*/**** Image A Sound B+ Extras A-
starring Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Paul Bettany
written by Jonathan Kasdan & Lawrence Kasdan
directed by Ron Howard
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. In Roger Ebert's reviews of the original Star Wars trilogy, he mentions that one of the wonders of this universe is that the droids are thinking, feeling, emotional beings, thus making their torture in Return of the Jedi a visceral thing. In Ron Howard's expediently-extruded Solo: A Star Wars Story (hereafter Solo), a sassy robot named L3-37, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is fused into the Millennium Falcon spacecraft after being murdered in the middle of a slave and prisoner rebellion she's incited in another interchangeable industrial backwater. I mention this as a point of interest because L3 is the clumsy mouthpiece for broad progressive beliefs in a shockingly-bad script by father-son duo Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan. When Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) asks if there's anything else he can get her as he's leaving a room, she says, "Equal rights?" It's that kind of character. The kind usually workshopped out when the screenwriter--one of them, anyway--isn't the most powerful person in the room. She's Dobby the House Elf from a storyline smartly left out of the film adaptations of Harry Potter, screaming about "droid rights" during a droid Thunderdome sequence done better in everything (but particularly in A.I.), and there mainly I think so that replacement director Howard can slide his brother Clint into a self-satisfied cameo. So this character, liberating droids and releasing slaves and declaring that she's found her calling, is fused by a grieving Lando into his spaceship to spend the next eight or nine movies getting punched and abused by her new white masters whenever she doesn't work right away.
Don't get me wrong: Solo isn't nearly smart enough to be about anything this complicated. The L3 storyline is an accident--careless, likely unplanned, and intended as a compliment to a character whose square creators believe speaks truth to the heart of the contemporary social revolution. It's patronizing, paternal tokenism by people who proclaim their love of Get Out with the same conviction the rich white folks in Get Out declare their support of the Obama presidency. There are scenes early on where our hero Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich, embarrassingly outmatched), while trying to escape his home planet of Corellia, sees the local Corellian ICE separating parents from their children at some sort of space customs. Scenes, too, where noble Wookiee Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), delivered from bondage by bwana that speaks his language, sees others of his kind in shackles and knows what he must do. Then there's the famine planet, whose black residents huddle in abject poverty with their tongues cut out by evil gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) as Han and Chewie solemnly trudge by in full Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom reverence to their plight. Look, Han's had it as tough as these lost souls. On Corellia, we learn, he's Ollie Twist to a giant space-anthropoid Fagin, Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt, because Suzanne Pleshette is dead), trying and failing to get his gaffed, useless girlfriend Qi-ra (Emilia Clarke) off-planet before running into her again as the space concubine to Vos. Painful? It's at least painful. And, I'm sorry but, you know, the very last person I want a lesson from in the legacy of slavery and black poverty is Ron fucking Howard.
What's most painful is Donald Glover, the artist of the moment, literally days removed from his withering statement as alter ego Childish Gambino on the role of African-Americans in American popular culture, "This is America," being asked to do a Billy Dee Williams impersonation as the single biggest piece of shit in the galaxy. The script is so ossified it's clear he's meant to be something like a heavy from The Sting: a smooth sharpie with a literal card up his sleeve who tricks Han out of a pile of money, but tricks himself into an ill-fated mission to the mining planet of Kessel. There, something something happens, something something, and that "Kessel Run" line from Star Wars way back when is checked off the list of fan-pleasing references. It says something that later, when Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando in another card game (something spoiled by The Empire Strikes Back some 38 years ago), that even with shots of Lando's empty sleeve and obvious dismay, even after a clear insert where Han hugs Lando to obtain said card, Solo still thinks it necessary for Han to throw said cheat onto the table as an explanation as to why Lando isn't able to cheat again. (Han verbally explains it, too.) This is the way you write a scene when you have absolute faith that your audience is full of idiots. Given some of the reaction to The Last Jedi, that's admittedly not a reach. Lando is also a coward, unfaithful to his word, and apparently was in the process of figuring out how to fuck his robot. Glover is exceptional, mind--it's the writing that lets him down. The timing of "This is America" doesn't seem so random after all.
