Thursday, May 31, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

For all that this movie has generated what one might oxymoronically call "strong apathy" - the thing where people make an effort to tell you how much they don't care, that they're feeling "Star Wars fatigue", or that doing a project like this makes the franchise irrelevant, etc. - it kind of fascinates me beyond my thinking that it's a fun sci-fi action flick.

For instance, the fact that directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, a team known for surprising and idiosyncratic films, were fired extraordinarily late in filming to be replaced with Ron Howard, who is often dismissed as blandly capable at best, is easy to dismiss as studio suits going for the safe choice rather than dealing with actually creative people. And there may have been some of that going on, but it's also sometimes worth remembering that sometimes you need the steady guy, especially when you're looking at a schedule and feeling a lot of uncertainty. Lord & Miller are, apparently, big into improvisation and "finding it in the edit", and if you're staring down a deadline and also planning to tie this movie in with other things, those must be terrifying words for a producer to hear.

And I suspect that Kathleen Kennedy hasn't had to hear them that much; she's spent much of her career producing Steven Spielberg's movies, and while Spielberg leaves room for his cast and crew to work, he's famous for knowing the movie he wants to make going in, communicating that to everyone involved, and then finishing early and under budget. Combine that with a screenwriter who, having mostly directed his own scripts in recent decades, is used to seeing what he wrote on-screen, and even if Lord & Miller's dailies did feel like what the producers wanted, they'd still be nervous. Going to Howard - who literally grew up on film and television sets and cut his teeth as a director working for Roger Corman - is a pretty smart move.

I don't necessarily think that this dooms Star Wars to being bland, corporate product. First, I wouldn't necessarily classify Solo as such; second, it's worth remembering the early years of Marvel, which were filled with directors like Jon Favreau, Louis Leterrier, Kenneth Branagh, and Joss Whedon, who are good at what they do but not exactly visionaries or guys who leave a distinct, obvious stamp on movies. It took a while for Marvel to get to the point where they were comfortable letting James Gunn, Shane Black, Taika Waititi, and Ryan Coogler build something their own within the framework. I suspect that Lucasfilm is just about there, and maybe Solo is their Ant-Man, the experience that teaches when to hold the reins tight and when to cut some slack.

You get past that, though, and the fact that it's very much an Expanded Universe thing that somehow made its way to the big screen. There have been stories about the pre-A New Hope Han before, of course, and what's kind of amazing is that this movie acknowledges them and everything else that Lucasfilm has over the years published in other media to feed the appetite of hungry fans, from Brian Daley's Han Solo novels to Aurra Sing to things in various animated series, even including a fictional form of martial arts only previously mentioned in a well-forgotten video game. It's a fun easter egg hunt for those who kept up on all of that stuff and retained it better than me, and even I smiled kind of stupidly when Lando mentioned that he once won one of the moons of Oseon in a game of sabacc. That's kind of a deep cut, going back over 35 years to a series of novels written by L. Neil Smith.

And while there are some who are going to resent that sort of fanservice - though in most cases, the stuff you don't recognize might as well be "that bounty hunter on Ord Mantell" Han mentions toward the start of The Empire Strikes Back, a bunch of nonsense words that sound good and create the illusion of a bigger universe. I understand the reticence at filling in the blanks like this, but I also think a lot of people are dismissing the joy of doing so a little lightly. To say you don't need to see Han Solo's origin story is to suggest that making Star Wars has some singular purpose of getting through Episode IX, which completes some important metaphor or is otherwise more important than a bunch of adventure stories with spaceships and laser swords.

I'm not entirely unsympathetic; I started gobbling a lot of this tie-in material up with Timothy Zahn's novels twenty-five years ago and was fairly completist until I found myself out of work and realizing that I did not recognize the character on the cover of the latest entry in Del Rey's massive series about invaders from outsider the galaxy. I stepped away then and found other obsessions once I got a new job, and wound up dipping my toe back into the pool mainly when the new material stayed close to the characters I already knew and loved - I ignored a lot of Dark Horse's comics until they started a new series set between Star Wars and Empire, for instance, but I know plenty of other folks who have no interest in those series, preferring spin-offs where the main character isn't part of the movie narrative and can therefore be killed.

