It’s been 19 years since the “Star Wars” franchise has missed the mark as completely as “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”
Be brave, “Star Wars” fans. The latest offering has plenty of problems, but as long as “Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace” has Jar Jar Binks, it would take a disaster the size of an exploding Death Star to bump “Menace” from its place as the worst “Star Wars” movie.
“Solo” comes in second.
This tale of the younger days of the roguish Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is a muddled story presented in a dark and depressing manner that fails to introduce any memorable characters. The acting is OK — especially a very charismatic performance from Ehrenreich — and bits and pieces link with the “Star Wars” universe that die-hard fans will love. That’s not enough to lift the movie any higher than mediocre.
The film starts with a young Han Solo trying to find a way that he and his true love, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), can get their own ship and escape a vile and oppressive world. When their plan fails, Solo finds himself in a war that he hates and authority figures he dislikes even more. That’s when he hooks up with a group of thieves under the guidance of the wise and worldly Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson).
If Solo can make one big score, he can get the ship and freedom he wants. All he has to do is complete a job so dangerous he would not want to know the odds of surviving. The job does bring Solo in contact with many of the familiar people, places and things that define who he becomes when seen years later in “Star Wars: A New Hope.”
It’s difficult to decide who should shoulder the majority of the blame for the problems with the film, since Ron Howard was brought in to finish the production after there were creative differences with the original directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Howard may have inherited unfixable footage, but because he eventually signed off on the project, he will take the hit for not having the film Force be with him.
The majority of “Solo” is shot in either lighting so low that squinting doesn’t help or the scenes are illuminated poorly through a constant backlit design. Plenty of scenes in the “Star Wars” franchise have taken place in dark areas, from Jabba the Hutt’s palace to the Rancor Pit, but those were shot with far more cinematic clarity. Past films have embraced the darkness to create a mood, rather than use it to make it look like there’s something to hide.
Howard has directed massive special effects films (“Willow”) that had a smooth and solid rhythm to the action sequences. He shows no such control with “Solo,” as the action scenes go beyond the point from being exciting to redundant. His failure to cut the scenes to a proper length starts with a chase scene in the first moments of the film and reaches its peak with a battle on a trainlike vehicle through a frozen mountain pass. Neither comes to a dramatic conclusion but a merciful end.
Equally troublesome is the script. Lawrence Kasdan has shown a great skill in dealing with the “Star Wars” universe through co-writing “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi” and “The Force Awakens.” This time, Kasden — along with his son, Jonathan, who co-wrote “Solo” — shows none of the beauty in storytelling that made the others work.
Their “Solo” story plods to the point that even in big surprise moments, the reveals are either too predictable or so vague it would take a Jedi scholar to figure out the significance. They even falter when dealing with characters fully formed in the other movies, such as the unforgivable direction taken with Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). The script takes one of the coolest and most suave characters in the galaxy and makes him the punch line to a joke.
An inherent problem with sequels is an immediate loss of tension when it comes to the main characters. No matter how dangerous or dire the situation, there’s no doubt Han and other characters who pop up later in the “Star Wars” saga are going to survive.
WHAT: “Solo: A Star Wars Story”
CAST: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton
RUN TIME: 135 minutes
RATED: PG-13 for sci-fi action, violence
WHERE: Marcus Wehrenberg, Westdale 12 in Cedar Rapids, Coral Ridge Cinema in Coralville, Sycamore Cinema in Iowa City