‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ is Not the Droid You Are Looking For

Solo movie poster

Here we are again in a galaxy far, far away, and it is the third time we have ventured there in three years. We also head back to an even longer time ago when one of our favorite “Star Wars” characters, in this case Han Solo, was young, full of vigor and demographically desirable. But while the “Star Wars” movies have always been filled with tremendous imagination and unforgettable characters, I have to be honest and say that “Solo: A Star Wars Story” proved to be an underwhelming space adventure. While I am as big a Han Solo fan as the next person, seeing his early years portrayed here felt strangely ordinary to where this didn’t feel like a “Star Wars” movie, but instead an average science fiction movie yearning to be.

This movie begins with a routine chase sequence in which Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) attempt to escape a criminal gang, and from there I started to have a bad feeling about this. Usually these movies have me totally hooked in right from the start, but I did not feel the same kind of excitement I usually feel with the average Lucasfilm adventure. When Qi’ra and Han are suddenly separated at a transport station, Han tells her he will come back for her. Will he? Well, she is played by Emilia Clarke. Will Qi’ra and Han live happily ever after? Did Greedo really shoot first?

“Solo” reminded me of the problems I have with most prequels as they seem more concerned with connecting the dots between their story and the ones we have seen a thousand times. Like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “The Thing” prequel, the filmmakers are saddled with a cinematic history they are forced to adhere to, and it results in a lack of surprise and suspense as we know how things will turn out. And, like “Hannibal Rising,” it tells us more than we need to know about an iconic character to where I walked out feeling how certain things are best left to the imagination instead of being made into a movie.

Alden Ehrenreich has been an actor on the rise ever since his scene-stealing role in “Hail, Caesar,” and he certainly has a strong screen presence as Han Solo. At the same time, he ends up giving a one-note performance as the intergalactic smuggler which lacks the charisma Harrison Ford brought to the role. While he tries to play it cool throughout, Ehrenreich never quite comes to life here, and what results is a disappointing case of miscasting.

We do get introduced to some new characters, and among which is Tobias Beckett who is played by Woody Harrelson. As always, I am reminded of how Harrelson can play just about any character he takes on, and he provides us with the mentor Han Solo was always destined to have. Tobias, like Han, is a smuggler, but he also represents the darker road Han could find himself on if he is not careful.

Other actors are not as lucky. Thandie Newton shows up as Val Beckett, Tobias’ wife and partner in crime, but she is gone way too soon. Jon Favreau voices the alien character Rio Durant, but Rio merely functions as an easily disposable member of Tobias’ crew who we know will not last long. Paul Bettany makes Dryden Vos into a wonderfully ruthless crime lord, but his presence in “Solo” feels a bit uneven as if he is there to fill in the missing blanks. It should be noted how Bettany took over this role after the original actor cast, Michael K. Williams, was unable to return for reshoots. Things had to be changed to accommodate Bettany, and it shows.

Production problems kept plaguing “Solo” before its release, the biggest of which was the firing of the original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, both of whom still received an executive producer credit. It was one of several instances which showed how protective Lucasfilm was of this franchise. The word behind the scenes was that Lord and Miller were looking to mix things up and did not want to give audiences the same old thing, but Kathleen Kennedy was not about to let anyone change things up. While I commend Kennedy and Lawrence Kasdan for taking extra special care of this franchise, I came out of “Solo” thinking they should shake things up in the future if they want it to maintain the relevance it still has.

Replacing Lord and Miller is Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, and this had me excited as this is the same man who directed “Apollo 13.” That film was based on a real-life event everyone knew the outcome of, and yet he turned it into a riveting piece of entertainment. I figured he would bring this same energy to “Solo,” but even he is saddled with the characters’ history which he cannot easily maneuver around. Apparently, Howard reshot 70% of this movie, and I came out of it wondering how much of the finished product was his. As a result, the whole movie feels inescapably uneven.

For what it is worth, “Solo” does improve when Donald Glover, a man of many talents, arrives on the scene as Lando Calrissian. Glover brings the kind of charisma to this role I expected Ehrenreich to bring a wealth of to Han, and it makes me want to see Lando get a film of his own. From the first moment he appears onscreen, Glover makes this character the epitome of cool to where he does not need a can of Colt 45 to prove it, and he brings an infectious joy to a movie which needed it sooner.

We also get to meet another unforgettable droid here, L3-37. As voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, she is a sardonic delight as she shows more attitude and resilience than any other droid I have seen in any previous installment. It is also a kick to see L3-37 discuss the possibilities of sexual compatibility between her and Han with Qi’ra. After all these years, the “Star Wars” movies are proving to be more progressive than ever before! As for Lando, I think it is safe to say this is the droid he was looking for.

While certain moments like the first time Han meets Chewbacca (played here by Joonas Suotamo) and the initial appearance of the Millennium Falcon end up feeling uninspired and anticlimactic, the scene where Han makes the infamous Kessel Run in less than twenty parsecs is thrilling to watch, and it reminded of why I love the “Star Wars” movies so much. Yes, we know how things will turn out, but Howard keeps us on the edge of our seats as he subverts our expectations and plays with our emotions with glee.

