Solo Blu-ray looks and sounds great – but there's more to Star Wars than that
By Jim Bray
The second Star Wars spin-off movie since Disney bought the universe from George Lucas – not to be confused with the two "Episode" movies that have come out as well – is a flawed attempt with a troubled gestation. Yet it's still well worth watching.
If only the filmmakers hadn't bitten off so much that they didn't need to chew (no Wookiee joke intended).
Yet even with its issues, and in its final form as found on this otherwise great Disney Blu-ray (alas, no 4K disc was sent for review), it's better than the last "official" Star Wars film, The Last Jedi. It isn't nearly as good as Rogue One, however, which in my never humble opinion is the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy.
Obviously, Solo is a look into the past of the character who's arguably the most interesting in the Lucas-created universe: Han Solo, that scruffy-looking scoundrel who stole Princess Leia's heart, was a smuggler, a pirate, a thief – and, as it turns out in Ron Howard's Solo – a man with a love of his life pre-Leia.
The film starts like a bit of Oliver Twist, with Han and a bunch of ragtag youths working the streets of Corellia to finance their home, which comes courtesy of some alien Fagin. Han (Alden Ehrenreich) has dreams of bigger and better things, and he attempts to escape with his girlfriend, Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) – except she doesn't make it and he's forced to leave her behind (as well as the rest of her…) and flee for his life.
This leads to him joining the Imperial forces, and I loved the major key-version of the Imperial March that plays over the recruiting ad he sees - but he's a square peg in an organization in which the individual must submerge himself and become merely a part of the whole. His time there does put him together with Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a crook who stole an officer's uniform as a disguise (shades of William Holden in "Bridge on the River Kwai"), and Solo pushes his way into Beckett's pitiful little band of miscreants as they head off on a job that promises to pay them enough that Solo could buy a ship and return to Corellia and rescue Qi'ra.
Of course, that isn't how it works out, and along the way we get to see how Han and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo wearing Peter Mayhew's walking carpet) meet – which would be kind of cool if I hadn't seen it recently in Thor: Ragnarok, with the Hulk. We also get to experience the Kessel run, which of course cements the Millennium Falcon's reputation as the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, and we witness Solo's first meeting with Lando Calrission (Donald Glover, who at times nails the Billy Dee Williams-created character and at other times comes off as simply a beta male).
Director Ron Howard, who took over the production when the original directors were sacked, and father-and-son writers Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, have given us an origin story that throws at the audience pretty well every legendary thing about Han Solo. Alas, it also gives us a lot more, including a couple of extra endings that really aren't necessary except to pad the film out to a two hour-plus running time.
For example, we get to see not one card game between Han and Lando, the result of which we all know will be the passing of the Millennium Falcon's pink slip from Lando to Han – except we have to wait for the final denouement of the film, whereas it would have worked just fine if Han had won the first game – and it would have saved a few minutes of a running time that already seems unnecessarily ponderous.
This editorial choice also shows us that, rather than just being a loveable rogue like Han, Lando is actually a dirty cheat. We didn't need that. It would have been better, and just as logical to the plot, if Han beat Lando fair and square the first time, because Lando would then have been broke and ready to enlist in the Kessel mission – which he does, anyway despite having won the card game.
If it had been my film I'd have ended it after the successful Kessel run, the rest of the stuff afterward being completely disposable. Such a quick rewrite would have resulted in a running time of about an hour and forty minutes, short for a Star Wars film but much tighter and more satisfying, in my never humble opinion.
Alas, the running time isn't the movie's biggest problem. Unfortunately, director Ron Howard – a very credible director who must have faced a thankless task being brought in to bail out a sinking ship – has created a film that feels very flat and lifeless. There's no spark, no magic to the film despite there being plenty of action and some decent performances.
Ehrenreich may be a fine actor – I've never seen him before – but here he isn't fit to shine Harrison Ford's shoes (and I'm not Ford fanboy). Here, he has no presence at all. And Lando's four-armed pilot (Jon Favreau) is annoying but, thankfully, dies quickly in a merciful move by the screenwriters; he's kind of like Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy films, but without the personality.
Then there's Lando's droid. She may be only a droid, but there's never any doubt that she's also a female one – which is weird. Unfortunately, she's also a fully blown social justice warrior who drags liberal politics into the Star Wars universe, where it doesn't belong. And her relationship with Lando is just strange. Fortunately, she dies as well, as much as a droid can die.
