probably didn’t take Shyriiwook in school, for however long he even was in school. We don’t see any Wookiees hanging out on Corellia, and we know that the Empire basically enslaved all of Kashyyyk, so there shouldn’t be very many free-roaming Wookiees anyway. I don’t recall anything that suggested that Han’s close girlfriend from his youth knew Shyriiwook, either. If not Corellia, why would it have been the Empire? The Imperials on Mimban, even those guarding Chewbacca, don’t understand Shyriiwook (actually, why was Chewbacca in a mud pit on Mimban? He’d been enslaved for a while–did they bring him there specifically to torture him and feed him deserters and traitors?). We know from Aftermath that the Empire discouraged foreign language learning: “The Empire had little interest in learning the ways and tongues of other cultures. They didn’t even want their people to learn on their own time” (p. 33). Maybe this was yet another act of rebellion by Han. But why did he pick that language over any other? It’s a really small thing to be bothering me, but in answering so many questions, the film starts boxing in Han’s character and highlights the mystery even more. And by the way, Life Debt reintroduces the concept of Chewie’s life debt to canon–nothing in the new film directly contradicts Life Debt, but I am curious about when Chewbacca got around to swearing that oath.

Second, I’m really conflicted by the reveal that Darth Maul was the true leader of Crimson Dawn. Maul makes sense here in the timeline. There’s a gap between The Clone Wars Son of Dathomir and Rebels. Maul had criminal connections, and it would make sense that he would try to quietly rebuild a criminal empire but would be more inclined to rule from the shadows after his defeat in Son of Dathomir. It’s a cute nod for fans of the animated series. And it’s a ridiculous thing to spring on the general movie-going public. It’s a really bullshit thing that I would previously have associated with Marvel, a need for hyper-connectivity for uber-fans that I had hoped wouldn’t spread to my favored franchise. And yet, here we are. Why is this so awful to me? Because for most people, those who are casual viewers or who are fans of the movies or who just never bothered to watch the animated series, Darth Maul died in The Phantom Menace. And not just of a simple stab or fall. Dude got cut in half and fell down a seemingly bottomless shaft. It was absurd that he survived, and The Clone Wars took time to build him back up into a threat and to make this seem credible. New audiences don’t have that. Their reaction probably wouldn’t be, “Oh, cool reference,” or, “Holy shit! Maul’s back!” I’d guess it would be a more resounding, “HUH?!” Maybe I’m wrong (though I will say that while there was some scattered applause and laughter throughout the film during the screening that I attended, the room was silent throughout Maul’s reveal). As someone who understood why Maul would be here, it wasn’t shocking to me–I didn’t anticipate it, but I’d heard there was a major character from one of the older trilogies, and Maul made sense. There’s the other thing: Maul’s presence wasn’t radically shocking. And it didn’t really add anything to the story. It was the equivalent of a Marvel end-credits sequence (although it was, at least, in the film itself). Qi’ra could have reported to any higher-up crime boss. Bringing Maul into the film itself was weird, but I’ll admit that it was cool that they used Ray Park, the original physical actor, and Sam Witwer, the voice actor from the animated series, to fill the role.

All in all, I had a lot of fun, and I felt that the flaws were overshadowed by the film’s strengths. I could easily watch this movie again and again. It’s not one of my top three Star Wars films, but I think it’ll join those flawed-but-fun films like The Force Awakens and Rogue One, entering regular rotation along those two as a frequently viewed title in this franchise that I continue to love.

Review: Arrival

Another recent sci-fi film that I missed out on in theaters, another film that I can now check off my list of movies to see: Arrival.

Arrival is an absolutely beautiful film. It’s so riveting from beginning to end, and it is artful in inducing a series of disorienting and authentic perspective shifts for both characters and audience throughout its duration. Plus, the core cast is great: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker each deliver excellent performances.

