Solo: A Star Wars Letdown

There aren’t a whole lot of films that could open to over $100 million at the box office and legitimately be considered a major disappointment. Those pictures generally belong in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or other massive franchises. For instance, if next month’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom only makes that figure, that would be bad news for Universal Pictures and the series long-term viability.

Of course, there is no franchise bigger than that of Star Wars. Spanning over four decades and now on its 10th feature, there had yet to be a true example of an entry coming in well below expectations. Until now. Solo: A Star Wars Story, just a week ago or so, was projected to set the Memorial Day weekend record by outpacing the $139 million earned in 2007 by another Disney property, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

It didn’t. Like… at all. The current four-day estimate (final numbers tomorrow) puts Solo at $103 million. I had pegged it at $151 million. Oops. That actually puts it at just #7 as far as the holiday goes. That’s not only behind Pirates, but after Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, XMen: The Last Stand, Fast & Furious 6, XMen: Days of Future Past, and even The Hangover Part II. Ouch.

So the natural question… why? Predicting where the money earned by moviegoers at the box office is a tricky proposition… I try to estimate it every week. Sometimes I’m great at it and sometimes not (this would obviously be a case of the latter). Solo is the second stand-alone effort in the franchise behind 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. While they’re not expected to make the coin that the official episodes take in, Rogue debuted to $155 million in three days just a year and a half ago.

This latest entry focuses on an iconic character that has more name recognition than all the people (with a notable exception or two) in Rogue One put together. Sure there’s backlash about an actor other than Harrison Ford playing him, but that wasn’t expected to spark a hugely worrisome backlash as far as box office numbers.

Could it be the reviews? That might be a bit of it. Solo stands at 70% on Rotten Tomatoes and that’s low for this franchise. Yet that rating isn’t terrible or anything. My own review used the word ambivalent for my overall reaction to it:

And therein could lie the true key. Looking over the lengthy history of the series, Star Wars films have truly been Event Pictures. Ones that are breathlessly awaited and spawn endless speculation prior to their releases. The original trilogy saw three-year gaps between releases. It was then 16 years before the second and considerably less regarded trilogy arrived and they also saw three-year waits between servings. Those like me that remember the buildup to 1999’s The Phantom Menace (no matter how much it disappointed upon release) would argue it rivaled and probably exceeded that of The Force Awakens in 2015.

Since Disney took over the release reigns, we have been guaranteed a Star Wars pic a year. That tremendously dilutes the Event Picture status. Rogue One had the benefit of arriving a year after Force Awakens set every box office record. The Last Jedi didn’t match the grosses of Awakens… to the tune of $316 million less. That said, its $620 million haul is nothing to be too worried about.

Solo arriving only five months later and with so-so buzz left it as the least anticipated Star Wars experience to date. The barely nine figure gross out of the gate showed that audiences were a bit ambivalent about it.

Will that cause the Mouse Factory to rethink the release date pattern? It’s probably a good thing that Episode IX won’t be out until December 2019. The official episodes, by the way, will always have an anticipation factor that the stand-alone variety will not. And Disney might want to consider making those side projects feel a little more special or that ambivalence might continue to grow.

Solo: A Star Wars Story Movie Review

I have an ambivalent feeling about this. And there I am with Solo: A Star Wars Story, which is competently directed and acted, has the impressive battle scenes you expect in this franchise, and manages to be underwhelming at the same time. It is the first occurrence of Disney’s resurgence of the forty-year plus series seeming inconsequential, a feeling that didn’t permeate Rogue One (2016’s first stand-alone entry in the galaxy far far away).

Here is a franchise, more than any other, that elicits strong emotions from its legions of fans both positively and negatively. After all, the original episodes IV-VI trilogy has inspired generations of filmmakers and other blockbusters. Episode I-III sparked a backlash where its multitude of detractors still foam at the mouth speaking of it. Even last year’s The Last Jedi had vigorous supporters and naysayers extolling its virtues or pitfalls.

Solo shouldn’t be picked part in that manner. Oh, it probably will. Yet my reaction is it doesn’t really deserve that much scrutiny. This is basically a breezy heist flick transplanted into a familiar cinematic universe. The backlash of casting a younger actor to fill the shoes of a role Harrison Ford made iconic? It’s not a disaster by any means, but Alden Ehrenreich isn’t memorable either. No surprise but when you hear the words Han Solo after viewing this, you’ll think of the older one with fondness.