Then there's rival bandit leader Lexi (Lily Newmark), who is revealed to be a freedom fighter and not a venal opportunist like dashing Beckett (Woody Harrelson), the leader of Han's criminal band. Lexi is guilty of every charge of tokenism mislaid at the foot of Rogue One or Rey; her only character note is that she's a disadvantaged kid leading a bunch of misfit marauders. It's tone deaf, insulting, and entirely non-threatening. Did I mention that after the Oliver Twist prologue, Solo turns into a space western with the world's most boring train robbery, which involves a complete-unto-loathsome squandering of Thandie Newton as robber queen Val and then a thoroughly boring series of going places to meet people. Solo's treatment of women is summarized handily by L3's devolution from Malcolm X to voiceless hardware. They are functional pieces only. They don't exceed their utility. Ditto the movie's treatment of its black characters, who are either the feckless pimp archetype or the (again) literally voiceless faces of poverty and indentured servitude. Take a moment to compare the black characters in this film to Saw Gerrera from Rogue One and his sacrifice to Val's. One step forward, twenty steps back, and all because, in this age of Janelle Monae, Beyoncé, and Childish Gambino, when this project needed a saviour, the one the franchise turned to was 63-year-old Ron Howard, who hasn't made a fresh, fascinating film since Splash in 1984. Solo is 'prequel bad,' and as anyone who really loves this franchise knows, there aren't a lot of things worse. Originally published: May 15, 2018.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Solo is, without a doubt, the most Stygian of Star Wars movies. DP Bradford Young, who supervised both the DI and the HDR trim represented by this 4K UHD release, was heavily influenced by Vilmos Zsigmond's "flashed" work on McCabe & Mrs. Miller, even though he wasn't, unlike Zsigmond, shooting on film. (The majority of Solo was captured with the ARRI Alexa 65.) In interviews, he's also namechecked cinematographer Gordon Willis, and they didn't call Willis "the Prince of Darkness" for nothing. Young used special lenses that simulated faster film stocks and enabled him to shoot in the shadowiest corners without having to boost the available light; the low-contrast LookUp Table that Greig Frasier established for Rogue One came to be recycled here. The result is a realistic image that's somewhat dissonant; it should be said, though, that what left moviegoers largely dissatisfied with Solo's cinematography this past summer is that exhibitors didn't throw enough light at it. (So often these days, theatres are lazily leaving the 3-D lens on at 2-D screenings, cutting the amount of projected light in half.) Sourced from a native 4K master, the 2.39:1, 2160p transfer on this disc almost can't be fully appreciated without judging it against the enclosed Blu-ray. The uptick in detail is not insignificant despite the obvious tapering of sharpness, and where the UHD image has a silky texture rife with black accents, the HD alternative is comparatively sterile and renders the diffusive contrast with a disappointing flatness. I was stunned by the difference in colour values in chapter 4, the sequence where Lady Proxima confronts Han about stolen coaxium in a sunless pit: in 4K, it's virtually black-and-white, whereas everything is drenched in James Cameron blue in 1080p. The former emphasizes the sensory deprivations of the world of the white worms; the latter is a sci-fi cliché. Some searing HDR highlights prove that any dearth of brightness is intentional and notably transform the MacGuffin--the aforementioned coaxium--from your standard glowy test tube into a fearsome atomic threat. Stray noise notwithstanding, this is a lovely, elegant presentation.
Though Solo boasts the typically layered and fussy Star Wars sound with a tight low end, the attendant Dolby Atmos track is another Disney special that demands amplification and still appears to be missing a certain je ne sais quoi a few notches above reference volume. Of course I'm only decoding the 7.1 Dolby TrueHD core of the Atmos audio; there is without a doubt plenty of opportunity to exploit the height channels with this mix. Compared to the podrace in The Phantom Menace, however, the car chases that bookend Solo's prologue seem reluctant to melt my face off. On a second Blu-ray is where you'll find "over an hour of bonus features," starting with a literally roundtable discussion (22 mins.) moderated by director Ron Howard and featuring crammed-in cast members Alden Ehrenreich, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany, and Emilia Clarke. Howard begins by asking everybody how they reacted when they first found out they were cast in Solo, and the answers, especially Ehrenreich's, are uniformly charming. (Irreverent as always, Waller-Bridge says she was on the toilet when she got the news.) It gets a little tedious when Howard starts asking them for insight into their characters, though Bettany eventually flips the script on Howard and asks him what it felt like joining the production as a pinch-hitter, bringing us the closest these bonus features come to discussing, nay, acknowledging any backstage turmoil. Howard, for what it's worth, says he felt like Dustin Hoffman at the end of The Graduate, which all things considered is a pretty honest answer.