There are other things that made me think the Kasdans were channelling Guardians of the Galaxy: if Beckett were blue he'd be Yondu, Chewbacca is Groot, etc. etc. But I enjoyed both GotG films a lot more than I enjoyed Solo. Clearly, Disney is doing something right on the Marvel side, and something wrong on the Lucasfilm side. I've been a Star Wars fan since the original film, and didn't hate the prequels, which were pre-Disney. And while I loved "Rogue One," I hated "The Last Jedi" and thought "The Force Awakens" was far too much of a remake and not enough of a sequel.
Yet there's lots to like here as the movie plods along. There are many typical Star Wars action sequences – I particularly enjoyed the really cool train robbery – and the special effects, sound design, and creatures are terrific.
As mentioned, the film should have ended after the Kessel run, with the refining of the booty and the payoff to Solo and his little friends. But no, we have to sit through yet another subplot, one in which it appears that every designated victim group in that galaxy far, far away gets a chance to fight the evil Empire, even though we know from the other films that their troubles won't amount to a hill of beans because the Emperor won't be defeated until Return of the Jedi.
Disney really needs to think less about writing a liberal agenda into these fairy tales and go back to simply making fairy tales – you know, the stuff that made Star Wars AND DISNEY such phenomenal storytelling vehicles.
Ah, but I've always loved the sound of the Millennium Falcon!
I was waiting for the 4K disc to review, but it appears I'll be waiting a long time because Disney sent the conventional 1080p Blu-ray, which also comes with a digital code for download. The good news is that even in 1080p the quality of the disc is first rate. This is something Disney does really well – even if their movie sucks the audio and video is generally state-of-the-art – and here we have a picture that's as sharp as you can get. Solo was shot digitally, apparently, and that's a good starting point if you want a great video experience – though of course it doesn't guarantee such.
But Solo's picture is great! Star Wars' universe is used, so there's lots of tatty detail in costumes, sets, etc., and it comes through very fine, with colour and black levels that – while muted in places – are rendered very well overall.
The audio track is DTS-HD Master Audio and it's fine for the most part. I'm not sure there was as much action in the surround channels as such a movie would display usually, but overall, it's still an interesting and dynamic track. Bass rumbles nicely and that great sound of the Falcon comes through beautifully. Heck, it's worth sitting through Solo just to hear the Falcon!
There's a decent selection of extras on a second Blu-ray disc.
First up is a "Director & Cast Roundtable," which has Ron Howard riding herd on the main cast members as they talk about the production, their reactions to being cast, and more, while tiptoeing around the reason for the "hiatus" one of the cast members mentions in passing.
"The Train Heist" gives an interesting look at my favourite action sequence from the film, "Escape from Corellia" gives a neat view of this early chase sequence and some of its practical effects, including a mention of stunt driver Ben Collins, who Top Gear fans may remember as a Stig.
"Kasdan on Kasdan" sees the father/son writing team opine about working together and how the Star Wars universe has been so important in their lives (Kasdan senior finished the screenplay for "The Empire Strikes Back" and wrote "Return of the Jedi" as well as working on "The Force Awakens").
"Scoundrels, Droids, Creatures, and Cards" looks at the scene in which Han meets Lando, about which I've opined above. "Into the Maelstrom" looks at how they made the Falcon do the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs (my favourite reaction to that reference is the incredulous look on Alec Guinness' face when Han drops that bombshell in the original film).
"Team Chewie" is pretty self explanatory, as is "Remaking the Millennium Falcon." "Becoming a Droid" focuses on Phoebe Waller-Bridge's performance as the insufferable SJW droid, and the use of both practical and CG effects to pull it off.
There's also a selection of eight deleted scenes that would have made Solo even longer if they hadn't ended up on the cutting room floor.
I watched Solo twice to make sure I wasn't being unfair. And while I enjoyed it a lot more on the second viewing, it didn't change my opinion that it's a bit of a mess and should have been shortened by 20 minutes or more.
But if you're a Star Wars fan, there's enough good that you won't want to miss it, at least once.
Now, can we have our old Star Wars back?
Copyright 2018 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.