The picture shows us a youthful Han wishing to become a pilot and willing to team up with unsavory characters to do so. He has an insubordinate streak that naturally rejects the evil ways of the Empire, but he hardly considers himself a hero. We know better. The love of his current life is Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), who he’s separated from and makes a vow to rescue from Imperial servitude from villainous Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Han needs a ship to make that happen and that costs money. His mission leads him to partner with thief Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his crew. Oh and there’s a notable Wookie involved and a swagger filled Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). And that ship he finds… like you don’t know…

Han’s journeys take him to multiple galaxies with a second half that feels like one continuous action sequence. There are, of course, nods to the franchise lore. Solo, though, feels the most removed from everything we’ve seen before. If it often has the vibe of a cash grab to fill time between traditional episodes, that’s because it kind of is. Ron Howard took over the behind the camera duties after the well-publicized removal of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord months into production. I didn’t have a strange sense of competing visions while viewing it. If anything, Howard certainly seems like the filmmaker here with its workmanlike sensibilities and lack of genuine style.

The cast is filled with familiar faces putting in serviceable performances. Glover gets a couple of moments to shine, but my favorite supporting work came from the more unfamiliar Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the voice of sassy droid L3. Bettany is a decent villain in a series with previous monumental ones. As mentioned, the conventions of the heist genre are all present with double crosses aplenty.

The Star Wars series is one in which the fans rarely forget a detail. Solo: A Star Wars Story is ultimately rather forgettable. Sure it’s an easy watch, but focusing deeply on it seems like giving it too much credit.

**1/2 (out of four)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Movie Review

The 20th and just wrapped season of “South Park” essentially posited a theory that a lot of the love for last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens was due to our nostalgia goggles being tuned up to 11. In short, Trey Parker and Matt Stone came to the conclusion that Force really wasn’t very good. It was just that we were hungry for that feeling we had from Episodes IV-VI (I-III not so much).

Comedy Central’s show made their position clear through the ingenious creation of Member Berries, talking fruits who constantly reminded us of Star Wars characters and situations from decades ago. In other words, to Parker and Stone – The Force Awakens was partially just two hours of ” ‘Memba Han Solo?!?!?!” and ” ‘Memba R2D2?!?!?!”.

This is a feeling that many of the Star Wars legions of fans share in that Force was too much of a rehash of the beloved 1977 original. It’s fair criticism and somewhat true, but I personally felt it didn’t really take away from it being a very satisfying experience.

Another hallmark of South Park’s season (and the one before that) is that it’s been serialized into one long plot line over ten episodes. For 18 seasons, the show never did that. When we get to season 21, there are hints it could go back to the past as the finale was titled “The End of Serialization As We Know It”.

Why all the South Park talk? ‘Memba you’re supposed to be writing a review of the new Star Wars?!?!?! Well, I just love the show, but it also dovetails into Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which marks the first interruption of this cherished franchise’s serialization. We have our inaugural spin-off in the series. The first without a Roman numeral episode behind the title. When Disney paid George Lucas billions of dollars to begin producing new titles, it was quickly revealed that we’d get individual stories without episode numbers involved about every other year.

Rogue One is the first and just as The Force Awakens had large expectations attached, so does this. It must simultaneously introduce new characters into that far, far away galaxy while feeding us those Member Berries. It must especially do so because the events in Rogue happen between Episode III (2005’s Revenge of the Sith) and IV (that first entry nearly forty years ago). This is when Darth Vader is alive and well and developing his Death Star to wreak havoc on the planetary system.

‘Memba Daddy issues?!?!?! They’re prevalent everywhere in this franchise and here too. Our central hero is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose scientist father (Mads Mikkelsen) was recruited against his will to develop that evil device Vader pines for. Jyn is separated from him as a child after being rescued from being taken by Imperial forces by Rebel leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Flash forward to Jyn as a young lady when she teams up with defected Imperial pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) and Rebel fighter Cassian (Diego Luna) to find her long captured Pops and stop Vader’s destructive deeds. In true Star Wars fashion, there’s also sidekick droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) providing effective comic relief.

‘Memba strange looking CG effects that hindered the prequels?!?!?! I found them here, but explaining them in detail would move into spoiler territory. I’ll just say there’s one well-known returning character whose inclusion is badly hampered by what I’ll refer to as technical issues.

