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Once upon a time hollywood press conf.

Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Solo: A Star Wars Story, Review: Buccaneer, Chewbacca, the survival axiom and the deadly coaxium

Solo: A Star Wars Story, Review: Buccaneer, Chewbacca, the survival axiom and the deadly coaxium

A long time ago (41 years) in a cinema hall far, far away from my home, I saw the first Star Wars film. What are 41 years in a universe where spaceship pilots are 190 years old? While you Chewbacca, let me tell you that the 190 year-old is a Wookie (closer to apes than humans), and that the aspiring pilot and the star of the movie, Han Solo, is played by an actor who is 29 but can easily pass off as 20-21. Unlike his assigned surname, Han is never solo or alone, and has to hop from planet to planet in full-crew spaceships, to pursue his career as mercenary/smuggler/pilot.

Solo: A Star Wars Story does not have Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, C3PO, Jabba the Hutt. Instead, it has Chewbacca (you spoiler!), Proxima, Lando, Qi’ra, Enfys, Lord Maul (inVader/Mauler…you get the flow), and two gentleman who go by the literature-inspired monikers of Dryden and Beckett. So, let the fun and games, trust and betrayal, tyranny and resistance begin.

On the ship-building world of Corellia, a young ‘scrumrat’ and aspiring pilot named Han and his teenage lover Qi'ra long to escape the clutches of the local criminal gangs, who work under Queen Proxima. They successfully bribe an Imperial officer, who grants them passage on an outgoing transport, but they plans are discovered and Qi'ra is apprehended by their pursuers before she can board. Han vows to return for her. With no means of income, joins the Imperial Navy as a flight cadet, with the Imperial recruiting officer dubbing him Han Solo, as Han is unable to provide surname.

Three years later, Han has been expelled from the Imperial Flight Academy, for insubordination, and is serving as an infantryman during a battle on the planet Mimban. He encounters a gang of criminals, posing as Imperial soldiers, led by Tobias Beckett. He is able to see through Beckett’s disguise and blackmails them into allowing him to join, but Beckett has him arrested and condemned to battle a beast, held in captivity. The beast is revealed to be a Wookiee named Chewbacca.

Thanks to Han's ability to speak Shyriiwook, the two stage a fight for the benefit of their captors and escape after collapsing their cell. A sympathetic Beckett rescues them, and enlists the two for a planned train heist to steal a shipment of the hyperfuel coaxium on the planet Vandor, but is enraged when Han ditches their shipment after they are ambushed by the Cloud Riders criminal gang.

Beckett reveals he was contracted to steal the shipment for Dryden Vos, leader of the Crimson Dawn criminal syndicate, and he now fears Vos' wrath. Han and Chewbacca volunteer to help him steal another shipment. They travel to Vos' skyscraper like yacht, where Han is confused to discover Qi'ra, who confesses that she is a member of Crimson Dawn. Beckett advises Han to believe in the axiom that nobody can be trusted.

Writing efforts are shared between Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and his son Jonathan Kasdan (In the Land of Women, The First Time, Roadies). Obviously, these guys know what they are writing about. Narration is linear, which is always the best option, unless you excel in pendulumatics. Dialogue is the most functional I have heard in a long time.

A host of influences are perceptible in the screenplay. Han and Qi’ra’s separation is as close to ‘parting is such sweet sorrow’ as can get in a galaxy that hasn’t heard of Shakespeare, Romeo or Juliet. The train heist is a high-end take on many such scenes in films of the 80s, 90s and 2000s. Paying their respects to the cowboy ‘quick on the draw’ gunfights in the cinema of the 50s, 60s and 70s, the Kasdans recreate them almost true to the originals. When it comes to villains and villainy, Dryden Vos and Lord Maul, The Phantom Menace, may be the sceptre/spectre/smersh that other galaxies have given birth to, in a post James Bond eon.

