Solo: A Star Wars Story
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story is polished and sleek, a fine demonstration of the well-oiled machine that is Disney. The cast is talented, the effects bright and shiny, the story exciting enough if a little too long. But I think Solo would have been so much better if it weren’t about Han Solo at all.

No new hope, here (just a few spoilers)

Solo is amusing, but it doesn’t offer any substance. It’s just lightweight summer fare–superficial and forgettable. This is no sin for a summer movie, but as an addition to the Star Wars franchise it should offer something more. Solo: A Star Wars Story has nothing to emotionally invest in–and that is the fatal flaw. The core saga gives us characters we can care about–passionately. This second outing into A Star Wars Story-land can put on the trappings but lacks the foundations.

It’s too determined to show us all the references from the original trilogy. While it’s fun to see Han meet Chewie and Lando, the familiar scenes can’t carry the whole movie.

The dialogue is often simplistic and obvious. And yet despite all the exposition, there is no insight into how Han Solo developed into the reluctant hero we know and love. We have only the overemphasized statement that he is a good guy. This shortcut reduces him to a cartoon cowboy and not much else.

This is not the scruffy nerf-herder we’re looking for

Solo largely suffers from the same problems that bothered me in Rogue One–good actors with far too little to work with.  While entertaining in the moment, this is not a movie I will go back to. There is no emotional growth here–Solo’s Han is, was, and always has been. Why should we care about his backstory?

Solo: A Star Wars Story
A new Han

Alden Ehrenreich is the younger Han, and he is genuinely likeable in the role. But he seems to be doing nothing more than a broad imitation of Harrison Ford’s smirk and swagger–and I know Ehrenreich is capable of better. And while young Solo should resemble the older character, it’s really hard to watch Solo: A Star Wars Story and not wish they had just CGI’d in Harrison Ford.

Emilia Clarke is also likeable as Qi’ra, but she fails to convey any heat with Solo or any cold calculation with Dryden Voss. She’s sweet, and we are told she is dangerous. Her threat just doesn’t come through.

Lando Calrissian is a wasted character, for all Donald Glover’s suave moves. But Glover gets points for showing more emotional connection to Lando’s droid, L3, than Han does to Q’ira.

Woody Harrelson’s good-natured performance as Beckett can’t save his character from being a straight-up plot device. It’s particularly galling when Beckett’s death is milked mercilessly to show that Han really is a good person, even when he shoots first.

Paul Bettany as Dryden Voss is probably the most believable actor in the film. Bettany brings a certain convincingly dangerous psychopathy to his crime lord, and is lucky enough to simply be killed in combat. And Thandie Newton’s Val is a brief, pleasant surprise who is also allowed to die with her dignity intact.

So, what’s left?

Solo: A Star Wars Story is ultimately, for me, an empty suit of a film that puts well-known characters through predictable paces with no payoff for either them or a nostalgic audience. Which is a shame.

A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi created many, many lifelong fans. Sixteen years later, the next trilogy introduced another generation of fans to the Star Wars universe. And now we have Episodes VII and VIII, with IX on the horizon, and maybe we should let the current generation become enamored of their trilogy in peace.

So perhaps that’s the deeper meaning of Solo hidden in the gravity well: it’s time to finally let Luke, Leia, Han, and Obi Wan rest, and let the saga continue without constantly looking backward for slick, flashy, and forgettable content fill up space. 

So, now that the opening weekend excitement is out of the way, the reviews are in, and the arguments have started in earnest, I’d like to offer my humble assessment of the best and the worst of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Spoilers ahead.

Was it entertaining? Oh, yes. Was it visually stunning? Oh, yes, again. Was it up to the overall quality of Star Wars: The Force Awakens? That’s debatable. And I have to say no. While there is much to praise about Rogue One, in many ways it fell into some lazy habits that undermined the potential of a story we all already knew the ending to.

The Good

Rogue One's Rebels
Rogue One’s Rebels

Darth Vader—Bringing back the sheer physical menace of the early Vader was a keen tactical move. The closing scene where he casually devastates the cornered Rebel forces with his lightsaber and the Force is breathtaking, reminding us all over again of why he is such an enduring villain.

Effects—The battle scenes were spectacular, as promised. In addition to the flashy guerrilla street fights and Death Star demos, the inclusion of the Episode IV sequences during the final space battle was an excellent connection to the original saga. But what most impressed me was the destruction of the shield around Scarif—seeing a couple of disabled Imperial Star Destroyers get shoved through the gate by a small rebel ship was pretty bold.

Secondary characters—They were the real treasures in Rogue One, managing to take stilted, stereotypical characters and really make them breathe. Alan Tudyk as the repurposed droid K-2SO, Donnie Wen as the blind Jedi Chirrut Imwe, Jiang Wen as his barbarian sidekick Baze Malbus, and Riz Ahmed as the former Imperial pilot Bohdi Rook, all brought tremendous sympathy to their roles and made me care about their fates in a way the leads didn’t.

The Bad

The Death Star is always bad
The Death Star is always bad

Grand Moff Tarkin—Peter Cushing has been dead long enough (he passed in 1994) for it to make sense to cast a new actor in the role. Alternatively, the script could have focused on the multitude of other characters and left Tarkin out of it. What they decided to do felt too much like grave-robbing to me, especially since the CGI was not quite good enough to climb out of the uncanny valley. Tarkin was creepy, alright, just not in the way it was intended.

