Sunday, August 23, 2020

Opinion: Solo is the most underrated Star Wars film

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By Ciaran Duggan

"Have you ever heard of the tragedy of Solo: A Star Wars Story? I thought so, it is a story that many fans will tell you."


Han Solo, the iconic scoundrel and space smuggler played by Harrison Ford in the Original Trilogy, took centre stage in his very own stand alone film just two years ago.


Sadly, the movie was seemingly written off before it had even taken to the big screen in May 2018 amid behind-the-scenes turmoil, lack of marketing and the dividing lines created between fans over Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi in December 2017.


However, having rewatched the film many times, including over this weekend, the criticism is completely undue in my opinion. Solo has a great cast, a strong set of characters, absorbing music and new themes, savvy tie-ins to Star Wars lore and memorable moments.


I will go as far to say that this is the most underrated Star Wars blockbuster that has been played in movie theatres.

Context



The screenplay, written by Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Force Awakens co-writer Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jon, was being directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller when principal photography began in January 2017 at Pinewood Studios.


However, both were fired due to “creative differences” with Lucasfilm and verteran director Ron Howard took over, whose directing portfolio includes thriller The Da Vinci Code (2006), historical drama Frost/Nixon (2008) and a comedy, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000).


The unfolding drama involving Lucasfilm and Disney and their directors certainly raised some concerns among fans who had already questioned the need for a Han Solo movie. Other characters could have been put in the frame ahead of Han, including Dooku, Qui Gon, Ahsoka and Obi Wan, although he is finally getting his own TV series.


Unfortunately, the fallout from The Last Jedi - which was released five months prior to Solo - had split fans down the middle over the likeability of that film after taking quite a dramatic tonal shift from what we have seen previously in Star Wars saga films. It is fair to say that the film was marmite as the excitement levels for the franchise dipped significantly then..


To my mind, the screening of Episode VIII in December 2017 had a damaging knock-on effect for Solo in terms of marketing. The first teaser trailer was publicised on February 5, 2018, less than four months before the film’s release. The second came out on April 9. 


Both accumulated more than 30 million views on YouTube, but it did feel as though the usual marketing muscle that Disney had at its disposal was not being used to its fullest. It was as though the executives were caught between overshadowing the Last Jedi before its release but also not as committed to the movie doing well at the box office.


Suffice to say the film crashed at the box office, with the movie needing to gross at least $500 million worldwide to break even but taking less than $400 million globally. This flew in the face of the £1.3bn that The Last Jedi attained and just over £2bn that Rogue One (2016) and Force Awakens (2015) achieved together over a two-year period. 


The legacy of Solo therefore is not looked on fondly and I believe it has played a major factor as to why Disney decided not to pursue stand alone films, like Rogue One, fearing that financially it would not be successful or well liked by fans. 


However, now that I have spoken about all the obstacles faced by the movie in production and the failure at the box office, I still feel incredibly satisfied with what the creators put out and will explain why.


Cast and characters



The cast choice was incredible.


One has to look back at the initial announcement to see the likes of Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke, Zombieland daredevil Woody Harrelson, the charming Donald Glover and Westworld’s Thandie Newton that would be involved to think there was something great at work, in this gritty dark film set between Episode III and Episode IV. 


Alden Ehrenreich was chosen to become Han Solo in a competitive audition process and this was the subject of much debate at the time, with some fans being critical of the fact he did not look like Harrison Ford, but the final cut would suggest otherwise.


His mannerisms, body language and facial expressions mirror that of Han and by the end of the film - which I rewatched on Friday night - you could see the transformation of his character arc from selfless and betrothed to cold-hearted and distant from others, Chewbacca the exception. 


Known most widely at the time as Daenerys Stormborn, Emilia took her role as Han’s love interest but also a strong character in her own right as the top lieutenant to one of Maul’s cronies, Dryden Vos, of Crimson Dawn. Her complex relationships with trying to protect Han but also climb the ladder with the crime syndicates made Q’ira a force to be reckoned with.