Enfys Nest and the Cloud Riders are an interesting introduction into the narrative. On the planet Savareen, where Han, Beckett, and Qi'ra make a second attempt at stealing a load of the highly reactive coaxium, mined like coal, for processing into a deadly weapon, the pirates, who had stalled their train heist, reappear, and try to derail (pun intended) their plans once again. The pirates have them surrounded, and that's when the pirate leader removes her mask, to reveal the face of a young, red-headed girl. She then shares with Han and the gang that Crimson Dawn is essentially a colonising entity that, in turn, works for the Empire, and Beckett and Han’s heist to steal fuel would actually have helped the Empire consolidate and extend its rule. Her troops mark the dawn of the Rebellion against the Imperial forces.

Ron Howard (Apollo 13, The Missing, The Da Vinci Code) directed the film, though he arrived after the franchise split with original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, over creative differences. Howard keeps it simple. Very little fore-knowledge is mandated to comprehend what is going on, which is not the case in many other sci-fi and super-hero series.

Showing consideration, he kills off only one female robot and a couple of the bad guys. Well, Solo and Chewbacca just could not die, could they? while Lando and Val were so much fun. As regards Solo himself, there is no redemption in the offing. He has developed into a professional gun for hire, smuggling and looting for filthy lucre. Never mind. He was always such a lovable rogue. Do we miss Harrison Ford? You bet. Do we miss 76 year-old Harrison Ford as Han Solo? You don’t bet!

Alden Ehrenreich (Hail Caesar, Rules Don’t Apply, The Yellow Bird) plays Han Solo, the innocent orphan who gets sucked into the world of ruthless mercenaries. He looks and acts the part. It has been reported that Harrison Ford met with Ehrenreich, giving him some insight and words of advice. In some ways, Alden reminds us of Leonardo Di Caprio. Woody Harrelson (the Hunger Games, War for the Planet of the Apes, Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri) as Tobias Beckett makes hid stubble a part of his character that, say the writers, is based on Long John Silver from Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Emilia Clarke (Terminator Genisys, Me Before You, Voice from the Stone) as Qi'ra, a glamorous lady in a really sordid environment--“What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”—fits very well into both modes. Donald Glover (Magic Mike XXL, The Martian, Spider-Man: Homecoming) as Lando Calrissian is not much different from any black rapper or star doin’ the same thing, including the original Lando, Billy Dee Williams, yet it is fun.

Thandie Newton (Besieged, Beloved, Mission Impossible II) as Val Beckett: Beckett's wife, a fellow criminal and member of her husband's crew, has a relatively small role. Spare a tear for Phoebe Waller-Bridge, L3-37, Lando's droid companion, who meets her demise, dying fighting. Joonas Suotamo (6’ 11’; Star Wars: The Force Awakens) is seen as Chewbacca, a role he shares with Peter Mayhew (Star Wars: The Last Jedi as Chewbacca). Little to judge, in terms of acting, unless one gets a grant to study grunts.

Erin Kellyman as Enfys Nest is inspired and motivated. Paul Bettany (English actor; Mortdecai, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War—as vision or voice of J.A.R.V.I.S. First major role on the franchises) as Dryden Vos, is a replacement for Michael K. Williams, because the latter was unable to find time for re-shooting. The character too, changed, from a motion-capture alien to a scarred human. It bears repetition that we have found a super-villain in the Bond franchise mould. Linda Hunt lends her voice to Lady Proxima, the giant alien creature who lives wallows in water. Jon Favreau, director of The Jungle Book, plays Rio Durant, a miniature four-armed alien who pilots at Imperial AT-Hauler.

A major star of the movie is the music composer, and in a film full of a gazillion sound effects, that is some achievement. Two Johns deserve kudos: the inimitable John Williams, who composed the original Solo theme, and John Powell, who was responsible for scores of films like Jason Bourne, Pan, How To Train Your Dragon 2, Rio 2, Ice Age - Continental Drift, and Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. A new Han Solo theme by John Williams and the rest of the background score was recorded at Abbey Road Studios. Compelling results!

Co-incidentally, the US release of the film is today, May 25, 2018, the 41st anniversary of the release of Star Wars: Episode IV--A New Hope, in which Harrison Ford first appeared as Han Solo—and the film has been released in India on the same day: today.

Take a 135-minute tour of hyperspace, but also be prepared for some red traffic lights.

Rating: ***


Coming-up: Parmanu—The Story of Pokhran

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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