Sure, “Solo” does have its moments, but they only served to remind of everything about it which does not work. The screenplay by Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan features dialogue which feels lifeless even when spoken by talented actors. Granted, there is none of the god-awful dialogue Hayden Christensen was forced to utter in “Attack of the Clones,” but it still feels derivative of lesser sci-fi movies which cannot even compare to “Star Wars” in general. I was also surprised at how uninspired the film score by “Jason Bourne” composer John Powell ends up sounding, and it only comes to life when he utilizes the immortal themes of John Williams.

“Rogue One” was also a prequel, but it had a cast of characters you really cared about, and its story of sacrifice pushed all the right buttons as we came to deeply admire the heroic actions they took. Even though we know the secret plans of the Death Star would end up in the hands of the Rebels, getting there was more than half the fun. “Solo,” however, is nowhere as effective, and what results is a big disappointment and a missed opportunity. This marks the first time I have ever given a negative review for a “Star Wars” movie, and yes, I have seen “The Phantom Menace.”

Lucasfilm would be better off looking to the future instead of going back to the past. Enough backstory has been established for these iconic characters to where we don’t need any additional information. We will certainly be looking forward when “Episode IX” is released in December of 2019, but it appears other “Star Wars” origin movies are in the works such as one on Obi-Wan Kenobi. Seriously, I am with Ralph Garman when he said, wouldn’t a movie about Obi-Wan watching Luke Skywalker growing up from a distance be a little too creepy?

* * out of * * * *

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Soundtrack Review: ‘Grand Canyon’ Extended Edition

Grand Canyon soundtrack cover

Anybody who knows me best knows I am a huge fan of film scores and soundtracks, and James Newton Howard’s score to “Grand Canyon” is one of my all-time favorites. I knew at some point this score would get an expanded and remastered soundtrack, and La La Land Records finally came through with this limited-edition release. While he is better known for his music to “The Prince of Tides,” “The Fugitive,” “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” which he worked with Hans Zimmer on, “Grand Canyon” remains my favorite work of his as the music provides a soothing heartbeat to this movie.

The movie “Grand Canyon” came out in 1991 and was directed by Lawrence Kasdan and written by him and his wife Meg. Its story revolves around six different Los Angeles residents whose lives intertwine with one another over the course of a few days. It all starts when Mac (Kevin Kline), while driving home from a Lakers game, drives into a bad neighborhood where his car breaks down. Just when it looks like he’s about to be killed by a gang, tow truck driver Simon (Danny Glover) rescues him and the two end up becoming unlikely friends. Many called it “The Big Chill” of the 1990’s, but “Grand Canyon” more than stands on its own as it observes the lives of Los Angeles residents who are dealing with personal issues which are tearing them apart.

What I love about Howard’s score is how it combines so many different kinds of music, be it orchestra, electronics, rock, jazz or percussion, to create a film score so unique to where I have a hard time comparing it to any other. It captures the coldness of big city life while giving the characters stuck in it a sympathetic voice which understands how they feel. The “Main Titles” hooked me right away and made me feel so at ease even though I knew this movie was not going to be a fairy tale.

La La Land Records limited edition release of “Grand Canyon” includes twenty-five minutes of music not included on its original release. Soundtracks, back in the 1990’s, were limited to having only forty to fifty minutes of music on a compact disc, so a lot of great stuff got left out as a result. It’s been over twenty years since this movie came out, but the music remains as powerful as ever. In addition, there are some bonus tracks which are alternate takes on certain themes as well as some source music for a violent film which Davis (Steve Martin) has produced with an unrestrained glee.

As usual, La La Land Records has provided an informative booklet on the making of “Grand Canyon” and its music which is entitled “Scoring the City of Angels” written by Daniel Schweiger, soundtrack editor of AssignmentX.com and Filmmusicmag.com. Schweiger writes extensively about the making of the movie and of how Howard came up with the music for it, and I’m not sure we have had as much detailed information on the creation of this score previously. Each track on this disc gets an individual write up, and it’s nice to see someone, let alone anyone, give this soundtrack the attention it deserves.

If there’s any downside to this edition of the “Grand Canyon” soundtrack, it’s that it doesn’t include the song “Searching for a Heart” by the late Warren Zevon. Usually La La Land Records is able to get all the songs from a movie’s original soundtrack, but I guess there was an issue with the rights this time around. It would have also been great to have the other Zevon song featured in this movie, “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” included as well. Mac plays it while he’s driving home from the Lakers game, and the lyrics turn out to be quite prophetic for him.

“Grand Canyon” is truly one of the unsung cinematic masterpieces of the 1990’s, and what’s sad is most people don’t know about this movie today. This proved to be my introduction to the work of James Newton Howard, and it is one of the main reasons why this movie is so great. I am thrilled to see La La Land Records has taken the time to make Howard’s score sound better than ever before. While he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his work here (he was instead nominated that same year for “The Prince of Tides”), there’s no doubt in my mind this remains his most memorable film score to date.

This limited edition has only 2000 units available, so be sure to order yours before it goes out of print.