Dr. Louise Banks is a linguist brought in by the U.S. military to attempt to communicate with new alien arrivals, aliens with technology far beyond our understanding. She must attempt to find out their purpose on Earth–before the military of the U.S. or any other visited country gets too jumpy and sends the world into international (or maybe even interstellar) war. While the linguistic challenges are fascinating in and of themselves, the truly remarkable feat of the film is to tell a story with events from various points in time occurring (for the viewer and eventually for Dr. Banks) more or less simultaneously and influencing events out of chronological sequence. With the addition of some very bizarre dream segments, we’re not sure if Dr. Banks is losing her mind or on the brink of a colossal breakthrough in perceiving time through alien influence until the climax.

Big spoiler: we are introduced to Dr. Banks through her memories of her deceased daughter, but we ultimately learn that these are scenes from the future. Framing Dr. Banks’s motherhood and loss as a past series of events, with her daughter’s death not just a memory but the event that narratively kicks off the film, makes real the nonlinear approach to time that the heptapod aliens perceive, and which Dr. Banks eventually perceives. And it says a lot about how we perceive the universe and how we can find meaning in it that isn’t quite spiritualist but nonetheless feels true and good. To remove the linear perspective to time makes each moment significant and infinite and never truly gone. There’s a little bit of Christian mysticism and Buddhism and a little bit of Slaughterhouse Five in there at least, I think. (The film is written by Eric Heisserer and based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang–I haven’t read anything by Chiang, but I’d like to at least read this story to see what he did with this and how compatible the film’s plot and themes are with its source material.)

Despite attempting to realistically portray a military response to an alien arrival–despite attempting to portray the world’s reaction in general to an alien arrival–I appreciated (a) that the military’s efforts did more harm than good, without ever having any clear villains (everyone, including the Colonel and the CIA officer, the Chinese General Shang, even the idiot soldiers who decide to bomb the aliens after listening to too much of an InfoWars knockoff, is acting from a place that seems rational if considered from their point of view, and no one is purely bloodthirsty); and (b) that the film becomes increasingly surreal in its composition as we are exposed to ever more alien images and ideas. To elaborate a little more on that latter point: the realism of the initial setting makes the bizarre and magical events that increasingly consume the narrative feel grounded.

Wonderful cinematography and score tie together to create a sense of unease, tension, and disorientation. Arrival was directed by Denis Villeneuve, with Bradford Young as director of photography and music by Jóhann Jóhannsson. They work well together to pair image and sound in support of theme and mood. The music swells with unusual sounds and pulsing tension; sometimes it sounds part of the alien ship itself, sometimes it sounds more organic or more artificial, and in the climactic moments it becomes eerily human with the presence of almost unearthly a capella vocals. The weird view angles when initially crossing the gravity-defying entry tunnel of the alien spaceship, or the initially divided and distant shots of aliens and humans, kept far apart across a great space, help us feel what the characters are feeling in the moment, in a way that simply presenting the events from a greater remove could never do. Despite the disorienting perspectives, the camerawork itself is always solid, with typically excellent composition and a clear sense of flow. I could always tell what was happening, no matter what was happening.

Arrival makes me think a little bit of Interstellar. Both initially seem like hard sci-fi, confronting a bizarre and reality-bending event that pushes the edges of our understanding with technologies that seem magic. But Interstellar cracks in the final act, becoming quantum theology and feel-good spiritualism. Arrival is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming (how fitting–the audience, hopefully, embraces a holistic view of all moments past, present, and future just as Banks manages to do), and it certainly offers a perspective that could be used in support of a spiritualist message, but it never gets soft or cheesy. You might be more or less willing to accept how Dr. Banks gains this new perspective, but fundamentally the film only suggests that we humans have a limited and linear view of time because that’s what our perception is limited to, not that it is the only way to conceive of time.

The stretching of linguistic theory makes the story work. I’m not a linguist, so I was willing to accept how far they took ideas about perception being influenced by language. Maybe linguists felt differently about the movie–though still, I’d bet any linguist would still love to see someone in their profession centered as a hero in such a slick film. And sci-fi fans everywhere can rejoice in a tense story of alien first contact that doesn’t quickly give way to interstellar conflict.

Having a complete view of the film’s plot, I feel that further rewatches would be rewarding to further recontextualize certain elements. Which is a reminder that film and literature give us the opportunity to perceive events through temporal non-linearity on a regular basis, even if we rarely stop to think of it that way.