Next, "Kasdan on Kasdan" (8 mins.) profiles father-and-son screenwriters Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, respectively, the elder of whom was lured back to the franchise for the first time since Return of the Jedi by the potential of Solo and, for better or worse, exerted an unprecedented amount of control over the final product. Jon, who was "three or four when Jedi came out," says a unique advantage to having Lawrence for a dad was that every Christmas during his childhood a package would arrive from Lucasfilm containing the latest Star Wars toys. "[There] were the kind of difficulties not so different from any collaboration, and with a little added emotional texture because he was my son," Lawrence admits. One wishes the piece had kept digging but conflict is, ultimately, the enemy of corporate-sanctioned PR. On the other hand, I did appreciate the idea expressed that two generations of Kasdans collaborating made sense in the context of the Star Wars saga being about legacies.
"Remaking the Millennium Falcon" (6 mins.) is about the Lando-fication of the titular ship, complete with yellow leather furniture and a coffee bar that used Aunt Beru's kitchenette as a model for "period" appliances. Glover confesses to napping in Lando's quarters between takes, and assistant art director Liam Georgensen points out such Easter eggs as a pair of silver headphones that were somewhat out of place among the futuristic details in A New Hope. "Escape from Corellia" (10 mins.) is a surprisingly delightful look at James Clyne's map of Corellia, a city based on the Empire's architecture in the Original Trilogy and which set decorator Lee Sandales likens to Venice. For the vehicle Han steals, Clyne, heir apparent to Ralph McQuarrie, drew inspiration from muscle cars without violating the established aesthetics of land-speeders. "Becoming a Droid: L3-37" (5 mins.) zeroes in on Waller-Bridge's role; it's mentioned in the roundtable, but I was surprised to discover that L3 is a partially practical effect that found Waller-Bridge on set in a cumbersome costume much of the time. "The Train Heist" (14 mins.) is meanwhile an overlong dissection of an overlong set-piece with one neat idea: a train that has a track running through its middle with an upside-down train underneath, allowing for rollercoaster motions that subject the characters to the laws of gravity. Illuminated herein, what's cool is the amount of attention paid to the sound design in selling the suspense and giving everything mass.
"Team Chewie" (7 mins.) can't help but be tongue-in-cheek while talking about the origins of Chewbacca's partnership with Han Solo. Supervising sound editor Tim Nielsen reveals they finally retired Ben Burtt's Chewbacca-speak for the new film, recording an allegedly more nuanced palette of growls and ululations for the Wookiee with the help of a grizzly bear and a seal. In "Scoundrels, Droids, Creatures, and Cards: Welcome to Fort Ypso" (8 mins.), production designer Neil Lamont shows off the movie's western-influenced sets and props, although one radio communicator was purloined from Rogue One. Here, Glover testifies to the effectiveness of Bradford Young's practical lighting, at least as an actor, because it made him feel like he was shooting on location as opposed to in an environment that would only coalesce on screen. We even get a primer, from Sandales, on the rules of Sabacc. Rounding out the platter is a 15-minute block of deleted and extended scenes (eight in total, with charmingly unfinished fx), though all of them feel, to some extent, extended. I liked a bit where Rules Don't Apply and Game of Thrones hide in a barrel of eels to throw Star Wars dogs off the scent, none of which stops Han from getting horny. Another noteworthy elision finds Han becoming a cadet under a "Moff" I presume is supposed to be Moff Jerjerrod, which is the first dumb Star Wars name I memorized after buying the Return of the Jedi Read-Along Adventure on cassette tape as a kid. I loved that tape; I'd conduct fake interviews with Darth Vader by excerpting quotes from it and annoy friends by calling them and playing Chewbacca sounds into the phone. Those were the days. This "Ultimate Collector's Edition" additionally includes a digital copy of the film.