Gareth Edwards, who last directed 2014’s pretty cool Godzilla reboot, clearly has reverance for the world George Lucas created. Since the happenings here directly lead to what we saw in 1977, Edwards does an often remarkable job in getting the look down for what transitions into Luke, Leia, and Han. The final third of Rogue One is non-stop action and it’s well-developed and thrilling. There’s not a performance I can complain about (at least not the live-action ones) and particular stand-outs include Ben Mendelsohn, an Imperial baddie trying to impress Boss Vader and Donnie Yen as a blind warrior whose belief in the Force is quite strong.

Yet this end of serialization as we know it for Star Wars presented this critic with some perhaps unavoidable challenges. I found it tough to get as involved in the central characters knowing that this is a one off picture. The Force Awakens gave us newbies mixed with oldies where we know their saga will evolve and grow. That’s not the case here. Therefore it’s often the case in Rogue One that the most memorable moments involve Member Berries being served to us as opposed to enjoying what is new. ‘Memba that feeling of dread mixed with excitement hearing James Earl Jones voice one of the greatest villains in film history?!?!?! Of course you do. You loved it then and will love it again.

*** (out of four)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Movie Review

When the famous line “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” appears and the Star Wars emblem rockets across the screen, it evokes a series of emotions that is familiar to any lover of the franchise. It changes from generation to generation but is likely strongest with those old enough to recall the first time seeing it in 1977 when the original premiered. The first Star Wars was a cultural phenomenon from the get go. It solidified what we now know as the modern blockbuster era. Its sequel The Empire Strikes Back improved upon it. Return of the Jedi ended the trilogy on a satisfactory if more uneven note. I was not alive in 1977 and I witnessed the series in a weekend of VHS viewing where I was captivated like legions of film lovers across the globe.

By the time George Lucas got around to making his prequel trilogy, I was age 19 at the time of The Phantom Menace. Like all other fans of what came before it, I anticipated Menace breathlessly and like many others, it was a letdown in many fashions. It didn’t really look like a Star Wars pic. More like a video game. In all honesty, the concept of watching the eventual Darth Vader as a precocious child wasn’t really necessary. Follow ups Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were improvements in some ways (especially Sith) yet still didn’t come close to matching the magic of the real trilogy (as I refer to it).

Therefore it was with a sense of major excitement mixed with some trepidation that I awaited Star Wars: The Force Awakens, episode VII of the franchise that picks up about 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. George Lucas sold the rights to Disney, who have grand Marvel style plans for the series. J.J. Abrams, who successfully reinvigorated the Star Trek flicks, is behind the camera. The beloved trio of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and Princess (now General) Leia (Carrie Fisher) would return along with Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C-3PO. A new generation of heroes and villains would emerge. The three year wait is finally over and the question is ready to be answered: does Force have the force to bring Star Wars back in the good graces of those who cherish it? The answer is mostly an unqualified and resounding yes.

Episode VII informs us that Luke Skywalker has vanished and the evil First Order (spawned from Darth Vader’s galactic empire) has restored its dominance despite a resistance led by Leia. The Resistance is desperately attempting to obtain a map containing Luke’s whereabouts that is built into BB-8, a droid that is pretty adorable in a manner in which Jar Jar Binks sure wasn’t. One of the leaders of the movement is pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), whose character doesn’t have much impact in these proceedings but likely will in future installments. He teams with Storm Trooper gone good Finn (John Boyega) on the mission to find Skywalker. And that BB-8 droid leads them to Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young girl who has a connection with The Force. Their union soon brings them to Han, Chewie, and the now relic called the Millennium Falcon to fight First Order Commander Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).

As we’d expect, there are some revelations about who some of the characters actually are. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling them here. J.J. Abrams is keenly aware of our nostalgia goggles and he presents a vision that hearkens back to the original in both plot and tone. This is a plus. J.J. and his cowriters Lawrence Kasdan (who penned Empire and Jedi) and Michael Arndt are clearly cognizant of the expectation to start anew while rewarding what we adore about episodes IV-VI. There is much plot to roll out, but Awakens does so at a usually brisk pace throwing in the epic battles that look more like we wish for in any entry since 1983.

