4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
“SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY”
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital copy; 2018; PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence; streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play, iTunes, Vudu (4K), YouTube
Best extra: Roundtable with director Ron Howard and the cast, as Howard describes the day George Lucas showed up at Pinewood Studios in London for his first day as the new director.
SOMEWHERE WITHIN the deep shadows, the fog and dimly lit photography, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is a pretty good addition to the franchise for a character Harrison Ford created 41 years ago.
One persistent problem keeps “Solo” from becoming one of the canon’s elite like “The Empire Strikes Back,” “A New Hope” and “The Force Awakens”: the near-unrelenting visual darkness hanging over the film from start to finish. It’s as if a great, dark cloud has fallen over the screen, especially during the first 90-minutes. It’s very apparent in the Blu-ray, but reduces the 4K viewing pleasure as well.
The absent of light diminishes contrast from shadows to highlights. In many scenes, we can’t see facial expressions. The sparkle in Han Solo’s and love interest Qi’ra’s eyes is missing. That’s a mean thing to do to Alden Ehrenreich and “Game of Thrones’” Emilia Clarke. It was tough to follow the British actress’ voice at the beginning; I couldn’t even see who was talking. Others will most likely have the same issue, not connecting with the characters because we can’t see their mouths moving.
Who’s to blame? A number of highly skilled professionals might be responsible. First, there’s Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, also the film’s producer, who greenlit dailies with the subdued lighting. Perhaps she thought the scenes would brighten during post-production. That’s possible in digital editing.
Kennedy had no problem firing the original directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the duo behind the delightful “The Lego Movie” and action-comedy “21 Jump Street,” because of “creative differences.” It’s reported they were at least at the midway point or further when they got the ax. Veteran director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind,” “Apollo 13”) was brought in to finish the film, with its nearly $300 million budget, and ensure stability.
Bottom line, the real problem rests with cinematographer Bradford Young. He applied a similar dim-lighting technique for his Oscar-nominated work on sci-fi thriller “Arrival.” It worked there since the natural lighting was slightly brighter with pockets of bright highlights.
Here, Young takes “Solo” too far into the dark side. Many shots are exposed for a strong bright backlight, which causes faces to go extremely dark unless photographers reflect or pump artificial light back into the scene. Young mostly used natural sunlight or practical lights for set decorating as his main source. This technique gives a natural experience to what the human eye sees, all made possible by the usage of digital cameras with very sensitive chips. Traditional 35mm film would’ve required stronger lighting with bolder contrast levels to expose the film stock.
The script is by “Star Wars’” master Lawrence Kasdan, who penned three of the previous films, “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi” and “The Force Awakens.” He teamed with his son, Jonathan, and they developed a cool, high-speed train heist capturing a shipment of coaxium, which Young decided would happen at predawn matching the other dark scenes. Howard says there’s enough light for the sequence to work. Just barely.
The Kasdan’s were inspired by “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” and its “fun criminal spirit,” Jonathan says during one of the nine featurettes included on a bonus Blu-ray and on streaming sites. Its designed liked a rollercoaster ride on an elevated mountain track that tilts and twists and a counterweight train on the bottom as the two trains rotate from top to bottom. The Italian Dolomites with their rugged, rocky peaks were the backdrop.
in the featurette “Kasdan on Kasdan,” Senior says he had always wanted to explore Solo’s younger self, the free-spirited guy we first met in that cantina at the Mos Eisley spaceport.
We first see Solo on the mean streets of Corellia, with its series of causeways and where he hustles for a living, hoping not to provoke crime boss Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt), a giant worm hypersensitive to daylight. He ends up fleeing Corellia, leaving Qi’ra behind after her arrest, but vowing to return for her. Solo joins the Empire’s flight academy to fulfill his dream of becoming a pilot. After getting kicked out, he finds himself in the Imperial Army in an endless WWI-like trench war, where he discovers criminals Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) disguised as a military officer, and his partner Val (Thandie Newton).
They double cross Solo, who is thrown into a mud pit with “The Beast” – who just happens to be Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Solo can speak enough Wookiee to save himself, and a beautiful friendship begins.
As Beckett commandeers a military transport, Solo and Chewie wave down and convince Beckett to let them join his gang of smugglers for the big heist – featuring the comical four-armed Rio Durant as pilot, part practical effects and part-CG, and voiced by actor/director Jon Favreau (“Ironman,” “Elf”), improvising as he goes.
Eventually, they end up at the dark and gloomy Fort Ypso lodge in the middle of nowhere, a tough, seedy bar, where shady characters like Lando Calrissian played by the debonair Donald Glover – one of the film’s high points – steal most of the scenes. Solo and Calrissian play a space-age poker game, Sabacc, with the Millennium Falcon as the prize. Solo hopes to pay back the evil Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) for losing goods that were hijacked by Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman) and her team of pirates.
Lucasfilms continues to master its recent films in 4K, sourced from either 35mm film or from the 3.4K and 6.5K digital files (2.39:1 aspect ratio). It looks sensational during the final 30 minutes of “Solo,” the only section that’s captured during normal daylight, with plenty of clarity and evidence of the expansive HDR toning. Colors are mostly subdued throughout for a desaturated look. Most of the color is barely visible, with an almost black-and-white look. Honestly, maybe it should have been released with a film noir option, the way Fox released “Logan” on 4K and Blu-ray.
The Dolby Atmos track is uneventful; the level is deliberately 5 to 6 decibels lower than the rest of the 4K and Blu-rays released by other studios. Yes, a simple bump in volume helps, but still, the bass lacks the punch found on the Lucasfilm/Disney Blu-ray of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” The effects and John Powell’s score, using several music cues from John Williams’ original score, are peppered throughout, and pushed to height speakers and around the room.
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” suffered a box office backlash from lifelong fans who were disheartened by the direction “Star Wars The Last Jedi” took and simply boycotted the film. Its worldwide box office fell just short of $400 million, meaning it probably didn’t break even. “Rogue One,” the other film outside the Episode series, hit over $1 billion. After the lackluster “Solo,” Lucasfilm has suspended plans for future spin-offs beyond the true “Star Wars” films.
Meanwhile, we’ll see if that lighting strategy continues from Kennedy and company.
― Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
Behind the scenes - Train Heist