There's room enough for both of those bands of fans, and it's why I'm not nearly as worked up about Solo's relatively low box-office as some. Not every new Star Wars movie needs to appeal to everybody who has ever liked one, $100M is still a lot of money, and from what I gather it's well-enough received by those who have seen it that it could wind up with good legs and a long tail on video. Indeed, Disney/Lucasfilm accepting that not every one of these movies is going to be a juggernaut might be the best thing for the series long-term, even if some huge success stories have conditioned us not to recognize steady performance as success.

And is that all? Nope, the very act of watching the movie has pushed something of niche interest - theatrical presentation - to the forefront. I started reading people talking about how Solo is shot dark and it's hard to see some faces during the press screenings, and this did affect where I went to see it on Saturday a bit: I like going to Jordan's Furniture in Reading a fair amount anyway, but knowing that they've got one of the brightest/highest-resolution screens in the area was good to know, especially since I opted for 3D, and they've got great active-shutter glasses there, blocking much less light than the polarized RealD glasses most places use and even the LCD glasses I have at home. Seeing how the lighting worked, I then decided to go to the Icon cinema in the Seaport for a second screening when I had a random day off on Tuesday ($10 for the deluxe screen with their app), since they also had 4K laser projection. It's noticeable that even someone like me who prefers actual film and proper matting but will settle for "good enough" at the theater without a lot of argument most days was being kind of particular.

But good luck trying to explain that to a lot of the movie's audience, though. The amount of light theaters use is not something most people think about, and even if they do, it's easier to place the blame on the filmmakers, because the booth is supposed to be standardized and full of technicians rather than artists, guys concerned with just getting it right. Most won't think about it in that sort of detail, though; they'll just come out, thinking the experience wasn't as good as they thought it should be, and dislike the movie and/or the experience of going to the movies, and carry that forward. And that's no indictment of them; I know a lot of people who are really into eating or drinking well, but I'm not, and I don't really have the ability to break down whether the service, what I ordered, or some ingredient in the particular dish being off will have me deciding that visiting a restaurant again in the future (or eating out in general) is not a priority.

Anyway, I've been telling people to check this out on premium screens, just because it's a better bet, but that's just one of many things about this movie that takes a lot of untangling.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 May 2018 in Jordan's Furniture Reading (first-run, 4K laser Imax 3D)
Seen 29 May 2018 in Showcase Icon Seaport #6 (first-run, 4K laser Icon-X DCP)

There are degrees of fandom for big properties like Star Wars, and the companies who own these properties have long created enough material to ensure that everyone can get as much as they want, especially when there were relatively long, fallow periods between main events. These tie-in materials are by their nature inessential, and even conditional - they are sometimes contradicted and booted out of canon - but, despite being more clearly created for mercenary purposes and being inconsequential by certain measurements, these secondary additions to the franchise can be quality entertainment. That's the sort of movie Solo is, tie-in material that wound up getting a big-screen budget and doing fairly well with it.

Indeed, Solo embraces the Star Wars fan who wants to take a deeper dive into its worlds in a way that I don't think any franchise like this ever has in the stuff made for the core, mainstream audience. It drops references to the mooted Expanded Universe and even the late-1970s/early-1980s tie-in novels in the same way that the original would mention unseen characters and events to give texture, and it's kind of fun nonsense whether it's nonsense words or sly winks to a given viewer.

In this particular go-around at showing the early years of the saga's smuggler with a heart of gold, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) is a scrumrat on Corellia, whose main export appears to be be ships for the Galactic Empire. He's managed to swipe a container of valuable hyperspace fuel so that he and girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) can bribe their way off-planet, though only he makes it. He enlists to learn to fly but winds up in the infantry, eventually deserting to join a pack of thieves led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) alongside his girlfriend Val (Thandie Newton), pilot Rio (voice of Jon Favreau), and new friend Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). When a job goes sideways, Beckett and Han must convince Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), a Crimson Dawn gangster, to give them a chance to make things up. Fortunately, Qi'ra has risen in the organization to become Vos's lieutenant, and not only puts in a good word for Han, but helps them recruit smugglers Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and their ship, the Millennium Falcon.

Full review on EFC

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