The John Williams score and special effects are, of course, top notch. Of the returnees, Mr. Ford is given the most material and provides Solo wisecracks and some emotion. Fisher acquits herself decently even though Leia is primarily relegated to the sidelines. As for Luke, the filmmakers have been careful to reveal nothing and neither will I. When it comes to the newcomers, we sense that Rey, Finn, and Poe will establish the new trio for the next few years. Here it is Rey that jumps out and much of that is due to a fine performance from Miss Ridley. Boyega’s Finn has his moments along with occasionally clunky dialogue. Driver is quite effective as Ren and we have a new villain whose motivations create an intriguing dynamic in this universe.

I would rank The Force Awakens as the third best pic in the series, after the first two (slightly above Jedi). Abrams and company accomplish something Lucas ultimately could not with episodes I-III. We care more about the actions transpiring here than with anything from 1999-2005. This is a franchise awakened in a way we have not seen in over 30 years. For those who might have had a bad feeling about this, fear not.

***1/2 (out of four)

Oscar Watch – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This weekend, Star Wars: The Force Awakens looks poised and primed to demolish box office records. It’s sold $100 million in pre-sale tickets (a previously unimaginable figure). The Disney marketing machine has been in hyper drive. Hyperbole it is not to say this is the most eagerly anticipated picture of the 21st century.

Over the last few months, I’ve been writing my Oscar predictions and now it’s to the point where I’m doing weekly predictions as we draw closer to the actual nominations coming in January. Through it, Star Wars has hung out there like a giant question mark. If it got rave reviews, could it potentially become a player not just to smash records, but to enter the Oscar fray?

Today the landscape has become clearer as the review embargo has been lifted on the eve of its release. And the word that’s emerged is glowing like Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. Based on 127 reviews so far, The Force Awakens stands at a magnificent 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. I’ll confess that I’m being careful not to read the reviews (I’ll be seeing it Sunday and my own review will be on the blog that day), but the consensus is undeniably that this is a welcome return to the most beloved franchise in history.

Does that mean The Force Awakens could become the first entry in the series to nab a Best Picture nomination since the original in 1977? Yes… it does. Is it guaranteed? No and my predictions on Friday likely won’t have it making the cut. However, as it premieres to what could be history making numbers and with critics on its side, the forces could align to include it and possibly J.J. Abrams in the directing race. Stay tuned…

Box Office Predictions: December 18-20

It’s a weekend that box office prognosticators like myself have been waiting for all year long! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the fourth Alvin and the Chipmunks film has arrived!!!

OK… in all seriousness, you may have heard of the big picture arriving this weekend called Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The seventh episode of the beloved franchise has been breathlessly awaited and it stands a shot at breaking pretty much every box office record there is. I truly feel it could gross anywhere from $170-$275 million out of the gate so I basically split the difference. That means my prediction does have it devouring the all time opening weekend record posted by Jurassic World this summer. It is worth noting that other estimators are saying this will come under what Jurassic accomplished, but we shall see. You can read my detailed prediction post on it here:

Somewhat surprisingly, other studios are premiering new product in hopes of serving as counter programming to The Force. We have the aforementioned Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip and Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy Sisters. I look for them to have fairly soft openings and have a close competition for second place. On the bright side, both titles could continue to play well and experience small declines into further holiday weekends. My prediction posts on both of them can be found here:

As for holdovers, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 will finally fall from its four week perch atop the charts. In the Heart of the Sea got off to a lackluster start (more on that below) and I actually expect it to drop farther percentage wise than The Good Dinosaur and Creed.

And with that, my top seven predictions for what could be a historic weekend:

  1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Predicted Gross: $234.7 million

2. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip

Predicted Gross: $14.3 million

3. Sisters

Predicted Gross: $13.9 million

4. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

Predicted Gross: $7 million (representing a drop of 38%)

5. The Good Dinosaur

Predicted Gross: $6.8 million (representing a drop of 36%)

6. Creed

Predicted Gross: $6.3 million (representing a drop of 37%)

7. In the Heart of the Sea

Predicted Gross: $5.6 million (representing a drop of 49%)

Box Office Results: December 11-13

Ron Howard’s $100 million whale tale In the Heart of the Sea with Chris Hemsworth was crushed by a wave of audience ambivalence with a gross of just $11 million, well under my $18.4M estimate. The pic, which received mixed reviews, simply didn’t capture the attention of adventure fans who may be biding their time until this weekend.

