By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)

 

With The Last Jedi feeling like it has barely left theatres, Disney’s next franchise offering, Solo: A Star Wars Story, quickly takes its place on the big screen, and while everything is nicely packaged and technically efficient, it is missing the kind of genuine spark, imagination, and innovation that made the original trilogy such memorable fun.

This of course is the origin story of Han Solo, a character made iconic by Harrison Ford, who blended charm and ruthlessness to terrific effect. The young version here is played by Alden Ehrenreich, and as the film hits the ground running, he attempts to instil all of Ford’s ticks and mannerisms into this fresh-faced hero-to-be. Starting on Han’s home planet, where oppressive mining industries and the Empire work hand-in-hand, we see he is already a confident and impetuous individual who doesn’t play by the rules.

Forced to live in squalid conditions (looking at times like the same bleak neighbourhood seen in The Terminator movies), Han and his true love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), who is always trying to keep her temperamental partner under control, want to leave this world for a better life elsewhere.

When a number of decisions made by Han trigger a series of events which affect both him and those around him, he is set on a new trajectory, one that brings him into contact with some new characters, such as Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau), and Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), as well as classic characters audiences know and love, like Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).

Considering there are so few surprises in Solo: A Star Wars Story, the less said about the story the better, so fans can judge for themselves whether or not this prequel delivers the goods, and if there is anything worth remembering after one leaves the cinema. While a couple of aspects do hit the mark, too much of what plays out just doesn’t involve or connect with the viewer, unnecessarily protracted over a bloated running time.

There is no doubt that Ehrenreich (Rules Don’t Apply, Hail Caesar!) tries hard, but for all his imitative quirks and mannerisms, is unable to bring Han to vibrant, distinctive life, and is further hindered by the simple fact that it is hard seeing this incarnation becoming the one Harrison Ford plays in the future. It is a major issue when the title character doesn’t command the screen.

Clarke registers zero, and while the role is underwritten, she just cannot inject Qi’ra with any personality or nuance, making for a dull performance indeed (it is right up there with her less-than-stellar turn in Terminator: Genisys). When the central two characters and their plight fails to generate much interest or sympathy, a movie is already on the back foot, and that is definitely the case here.

Bettany, who replaced Michael Kenneth Williams at the eleventh hour, which then lead to his part being quickly rewritten, seems to be enjoying himself as Vos, and although he never really threatens as the villain, he projects much needed energy each time he’s on screen. The talented Newton (Westworld TV series) is criminally under-used, as she was in the recent south-of-the-border comedy/thriller Gringo, and while Harrelson does offer some nice moments, he obviously appears restricted by a rigid, Marvel-type formula.

On the other hand, oozing charisma and magnetism is Glover (Atlanta TV series, Spider-Man: Homecoming) as Lando, who perfectly captures the style and essence of Billy Dee Williams, while also making the role his own. While lead actor Ehrenreich works overtime in his struggle to make an impression, Glover steals every scene he’s in with seemingly effortless ease, and this factor becomes so apparent that it begins to unbalance the movie’s focus. Adding to this problem is Lando’s partner, female droid L3-37 (voiced by Cate Blanchett soundalike Phoebe-Waller Bridge), a stand-out creation who also delivers some of the film’s biggest laughs. There seems something inherently odd when you want the film to concentrate on these two supporting characters, instead of the central pair whose journey sets up the entire plot.

Returning to writing duties on a Star Wars project is Lawrence Kasdan, who penned The Empire Strikes Back, still rightfully regarded as the greatest film in the long-running series, but the results this time are very hit-and-miss. Teaming up with son Jonathan, Kasdan conjures up some interesting possibilities, but nothing seems fully developed or properly explored, concentrating instead on the familiar and expected, hitting nostalgic heartbeats rather than provocatively cutting a new path and tone.

Exacerbating this issue is Ron Howard, who brings a safe, innocuous feel to proceedings, and while he is an assured film-maker, his bland, inoffensive approach jars with a gallery of potentially colourful characters who are anything but, draining any chance there is of filling the narrative with wild, unpredictable fun. Whether or not the production’s original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who were fired five months into filming) could have succeeded in doing this will never be known, but surely it would have been a livelier, less manufactured effort than one that has eventually been crafted.

Technically, as is always the case with Star Wars, this entry is of a very high standard, with worlds, landscapes, and aliens brought to life with exceptional skill and conviction. The cinematography by Bradford Young (Arrival, A Most Violent Year, Where Is Kyra?) is uncharacteristically dark, but he does contribute some moody imagery, and at times reminds one of the excellent, atmospheric use of darkness by director Peter Hyams (Outland, 2010, Running Scared).

Solo: A Star Wars Story is a film that blends in too easily with other recent entries, a risk-free endeavour that never thinks outside the box, preferring to remain within a comfort zone, ensuring it does not offend hardcore fans, as The Last Jedi appeared to do (it was uneven, to be sure, but it should be applauded for at least trying something). While Rogue One still remains the best of the new films, with a style, story, and nostalgic balance that has yet to be matched (Gareth Edwards direction was superb), this latest release unfortunately sits nearer the bottom. Though not as bad as J.J. Abrams’ awful, fan-service obsessed The Force Awakens (which still feels more like a remake than a sequel), it is missing the ambitious nature of The Last Jedi, and for a character that will be known throughout the galaxy as an unpredictable scoundrel, the resultant film is decidedly conventional and forgettable. Let’s just hope Lando gets his own movie, as that is something I would love to see.

Rating: 2/5

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