Wednesday, June 13, 2018

MOVIES: "Solo" is unnecessary and that's fine.

The trajectory of Disney's Star Wars film series is getting clearer as we get more under our belts. The "main line" stories move the plot forward, bringing the story into the 21st century and all that entails. The in-between movies, at least so far, seem to exist to scratch the nostalgia itch that, were it acknowledged in the main series films, might slow forward progress.

But Solo, even more than Rogue One with its literal finish-at-the-start, is a full nostalgia trip. And I don't just mean because they found some excellent cast members who could actually fill the shoes of Harrison Ford and Billy Dee Williams (your mileage may vary on Han... but I will hear no argument on Donald Glover's Lando).

My first thought as we started to dig into the meat of the story was -- this is a heist film. And it was. It was an old-fashioned heist movie that just happened to also be Han Solo's origin story. Ron Howard even ventured to dip further back in the feel of the flick, mixing Original Trilogy vintage 70s tones with some straight up 50s/60s vibe. It was no more a mistake to have Emilia Clarke done up full Audrey Hepburn against the shadows of Venetian blinds than it was to really really hold on those shots where Alden Ehrenreich nailed the trademark Harrison Ford smirk.

And beyond that, it was a sort of "best of" compilation. Han meets Chewie. Han meets Lando. Han sees the Millennium Falcon for the first time. Han does the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. And so on, and so on. It's pure fanservice packaged in a basic, but serviceable, story. It doesn't tell us anything we needed to know to appreciate the story going forward. And that money could probably have gone to making something completely new.

Unnecessary? Exceedingly. Fun? Gloriously.

In it for the pew-pew.

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I'm a Star Wars liker but not a hardcore fan. I can't list off stats to you, I'm this late getting to a film, and I didn't even see the original trilogy 'til the prequel trilogy came out. I understand and enjoy the lore, but if a Star Wars movie ever "got it wrong," I will admit straight-up that I would not be plugged into the feel of it enough to notice.

What first drew me to Star Wars was the adventure, the swashbuckling, and the borderline fairy tale feel of it all. To me, the story is a big adventure serial, with monsters and swords and guns and explosions. I am, honestly, in it for the pew-pew.

Which isn't to say I don't appreciate when work is put in. I do. But what always attracted me to the films was the fun, the adrenaline, the fact that space wizards were fighting with magic swords while cool outlaws flew spaceships. And the more of that I can ingest, the better.

And I think my first clue that Solo is hugely unnecessary is that it pandered exactly to me and everything I want to see. Straight out of the gate, it delivered, point for point, everything I love in a Star Wars story, with a few stops in between to flesh out the plot.

I really, honestly, don't think there's anything wrong with a long-running franchise doing that once in a while. Especially one that's a lore-driven, as deeply-defined, and as in flux as Star Wars is right now.

The Joy of Being Star Wars

I couldn't think of exactly the word I wanted as I was leaving the theater, but it finally came to me. Solo was joyful. It was happy being what it was. It loved being a Star Wars movie, and it was going to enjoy every last alien fight and sabacc game and cameo.

Whenever a scene started to unwind that you knew was going to be formative -- Han being thrown to "the beast" who turned out to be Chewie, Han sitting down to the card table with Lando -- you were sort of given a moment to drink it in. It was almost like the movie was going "Yep, here it comes. This is that moment. You're here for it now."

And it would be so easy to royally screw those moments, make them very self-congratulatory or wanky. But the movie handled those moments as though everyone involved was just as excited as we were. Which, frankly, I believe they were.

It's the difference between a sort of unspoken cinematic arrogance and a delight at realizing that they get to have these moments. Solo was the latter. It wasn't flaunting, it was celebrating, even if it was occasionally low-key. That might not be the ticket for everyone, considering not all fans will want to go over old stomping grounds even if they're cool stomping grounds.

To be fair, there are reasons.

And now, having sung its praises, I have to come in with the logic hammer and say there are absolutely legitimate reasons Solo was the first ever Star Wars film to flop. And I'm not even going to yell at the clouds and say it's unfair. There's a lot more going on than whether or not someone with my exact tastes enjoyed a movie.

The biggest hitch with the movie is that Alden Ehrenreich isn't Harrison Ford. And that's not a judgment call (frankly I think he did great)... it's just he literally is not The Person Named Harrison Ford. It's a shortcoming a lot of us have to live with. I'm not Harrison Ford, either. I'd say at least half my friends aren't. And because of that, there is a bias coming in. How do you do a young Han Solo movie when the only person "allowed" to play him is Harrison Ford and he's not young? Answer: you do not.

I've seen people say Solo flopped because no one wants to see a movie about Han Solo. And I think it's the other way around: people do, but Han Solo and Harrison Ford are inseparable entities, so anyone in the role will be unsatisfactory.

This was a risk. This was Disney saying "Look, we're making a movie about one of your faves, but we're casting this guy you've probably never heard of and you're going to have to just trust us that he's gonna live up to the other guy in all these memorable moment." And, well, I can't fault people for deciding they weren't up for that.

Again, Ehrenreich nailed it, and I believe that's a combination of acting, writing, and directing. Every character is the result of more than just the actor's performance. A lot of people went into making Han what he was, and a lot have gone into making him who he is now. If this has been your hold-up, I encourage you to take a breath and at least give it a try. Give it until the monster pit. Just until then, and if you're still not sold you can walk.

But I really recommend you at least make it to the sabacc game because dear God, Donald Glover is ludicrously spot-on.

It's not perfect and that's okay.

As much as I gush... of course it wasn't 100%. No movie is. I was a little annoyed at just how earmarked for death some of the characters were as soon as we met them. The composition of some scenes made it difficult to see the wonders CG had cooked up for us. The script was fun, but not a rock-solid Oscar-worthy paragon of screenwriting.

And all of that is fine. Frankly, main line Star Wars is just as full of quality holes and always has been. We're not here for high art. We never have been.

Solo was, at least for me, a gift box of all the best bits of Star Wars. Or, at least, of all the things that got me to care about it as a kid. It won't be that way for everyone. And seeing another actor in a legend's shoes may be a turn-off.

But I highly encourage you to give it, you know. A peek. A look. A half a look. And watch it in the mindset of watching a heist movie that just happens to have the Millennium Falcon in it.

Solo was hugely unnecessary to the Star Wars franchise... and I think honestly, in the midst of everything going down, the franchise could use a nice jab of frivolous fun.

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