That allowed The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 to stay #1 for the fourth weekend in a row with $11.3 million, just topping my $10.5M projection. The franchise finale has taken in $244 million.

Pixar’s disappointing The Good Dinosaur was third with $10.5 million, ahead of my $9.4M prediction for a total of $89 million. This is well below the standards of what its studio is accustomed to and it remains on track to be Pixar’s smallest earner. On the bright side for parent company Disney, they’ve got a pretty high profile release out this weekend…

Creed took fourth with $10.1 million, a bit higher than my $9.1M estimate for an overall tally of $79 million. This looks to be the first Rocky flick to top $100M since Rocky IV some thirty years ago.

Krampus was fifth in its second weekend with $8.4 million, topping my $7.3M projection. Its taken in a tidy $28 million at press time and is performing solidly for a relatively low budget horror comedy.

And that’ll do it for now, folks! Until next time… May The Force Be With You…

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Box Office Prediction

It is not only the most anticipated film of the year but probably of the 21st century. This is not hyperbole. 38 years after George Lucas changed the movie industry forever with Star Wars, the baton has been passed to J.J. Abrams with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, out December 18. We’ve seen over a decade pass since the unevenly received second trilogy that ran from 1999-2005. This marked the end of Mr. Lucas’s involvement in the franchise and the end of 20th Century Fox producing the entries (no iconic Fox music before “In a galaxy far, far away” may take a little getting used to).

Instead we have Disney taking over the most beloved franchise in silver screen history and we’ve repeatedly seen their brilliance at marketing blockbusters (think Marvel Cinematic Universe). The Force Awakens has been omnipresent for months and it’s ramped up to the point where every other commercial seems to be connected somehow to it. The official trailers and TV spots have been events. It’s sold $100 million dollars at press time in pre-sale tickets, which was previously an unimaginable haul. With all the exposure, the studio has done a truly remarkable job in keeping plot details under wraps.

We know this: original trilogy stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher return in the iconic roles of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia. A new generation makes up the supporting cast that includes John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, and Domhnall Gleeson. Oh and there’s Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C-3PO.

For those of us old enough to remember the breathless anticipation afforded to 1999’s Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, it’s probably the only thing that compares in the past couple of decades. There are many hotly anticipated blockbusters but Star Wars is simply on a different planet.

So now the nine figure question: how much will The Force Awakens earn its opening weekend? How much is it capable of making? Will its debut set the all time record? Fascinating queries indeed, these are.

We begin with this: the current record holder came out just this summer when Jurassic World earned $208.8 million, which edged out previous champ The Avengers at $207 million. I’m sure Disney would love to get that record back that the dinosaurs took away in June. These are the only two pictures that have made over $200M out of the gate. Both were released in summer, as are seven of the all time top ten domestic premieres.

None came out in December and this is not an inconsequential point. In fact, the current highest December debut belongs to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It made $84 million and that’s good for just the 57th largest opening ever. Truth be told, even massive blockbusters that open in December usually open smaller than they might in the summer. 2009’s Avatar began with $77 million before becoming the biggest stateside grosser ever. The reason is simple: Christmas time releases tend to play well over multiple weekends while similar summer titles make the bulk of their coin immediately.

Let’s dispatch with the glaringly obvious: The Force Awakens will obliterate the December record. At worst, it should double The Hobbit’s initial earnings. Frankly, guessing what Star Wars is capable of is a dicey proposition, but the low end of estimates is around $170-$175 million. If it managed that, it would sincerely be a fine start.

Yet there is a suspicion that Jurassic’s six month long record could be headed for extinction. The combo of Disney hype and a true love across all ages for the series has contributed to an Event Experience we rarely witness. What’s the highest it could go? Honestly, I don’t know. The figure of $300 million has been mentioned. That seems a bit crazy, but you just never know. There’s part of me that believes $275-$280 million might just be reachable and another that feels it could fall short of the record with around $185-$205 million.

What’s a box office predicting blogger to do? Split the difference. With this wide range of possibilities, I’ll project that Star Wars: The Force Awakens will achieve the best American opening ever and by a rather considerable margin. I’ll be one among many speculating over the next ten days before its debut, but my two cents is in, my friends. Let’s see what happens!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens opening weekend prediction: $234.7 million

For my Sisters prediction, click here:

For my Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip prediction, click here: