Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Credit to Alden Ehrenreich for making the correct decision of not simply imitating Harrison Ford to play the younger version of Han Solo. With such an iconic role, it is best to step away from the long shadow and deliver a performance that, in its essence, true to the character but at the same time different in its own right. Word had gotten around that Ehrenreich required an acting coach on set, but fear not: the performance is solid because it captures the type of swagger we have come to love from the original interpretation of the title character. This time, the swagger is youthful and occasionally uncertain, not yet so arrogant and bitingly sarcastic. One could see Ehrenreich growing into the role if a sequel or two were to happen.
Like all “Star Wars” pictures, Ron Howard’s “Solo” is teeming with colorful and interesting personalities, from the familiar characters like the adorable but physically strong Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and the smooth gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) to new additions like the warm but mysterious Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) and Han’s headstrong mentor named Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). When these personalities are on screen together and taking a jab at one another through dialogue, one is challenged not to smile from ear to ear. Their wonderful chemistry keeps afloat a screenplay that requires further character development.
A challenge when it comes to telling an origins story is to find a way to distract the audience from certain facts in order to create an experience that does not feel predictable. I’m not convinced that this challenge is overcome because as the busy and well-choreographed action set pieces unfold, the gnawing suspicion of a possible betrayal lingers in the mind. Han is a character who is almost defined by having trust issues, certainly someone with issues against figures of authority, and so we anticipate one or two sudden left turns. The events occurring on screen, for instance, needed to have been more heightened and so full of tension that we forget our destination. On a scale of one to ten, it is functioning on a seven rather than on an eleven.
The photography is beautiful. Although numerous images look rather dark most of the time, I did not find it frustrating that certain things are difficult to see. Particularly wonderful are scenes that take place indoors or underground and we are tasked to look closely at alien faces or robotic designs as complex action sequences unfurl. This approach is immediately noticeable during the opening sequence in which Han and Qi’ra attempt to escape their shipbuilding planet and start a new life together. The film is shot by Bradford Young and he has a knack for using lighting, sometimes the lack of it, to lure the audience into a world that is both dangerous and full of wonder.
Although the picture can be criticized for being episodic—being composed of one mission after another that build up to a finale—those familiar with “Star Wars” films and its very nature as a series would likely not take an issue with this strategy. However, I yearned to learn more about the new characters, particularly Qi’ra who is hinted of having done “terrible things” in order to ensure her survival over the years.
While flashbacks and speeches are not at all necessary, the specifics of her struggles could have been communicated in other ways such as how she deals with herself and others when the going gets tough, when she is left with no one else but silence and her thoughts, the discrepancies in her personality from the time we meet her and till several years later. Writers Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan take a gamble by saving most of these necessary details in the possible follow-up of Han’s story.
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
★★★ / ★★★★
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) sent C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) to collect Han Solo (Harrison Ford), encased in carbonite, from the gangster Jabba the Hutt (voiced by Larry Ward), but the droids were unsuccessful in their mission. Later, they discovered that Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) had also been captured. It was up to young Skywalker, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) to rescue their friends. Meanwhile, the rebel groups found out that the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) and Darth Vader (David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones) were building a new Death Star. Word went around that it was still non-functional so it was best to attack as soon as possible in order to end the rule of the evil Empire. Based on George Lucas’ original story and directed by Richard Marquand, “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi” had some serious problems in terms of pacing. The first third of the picture was exciting. Although it ended in violence, Han Solo’s debt to Jabba the Hutt had finally been settled. Luke facing a truly ugly Rancor, strong but not very smart, was a joy to watch as well as the battle on the flying ships that hovered over a desert monster. Everyone who fell off the ship was eaten in a gruesome fashion. The ships rocked back and forth and crashed into each other which sent our lovable protagonists up in the air and near the mouth of the hungry creature. But when our heroes reached the forest moon of Endor, the story became painfully stagnant and, at its worst, cloyingly cheesy. I had difficulty believing that the cute Ewoks could be menacing. The most critical misstep was allowing the Ewoks to be front and center while Han Solo and company were brushed to the side. What I found highly enjoyable about “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” and “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” was the fact that the rebel groups were constantly outnumbered. Using sheer creativity and determination, they somehow disentangled themselves, while making some key sacrifices, from sticky situations. In this installment, the Ewoks did most of the work in defeating the Stormtroopers while Luke faced Vader and the Emperor in the new Death Star. In the latter, there was a lot of talk about going to the Dark Side but I felt no tension among the three powerful characters. Without tension, the one-dimensionality of the dialogue became apparent. The director failed to take advantage of the relationship between Luke and Vader, the push and pull of the way they felt toward each other versus their loyalty for their cause, and what being a Jedi meant to them. Still imaginative and exciting but noticeably less effective, “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi” needed less of the Ewoks’ cuddly warmth and more epic adventures designed to tie together the series’ overarching themes.
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Death Star was destroyed but the war between the Empire and the rebels was far from over. The rebels aggregated in Hoth, a planet covered in ice, and Darth Vader (David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones) had just found them. There was a full-on attack on our heroes and they lost. Upon their retreat, they were divided into two groups. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) traveled to Dagobah to find a master Jedi called Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) upon the request the ghostly Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Meanwhile, their ship unable to go into hyperdrive, with some amusing consequences, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) attempted navigate their way through an asteroid field in order to evade Vader and his pesky minions. “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back,” directed by Irvin Kershner and from the original mind of George Lucas, was a quintessential sequel: it proved that just because the special and visual effects were grander and the action-sequences were more heart-pounding, the story and character need not be sacrificed. Although the picture didn’t mention how many months or years had passed since we last saw our beloved characters, we didn’t need to. Luke was more mature and more confident in the way he approached problems, the robots were more useful and wise-cracking, Chewbacca was more lovable, and the arguments between Han Solo and Princess Leia felt more like necessary friendly bantering/flirtation instead a hindrance to the story’s mood and momentum. The sequel challenged itself by constantly offering us something new. Let’s take the environment. In its predecessor, the characters spent a third of its time navigating their way through a barren desert. In here, we were immersed in a chilly tundra. Instead of going straight to the action of Vader’s troops demolishing the rebel base, it wasn’t afraid to take some risks like Luke being kidnapped by the Abominable Snowman-looking creature. It had a sense of fun. We never truly believed that Luke was in real danger. However, it was a necessary scene because it reminded us of Luke’s increasing connection to The Force, a key element in eventually defeating the evil Empire, and that he was no longer just a farmer trying too hard to be a Jedi. There was also an interesting contrast between scenes of the swampy Dagobah where Luke trained and the futuristic floating city where Han Solo and company took refuge. Despite the differences in images, the alternating scenes didn’t feel forced because the characters were consistently working toward a common goal. “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back,” unafraid to explore its darker themes regarding loyalty and betrayal, unexpectedly romantic and chock full of surprises, was an adventure in the highest order.
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A young farmer named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) found out that one of the two robots, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), his uncle purchased contained a message from Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), one of the rebels who wanted to bring down the evil Empire, seeking help from a former Jedi knight named Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness). She was captured by Darth Vader (David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones) and was ordered to reveal the location of other rebels. Failure to do so on her part meant termination. Luke, Obi-Wan, and the two robots hired a mercenary named Han Solo (Harrison Ford), along with his friend Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), to infiltrate the Death Star, capable of destroying an entire planet, and save the princess. Written by directed by George Lucas, “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” was an ambitious and exciting picture, worthy of the reputation of being one of the most influential films ever made. I was impressed with the risks it took right from the beginning. For the first ten to fifteen minutes, we were asked to pay attention to the two robots. One of them could speak but other could only utter beeps and whistles. Somehow, the material was able to get away with it because, despite the two being non-living objects, they had chemistry. I’m doubtful if such a risk could be taken today and be as successful. I enjoyed that we were immediately taken in the middle of the warring members of the Empire and rebel groups. Background information were mostly revealed through conversations. Not only did it feel organic, it was efficient with its time. Although there was weakness in the dialogue at times like when Han Solo and Princess Leia would get into cheesy and sometimes cringe-inducing arguments, the tirades happened in the middle of action-packed sequences so it almost felt negligible. I especially liked the scene when the protagonists plunged into a garbage chute. We were led to believe that the threat was the creature that lived in there. It turned out that it was the least of their worries because the walls eventually started closing in. Lucas’ signature direction was always present. Every room revealed new surprises that ranged from soldiers of the Empire just waiting for a target to interesting- and tired-looking aliens just having a drink in the middle of the day in a hot desert town. The energy was palpable as if The Force, the spiritual energy in which the Jedi believed to bind everything in universe, compelled us to fixate our eyes on the screen. The first entry of the “Star Wars” saga was a prime example of the level of success a film could have when there was synergy among special and visual effects, an absorbing story, and adrenaline-fueled adventure of epic proportions.