Lead characters—Jyn and Cassian were far less engaging than the secondary characters. Felicity Jones looked uncomfortably like Jo from The Facts of Life throughout the action, with her face locked in a perpetual frown. There was no sense of connection between her and Diego Luna (or anyone else, really), who fared slightly better in the emoting department. I got the feeling of very good actors given thin, thin parts and not enough space to bring them fully to life.

Slipshod plotting—The reason for Rogue One’s existence is to get from point A to point A New Hope, but there are ways to tell a story with a foregone conclusion that keep it compelling (Argo comes to mind as a recent success). This missed the mark. In their attempt to recall the visual style of the original trilogy, the opening sequences came across as rushed and not especially well connected. Jyn’s backstory also seemed perfunctory, presented in info-dump dialogue to get it out of the way of the next big battle. And the final scenes of the Death Star plans reaching their destination suffered the same hurried fate with an abrupt resolution. It made it very hard for me to invest in the story.

The Other Bits

Look familiar?
Look familiar?

Speaking of connecting to the originals, Rogue One did a nice job namechecking the first trilogy with the looming AT-ATs, the Scarif bunkers, and the desert landscape of Jedah. The musical score also very reminiscent of John Williams’s epic work for A New Hope.

But why does the empire put all its controls in awkward and fully exposed locations? They achieved seamless and true AI, but they can’t put the Master Switch somewhere other than on an unprotected podium out in the open?

Why did Jyn’s mother tell her to trust the force? Did Jyn even have the force? I kept wondering when we’d get back to that, but it seems like the explanation for that emphasized line was left out in the rewrites.

All in all, I found the latest entry in the franchise to be a mixed bag of quality. What worked for me worked very well, but what was lacking became distractions too strong to overcome. I’m glad I saw it, because it was a visual feast with some highly interesting characters. But I’m not likely to go back and watch it the way I do with the rest of the saga.

And that’s my take-away from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

SPOILER ALERT!

 

SERIOUSLY. SPOILERS.

J.J. Abrams continuation/reboot of the venerable Star Wars franchise is exactly what we need after the travesties that were Episodes I, II, and III. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is spectacular, it is funny, and it is instantly relatable. Pretty darn good for an update to a forty year old space opera.

The Force Awakens digs deep into the original trilogy to remind us why these movies are so iconic and why we love them as much as we do. The wreckage of star cruisers and AT-ATs on Jakkar was beautifully done, and gave both continuity and a good visual sense of the epic sweep of the story. The Force Awakens happens on new planets, but it feels like we are returning to Tatooine, Endor, and Hoth. The legendary Cantina scene is loosely recreated, as is Luke’s vision in the cave. Sets and costumes and even actors are meant to recall the originals in all their glory– Lupita Nyong’o as Maz Kanata stands in for Yoda, while Max von Sydow lasted just long enough to resemble Obi Wan. Of course, all this goes on against the background of another fantastic John Williams score.

One reminder from the original trilogy stands out above all the others. The return of the Millennium Falcon more than anything is the bridge between the old and the new, and a spectacular bridge it is. The way the Falcon endures, the way Rey handles it, and the way Han trusts Rey with it could not symbolize the changing of the guard any more clearly.

The First Order is The Force Awakens’s revived version of the Galactic Empire, and uses most of the same structure and devices as the originals. As always, the political environment is an indecipherable mess and the dark side’s epic weapons are really poorly designed. It’s always best with Star Wars to gloss over the politics and avoid deep thoughts on the technology—that’s not what any of this is about. As in the original trilogy, the true strength of Star Wars: The Force Awakens lies in its characters

Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron is a wonder. He brings a little crazy to every role, and as a hotshot rebel pilot, it is perfect. Poe actually reminds me a bit of Han—and that’s a good thing. Daisy Ridley’s Rey is a tough, sympathetic lead even more capable than Leia because of her newly discovered command of the Force. That, and Luke’s lightsaber. It’s a formula for another icon. As Rey’s sidekick/partner, John Boyega’s Finn is charming and funny and convincing as a developing rebel warrior. There is an easy camaraderie between Rey and Finn and promises of substantial character development built on a strong foundation.

The dark side is a little less well-defined. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren has presence, but he also looks unnervingly like Severus Snape when he takes his mask off. And although he has his grandfather’s melted helmet as a symbol of his intentions (and a good indicator of what will happen when Han finally catches up with him), Kylo has a long way to go to measure up to Darth Vader. As General Hux, Domhnall Gleeson makes an interesting foil to the conflicted Kylo Ren much as Grand Moff Tarkin was for Vader. Gleeson does his best Peter Cushing impersonation, stiff and clipped and cold, but comes off as one-dimensional where Ren is allowed some depth.

The CGI characters were a little too Disneyfied for me, and too obviously CGI—both Maz Kanata and Supreme Leader Snoke were overly elfin for my taste, with tiny noses and chins and an almost childish appearance. This was the only aspect that reminded me of the terrible prequels, and pulled me out of the action.

I did think most of the veteran Star Wars characters were actually underutilized. The audience went wild with each new appearance of a beloved familiar face. But while Han and Chewbacca had a pivotal role to play in handing over the reins to the new guard, Leia, C3PO, and R2D2 are in The Force Awakens more for nostalgia points than for plot. I hope they will play larger roles in Episode 8, when Luke makes his return.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens certainly has the Disney touch on it, with skilled emotional manipulation and more cutesy characters than usual for the films, but the Star Wars universe can handle it. The Star Wars universe still has a story to tell, and new blood to tell it with. Pretty darn good indeed.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!