Tobias Becket was probably my favourite of the new characters introduced in Solo because he fit the mould of a character who was in the grey area. Harrelson’s character looked out for himself, often double-crossed and could be seen as selfish, but he also cared very much for those closest to him and was a father-figure and mentor to Solo. 


There is also an element of tragedy to Beckett, who by the end of the film wants to retire and return to his homeworld of Glee Anselm to play the valachord, a musical instrument.



Lando Calrission was a fine addition to this assortment of characters with Glover finely adorning the cape first worn by Billy Dee Williams and taking on his wit and charm very effectively in the movie.


Thandie’s character Val did not have a major role in the film - as much as would have been liked - but she added a new dimension to Tobias and I enjoyed her moments of challenging Han and getting into the frey during the imperial invasion and train chase scene.


It would have nice to see more of Chewbacca and his story throughout the film, particularly how he became a slave to the Empire, although the tough decision he had to make between staying with Han or leaving with his people from Kashykk was a nice element to the story.


Overall I thought the film hit the right notes with the cast and characters and made the film extremely gripping, the performances of Alden and Woody for me stand out, but I felt all brought their A-game and the chemistry during the Kessel Run sequence was perfect.


The villains also played their part with the introduction of Vos as a key player in the film. He was clearly ruthless and not to be messed with, but sadly for him was merely a tool for a larger force to be reckoned with and Vos’ rule came crashing down after being betrayed by his closest adviser, as Q’ira described “his weak spot”. 


I have not forgotten who that larger player was and will discuss him in a nice interlude onto the second main element of the film that makes Solo hugely underestimated. 


Clone Wars tie-ins


“Yes”, says Maul. Clearly he agrees with me about the fact this movie is underrated.


Those were also the first words uttered by the former Sith Lord in a Star Wars movie since more than 20 years ago when the Phantom Menace was played in movie theatres back in 1999. 


I imagine it was quite a shock for fans who do not follow Star Wars: The Clone Wars to see the villain return to the big screen after being cut in half by Jedi padawan Obi Wan Kenobi during the climatic duel on Naboo, which saw Qui Gonn Jinn defeated by the Sith overlord. 


The tie-ins between the Clone Wars and Solo film were welcome but also wisely added in. 


A crucial element of the Emmy-award winning TV series was the resurrection of Maul and his rise in the criminal underworld as the Black Sun and Pykes joined his crime syndicate during the fifth season of the seven-part series. 


In the final season, we see the appearance of Crimson Dawn’s boss, Dryden Vos, as Maul tells the syndicate leaders to go into hiding as the siege of Mandalore takes a turn for the worst for his forces.


The Clone Wars were returning the favour to the Solo creators for reintroducing Maul on the big screen, who was voiced by actor Sam Witwer but reprised physically by Ray Park.


The plot of the film is made all the more interesting and realistic when you consider that Han is the pawn of a bigger game between Maul, the Empire and his crime syndicates.


Vos makes the point in the Solo film that he cannot openly attack the Pykes as he maintains a “fragile alliance” with them - clearly connected with the Crime Syndicates, which was explored in more depth during the final season of the Clone Wars, including the Martez arc.


Paul Bettany played the main villain in Solo in 2018 but Vos’ death will make an interesting twist if there are any future films as Q’ira has taken over as the head of Crimson Dawn, for now it seems. How will Maul react to losing one of his top generals? These interloping stories make for a more compelling sub-plot in the film that is often looked over. 


Music


Film composer John Powell earned a grammy nomination for his amazing score in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

The 56-year-old has worked on several great projects including The Bourne Identity (2002), Happy Feet (2006) and How To Train Your Dragon (2010),


Star Wars veteran John Williams was also involved in the composition of the main theme, The Adventures of Han Solo, an upbeat piece which moves at a fast tempo and reflects Han’s adrenaline fuelled life of being on the run whether from crime syndicates or the Empire.


