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Flying Solo: Better Get Used To It

Harlan Jacobson for WBGO

WBGO film critic Harlan Jacobson has just returned from the 71st Cannes Film. It’s the highest platform for film art on Planet Earth.  One of the films he saw there had some familiarity to it to say the least.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is the 10th installment in George Lucas’ saga begun in 1977.

Even the title is generic: Solo: A Star Wars Story. That’s like “Memorial Day Sale at General Motors: A Sedan!”

I saw Solo at Cannes, where it had its world premiere, and from what I read in the trades probably didn’t help itself in terms of placing high on the list of opening weekend Boxoffice—which has become a sport that has replaced asking what the film is up to.

Revenge of the Sith premiered at Cannes 2005, where Lucas was given a special award in a ceremony onboard the Queen Mary 2, which anchored at Cannes and looked like the Death Star compared to the film moguls’ puny yachts. I’ve been wanting to say that about the film moguls puny yachts or 13 years—specially because the captain of the Queen Mary2 let me sit in his Captain’s Chair on the bridge as long as I promised not to put it in gear. I’m so easily bought. Sith went on to gross $849 million worldwide.

My guess is Disney won’t hit that amount with this back story about the young Han Solo in a Star Wars chapter written by Larry and Jonathan Kasdan, father and son--Dad of The Big Chill, Silverado and Raiders of the Lost Ark reputation.

Here the Kasdans hijacked a little of the indie and Cannes sensibility and made Solo a story about characters not an inter-galactic battle between the Light and the Dark. Or so they said when I stopped in and saw them at the Carlton Hotel: 

Even The Force is on sabbatical. If you reel it all the way back to the original 1977 Star Wars, long ago and truly in a galaxy far away, you could see that it was a game changer. Had you understood Star Wars correctly in 1977, you’d have understood that the era of the anti-hero was over and a new era of American power, along with a sense of military strength was on its way back. Jimmy Carter was toast, Ronald Reagan had the pulse. Americans wanted Mustangs that went at warp speed, armies dressed up like refrigerators, and everyone packing firepower that was beautiful to look at.

The series has gotten progressively less interesting to the generation or two that it began with in 1977, which has thinned its ranks to fanboys. Younger generations have responded to the series’ shifting, fractured family structure that mirrors their experience and clicked in on what was a prescient articulation of the digital world to come and that is now pretty much standard fare in the electronic landscape the post-millennial kids have grown up in.

I’m not certain that Solo even satisfied a Cannes looking for what little Hollywood razzamatazz it can find, after glamor seems to have run off with someone else and left Cannes in both the good and bad positions of saying it was shaking things up and showcasing the work of new filmmakers.

The film passed through Cannes with barely a ripple, bringing no stars to speak of for a festival that has gone on a star-free diet, except maybe for the Competition jury headed by Cate Blanchett with a supporting role for juror Kristen Stewart, leaving behind some standard party fireworks to remember what it used to be like here long ago yadda yadda, or Yoda Yoda.

Okay, you want to know how Han Solo got his last name? It’s in this 10th chapter! How about how Han and Chewbacca met? That’s here, too. As insiders from a bygone era like to say, they meet cute in a man-eating beast pit. The world cannot resist a fresh-faced young American with a smart mouth on him, and on that score, Alden Ehrenreich, dependably cracks wise in dire circumstances on the big green screen. And he speaks Wookie. How many post adolescents in the Galaxy speak Wookie? Exactly none.

Chewie—guess we know where that name comes from--looks pretty young and skinny here, like a discount carpet remnant. We will forego speaking about the wonderful interpretation ex-basketball player Joonas Suotamo brings to the Chewie role he inherited from Peter Mayhew – because, honestly, no one can tell.

R2D2 and C3PO lie ahead, or behind. On the periphery of the action is comedian Donald Glover, who has established himself in the TV series ATLANTA as a hot property, taking on the role here of Lando Calrissian, whose character is central to not much but serves as Han’s poker rival in the hot boy department and presumably figures into future episodes the series is busily setting up – on your dime now.

What we do know is that Han and Chewie become more inseparable than Han has ever been with any woman through all 10 chapters — you can go Oscar Wilde with that. But in Solo we meet his first girlfriend, Qi'ra, as he’s falling in love with her over a stolen vial of Coaxium, the energy stuff everything apparently runs on in the Galaxy. It’s what the snooze of a villain, Dryden Vos, played by Paul Bettany with the authority of a bank branch manager having a bad decade, scours the universe for in service to Empire corporate headquarters. To which end, Woody Harrelson is written in as Tobias Beckett (no relation -- as in zero -- to Samuel or Sir Thomas), a rogue Coaxium pirate who serves as Han Solo’s reluctant and unreliable mentor.

As Qi’ra, Emilia Clarke is cute in a consciously well-nourished way—nobody at Disney is risking the Anti-Bulimia Lobby coming after them here—when she and the young Han, at about age 19 or so, fall in puppy love. But after she gets left behind at Border Control of the hellhole planet they call home, which looks a lot like the oil refineries of Elizabeth, New Jersey, and the film flashes forward with an inter-title, THREE YEARS LATER, Qi’ra has taken up with Vos and shows a vaguely more sophisticated sexuality. One infers that while Han was away on something of a Ulysses-like journey, her version of Penelope got busy. She retains a hint of that girlish first love look in her eyes when Han reappears and snatches her up on his post-adolescent Bonnie & Clyde spree.

Did we mention that the film is directed by Ron Howard, who stepped in after the previous co-directors were fired? Howard seems practiced at running an army, but none of this is as interesting as his real race car film, Rush, about Niki Lauda and James Hunt five years ago. John Powell’s score is ever present, dropping in for a few bars from John Williams at key feel-good moments of blasting into warp speed. There is no point in talking about theme, or subtext, or adults stuff like auteur vision in Solo. For that, you have to look to the Kasdans, Jon and Larry, son and father respectively, who wrote it.

Whatever relationship film they had in mind—the staple of indie and foreign cinema -- it lacks the zeitgeist. It pays the bills — Disney’s not yours. Solo is not the holy grail match of art and commerce. Unlike the first Star Wars, Solo lands in a world where it neither addresses present longing, nor the unfulfilled yearning to restore American legitimacy in the universe, nor even offers much escape in a Ford that can fly sideways. That’s the main constant in this film for two and a quarter hours and series: Fords fly upside down and sideways. Right now, folks, CNN is offering a better cast of bad guys, freaks, heroes and heroines in the making, rogue generals, general scoundrels and soldiers of fortune and foot, plus a true reincarnation of Jabba the Hutt (remember him?) every night. For free.

Click above for Harlan's review of Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.