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[This story contains spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story]
The end credits for Solo: A Star Wars Story list Phil Lord and Christopher Miller as executive producers on the project; of course, less than a year ago, they were still in the director’s chair before being fired. The shift from Lord and Miller to Ron Howard as director might have felt very extreme; though Howard has lent his voice and producing credit to the seminal TV comedy Arrested Development, his films are rarely as fast-paced, manic, and outrageous as any of Lord’s and Miller’s live-action or animated directorial efforts. Considering that Howard had only 11 months to bring Solo to completion, it’s easy to wonder how much of this movie would have felt like his, versus that of Lord and Miller. What’s surprising, watching the final film, is that the previous directors’ influence is almost entirely absent.
This is only a shock, to be fair, because Lord and Miller had been in principal photography for months when they were replaced by Howard. But aside from one joke early in the film, in which young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) attempts to convince an alien gangster that he has a fierce detonator in his hand instead of just a dinky rock, the influence of the directors of 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie and more isn’t obvious to spot. While that’s something of a credit to Howard and the folks at Lucasfilm for pulling this together so quickly, it doesn’t mean that Solo feels as fully realized as it might have.
The first third of the film, in particular, is rough going; the true purpose of Solo is to show us how Han made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, but getting him there isn’t quite so smooth. First, we get to see a number of events in Han’s life that aren’t nearly as necessary to visualize, questions that didn’t need to be answered: how did Han and Chewbacca first meet? How did Han come to the conclusion that his new furry friend needs a nickname? And hey, why is Han’s last name Solo? (The answer to that question, which comes in the first 15 minutes, is possibly the worst scene in any Star Wars film since the prequels, if not as bad as any moments in those films.) It’s only after Han and Chewie are forced, along with criminal Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), to steal a precious explosive that the movie kicks into gear. The final 90 minutes are decent enough, and well handled by Howard, but the first third suggests the turmoil behind the scenes was very real.
One of the major shifts that was expected when Lord and Miller left, and Howard arrived, was a less noticeable stylistic flair behind the camera. Lord and Miller, both in The Lego Movie and in the Jump Street films, display a sense of kinetic energy that isn’t on display in Solo. Perhaps the most noticeable visual element is the new film’s dimness. Cinematographer Bradford Young, who was part of the project when Lord and Miller were involved, has created a visually gritty and almost deliberately ugly world in which Han, Chewie, Han’s love interest, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) operate. Young’s other efforts as a director of photography, such as A Most Violent Year and Arrival, also hint at his willingness to use darkness in any shot; unfortunately, in Solo, it’s often a misstep, especially in the first half-hour. Even once the Kessel Run kicks off, inside the Millennium Falcon, the ship isn’t remotely as inviting as in other films just because it can be so hard to see what’s going on.
The other area in which Solo never feels like Lord and Miller were ever involved is in the film’s humor, or lack thereof. For good or ill, Solo isn’t a hugely funny film — there are a handful of laughs, or moments that are least supposed to be humorous. Han is a fairly upbeat antihero, all things considered, but because of the setting and the dark visual palette, it’s hard to find much of what transpires that fun or funny. Howard has worked in different genres, from Westerns to biopics, but there’s a surprising lack of looseness here, either because he hopped onto the production so late in the game or because the script all but dictated it.
Solo, whatever else can be said, doesn’t exactly feel like a film at war with itself, based on the directorial upheaval from last year. Howard’s style doesn’t mesh with that of Lord and Miller, but Solo doesn’t suggest that the latter team had much to do with the final product. Lord and Miller, before Solo, functioned as cinematic Rumpelstiltskins: turning terrible ideas into great movies. Solo, a prequel in which we meet a slightly younger version of one of the great modern movie heroes, has a terrible idea at its core. Howard, in taking over, has not made a terrible film, but there’s never a hint that even Lord and Miller could’ve turned this into cinematic gold.
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