solo

Back when I first started penning movie reviews — not just as a personal hobby, but to foist upon Central Wisconsin radio listeners — I made an effort to approach each cinematic offering purely as its own entity, doing the best I could to jettison preconceptions as the auditorium lights went down and the trailers started to unspool. It was an era of sequels, though not really franchises. There was still a vague conception that films with a number affixed at the end of the title still needed to convey a cogent story to a eager newcomer. Assessing the film entirely on the basis of what appeared within its procession of frames seemed the right thing to do.

It’s an open question in my mind as to whether the goal is still viable, or indeed laudable, at least when it comes to major studio efforts that are as much about extending a brand as telling a story. If the films themselves are built with the greatest priority given to outcomes largely detached for achieving singular entertainment experiences, maybe it’s fitting to meet them as business ventures more than earnest art. Why would I try to judge the loveliness of one jigsaw piece when it’s the whole puzzle that counts?

Implausible as it may be, there are surely some people who come at Solo: A Star Wars Story with only the vaguest conception of the character who gives the film its title. I’m not one of them. Although I’m far from obsessive about the mythos created by George Lucas and nurtured by countless others since (more and more, I’m pleased to remain apart from that particular subset of fandom as it’s overrun by fragile crybaby bullies with terrible taste), I carry with me volumes of information about the Millennium Falcon’s roguish pilot. I smile with recognition when the Kessel Run is mentioned. I know the correct spelling of Wookiee.

Continuing to stake out my place on the Venn diagram of Solo target audience members, I also felt no particular need to have the vaguer portions of the character’s history sketched in. Circling back to the Lucasfilm business plan, I find the continued clinging to established characters and scenarios to be a significant creative flaw, especially in spinoff features taking place a slightly longer time ago in that galaxy far, far away. I’ve long since hit my quota on Death Star plots, thanks.

And yet I have to admit the nostalgia elements of Solo largely worked for me, though not because of chummy winks to the audience. To the filmmakers’ credit, they largely avoid reliance on the style of revival filmmaker that offers cheap congratulations on mere recognition, like cinema is an ongoing pop quiz. The elements that excavate the acknowledged past of these characters and this universe — the first meetings, the adventures previously name-checked — work because they’re actually dramatized effectively. It never occurred to me that Han Solo’s very name might require an origin story, but the moment worked for me anyway, mostly due to Alden Ehrenreich’s emotional authenticity when it happens.

It is Ehrenreich who is charged and cursed with playing the title character. He’s all but doomed to failure with a broader public disinclined to accept in the role anyone other than Harrison Ford (who, it’s worth noting, is great in Star Wars and almost laughably indifferent in the other three films in which he donned the stylish space vest). Too bad for them. Ehrenreich is pretty great, charming and flinty, playing Solo with the bravado found in the other films, but before he had the experience to back it up. In particular, Ehrenreich taps into the moments of wonder of a young man escaping dire beginnings to take mighty strides across the universe. Of course, Ehrenreich also spends about half the film helplessly watching Donald Glover nimbly steal scenes as a young Lando Calrissian. But no one should be expected to achieve anything more than runner-up status with that level of competition.

The screenplay is co-credited to Lawrence Kasdan (scribe on two films in the original trilogy and then J.J. Abrams’s revival of the series) and his son, Jonathan Kasdan. There’s and old pro sturdiness to the storytelling, with setups and payoffs that are teeter between predictable and satisfying. The movie skews away from the fantasy-film-in-disguise that was Lucas’s inclination and to a Western with six shooters that fire lasers, an understandable pivot given Lawrence Kasdan’s history as the writer and director of Silverado and Wyatt Earp. It’s a nifty idea, but director Ron Howard can’t quite make it snap. The Star Wars universe version of a train heist in the early portion of the film is emblematic of the conceit’s lack of total realization.

Just as I once did my best to forget about preceding films, I always tried to set aside my background knowledge about production turmoil. The entertainment press was more limited before the internet cracked open a cavernous space forever needing new, excited content, but I took in as much of it as I could. As I sat in a theater, I often had a notion as to whether a set was blissful or fraught, if the studio felt they had an Oscar contender or a dreaded dud. The scuttlebutt was fair game in the eventual review, especially if it offered potential explanation for how a film went wrong or captured some elusive spark of ingenuity. In the viewing experience, though, I wanted to be guided by the art in front of me rather than the gossip about its creation.

Since the high drama of Star Wars film production is reported on with a breathless urgency exceeding that afforded breaking news on rampant government corruption, I know more than I care to about the troubled trek of Solo. In that context, Howard’s pedestrian assurance plays as a small miracle of filmmaking craft. Maybe the work of the preceding directing team Phil Lord and Chris Miller wasn’t as bad as the executives believed, but by at least one account Howard’s shooting efforts account for nearly three-quarters of the finished product. That’s no small matter, and it takes only a quick perusal of last year’s The Snowman to see how badly a salvage job can be botched. If that’s faint praise, it’s still praise.

There’s no way for me to see Solo while voiding out my experience and knowledge, and I’m sure that’s something I should want to do. What was my bygone attempt at moviegoing purity achieving, really? In ways small and large, all art builds on the art that came before. Just because a Star Wars movie is purely popular entertainment doesn’t automatically negate the validity of its drawing from the past and finding some extra charm in the familiar, if it accomplishes these tasks with a touch of inspiration and wit. Solo is no masterpiece, but I’d say it beat the odds.

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