But, Mr Powell’s work deserves to be paid tribute to and the 20 songs from his own album entitled Solo: A Star Wars Story - which lasts 1 hr 17 mins - worth a listen to in your spare time.


Several soundtracks stand out, including the Spaceport theme when Q’ira is recaptured by the cronies of Proxmia towards the beginning of the film. 


There is such a swelling feeling of hope that Han and his close friend will be able to escape, but that is snatched away from them at the last moment.


At the end of the track, you feel the helplessness of Han who has managed to get through the gate but Q’ira has been left behind and it seems there is no way he can escape, the only exception it seems is to join the ranks of the Empire.


L3 and the Millenium Falcon is the next theme that resonates with fans, particularly because in the middle of the soundtrack where the leitmotif of the Falcon lifts the spirits and brings a smile to my face. 


The final two soundtracks, which play similar sinister and villainous themes embedded with a choir chorus, are the reveals of Maul revealed in Testing Allegiance and the heinous crimes of Crimson Dawn laid out to the characters. These motifs are similar but they convey the true evil of the groups involved and are a warning to our main characters to avoid them.


Overall, the soundtrack is a key element that fits nicely into the same category as Michael Giacchino’s Rogue One piece. Mr Powell takes on a unique standing on Star Wars music, but also ties in some of those threads and similar themes that we have heard in movies past.


Visually



Also underestimated are the breathtaking visuals and special effects which I think sold the film to me pretty well in the trailers.

It is action heavy. In the first hour you see the thrilling speeder chase on Corellia followed by Han fighting alongside the Empire in a blitzing sequence and a spectacular train chase scene which had consequences for two of the main characters introduced to us - Val and Rio, voiced by Mandalorian creator Jon Favereu, who were killed off.


Other memorable moments include the Kessel Run scene where the Millenium Falcon is chased by TIE fighters which comes soon after a revolution takes place on the Pyke-controlled planet of Kessel, shown to fans of the Clone Wars recently, which is spearheaded by L3.


That fits in with a nice running theme throughout the movie - the birth of the Rebellion - and takes shape even more on the Savereen when a thorn in the anti-heroes side, Enfys Nest, reveals her true identity and lays out the heinous crimes of Crimson Dawn. 


They then battle Vos’ men and it concludes with a dramatic fight between Vos, Han and Q’ira before Han shoots first and kills Beckett. 


It is fair to say that the visual effects of the Kessel Run scene in particular were extraordinary and the Malstrom, which felt very asteroid field chase in Empire, was a nice addition. 


Conclusion


In conclusion, Solo on the surface was a film that was fraught with problems in production and was released at a time when fans had mixed views about where the franchise was going under the headship of Disney, who acquired Lucasfilm in 2012. 


At the box office the film was not a success, however that can be put down as much to the lack of marketing as much as an apparent disinterest.


Those who have watched the film who I have spoken to have found it to be an enjoyable rollercoaster. That’s not to say it is perfect, but there was a great cast involved, very compelling character development and new players introduced.


This comes in an era that has recently become a point of interest - between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope - which has been enhanced by the Clone Wars and there have even legacies from Solo in the final season of the Clone Wars which saw Dryden Vos and Crimson Dawn being referenced too. 


The film drew inspiration from what was put out in the Clone Wars by making a bold step in putting Maul back on the big screen in movie theatres for the first time since 1999.


Other elements, including the visually stunning special effects and memorable music themes, also served to make this a thrilling and captivating watch.


In light of the recent controversy about the way The Rise of Skywalker and the Sequel trilogy came to an end in December last year, rewatching Solo has given a breath of fresh air for what a Star Wars film should be. 


I would say that Rogue One is almost universally regarded as a success story by fans and financially for the executives, but Solo is often left out of the equation in this discussion.


Han said in the film: “I have a good feeling about this,” and I will conclude with my opening remarks and say that this is the most underrated movie in the Star Wars franchise.  


Picture credits: Variety, StarWars.com, Inside the Magic, ILM (Industrial, Light and Magic), CNET


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