Sunday 3 June 2018

The space between our ears: "Solo: A Star Wars Story"

Spare a thought this summer for Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Three years ago, this duo of leftfield comic thinkers, flying high after the success of resuscitating 21 Jump Street and making The Lego Movie, were appointed to oversee the pick of the new Star Wars spin-offs: the Han Solo origin story. The talent Lord and Miller assembled to aid them in their quest - Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, Phoebe Waller-Bridge - suggested we were in for a smart, self-reflexive romp, perhaps the Lucasfilm equivalent of Marvel's gleeful Thor: Ragnarok. And then something unfortunate happened. The directors' signature larky approach was deemed to be going against the grain of the approved screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and son; soon after, they were relieved of their duties, although they retain token exec-producer credits on the released film. That film opened just after Lord and Miller saw The Last Man on Earth, the inventive sitcom they along with star Will Forte midwifed onto the Fox network, cancelled after four seasons, with nothing of the outrage that greeted similar news about the same network's Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and little hope of a Netflix reprieve. Entertainment has become a cruelly serious business; there's scant time or place for messing around when franchise megabucks are on the table.

The Solo that has finally landed among us - initiated by Lord and Miller, finished up by dependable insider Ron Howard - is some distance closer to Lucasfilm's own Ant-Man: it's basically fine, seeing off any production choppiness with a brisk, breezy professionalism, but still suffers from that cinematic form of string theory that insists there must be a livelier telling of the same story going on in a universe just one or two parsecs over. (Our New Blockbusters have their every choice trumpeted so widely and loudly that sometimes we leave the cinema with echoes of what might have been ringing in our ears.) For starters, you'd hope that the Lord/Miller Solo would have been a more colourful experience: Howard's first act, describing our Han (Alden Ehrenreich)'s progress from street thief to hired gun, is shot through such murk that slumming cinephiles might start to wonder whether they're accidentally walked into an unusually far-out Béla Tarr movie. (The cinematographer, surprisingly, is the usually reliable Bradford Young, who shot Arrival.) Matters get a shade brighter once we're out in the country - where our hero falls in with a band of mercenaries led by Harrelson's Beckett, and takes delivery of the Millennium Falcon - if never perhaps as funny as one might have hoped. Its wittiest idea is asking the acerbic Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) to voice a sarcastic droid - and even she gets blasted to bits after a run of good scenes, the latest example of the way these movies expend huge amounts of money converting hot talent into not much more than orbiting space junk.

I had reasonable fun with it, while understanding more or less why the tag of disappointment has been placed around the film's neck - and if you find it absurd that a film that made $100m in its opening weekend could ever be considered a disappointment, well, that's the business nowadays. (An aside: box-office albatross though Ehrenreich seems to be - Beautiful Creatures, Rules Don't Apply, now this - it really isn't his fault. The kid has the lines and the moves and, perhaps most crucial of all, some aspirational hair; he does a good a job as anybody could walking in those big shoes Harrison Ford left behind; and still doofi like Nick Jonas and Kevin Hart are bound to be bigger stars globally. Truly, nobody knows anything.) More likely Solo's so-so commercial performance speaks to a jadedness among spectators, or the saturation of the marketplace. 2018 has so far brought us Black Panther and Infinity War and Deadpool 2, and the calendar has only just reached June, which strikes me as a problem of abundance. Our event movies used to be actual events, anticipated months, if not years, in advance by an audience starved for such sensations; but nowadays they roll up with the humdrum regularity of your weekly Ocado delivery. 

Howard at least gets this one to move, which makes it an improvement on 2016's drearily nerdy Rogue One, but the film has next to no narrative muscle tone: it's a rush, sometimes a gabble, of incident - trench warfare, a poker game, some kind of slave rebellion - which scarcely seems connected in any way. No hope, therefore, of attaining the dramatic weight the main Star Wars throughline has accumulated; instead, Solo passes smoothly and enjoyably over your synapses, destined to be forgotten even as you sit with it, like the distant details of the games you played with these action figures back when you were seven years old. Lord and Miller might have made a joke out of that randomness, that transience, but Howard goes at it with the earnestness of a father reading his children a bedtime story: it's why Solo stays just this side of likable, which you couldn't say of every recent franchise entry, but he can't tell us anything we didn't already know or couldn't already have guessed about this character. (One - admittedly reductive - reading of Solo: Disney spending $250m on the story of how a kid ended up behind the wheel of his first ride. Put it like that, and you can see why some consider it overkill.) Our bigger movies used to reach for the skies, the better to take us places beyond our wildest dreams; now they reach behind themselves, like couch potatoes grubbing behind the cushions for loose change, in search of images their audience has become too lazy to imagine for themselves.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

No comments:

Post a Comment