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I know people who think Rogue One is the best movie ever made within the Star Wars universe, and I also know people who think it’s the worst. While my own opinion goes to neither extreme, it’s a polarization that points to something indisputable: In a franchise in which manufactured uniformity has often been the ideal, Rogue One is an outlier, the one movie that’s wholly different in tone, style and characterization.
Since it’s a prequel to Rogue One, Disney+’s new drama series Andor doesn’t have quite the same outlier status. But just as Rogue One was a bracing palate cleanser from big screen stories of Jedis and Skywalkers, Andor feels in all ways its own creature after the variably successful Disney+ exercises in fan service that were The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi. It may be the first Star Wars project that critics have ever needed to refer to as “slow” and definitely the first that needs to come with the warning: “The first two episodes will probably bore younger viewers to tears.” But at the same time, I appreciated its efforts to create a wholly grounded and mostly ground-level piece of storytelling in this world.
Will it all pay off in rousing fashion, as Rogue One did? Who knows, but through the four episodes sent to critics, Andor has me debating distinctions between “different” and “good” (it’s definitely the former, occasionally the latter); between “interesting” and “entertaining” (it’s usually the former, increasingly more of the latter as it goes along).
Created by Tony Gilroy and directed in early episodes by Toby Haynes and then Susanna White, Andor begins five years before Rogue One and reintroduces us to Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor on Morgana One, a rainy planet under corporate control. After a failed attempt to find his sister at a classy brothel, Cassian has an ill-fated run-in with a pair of glorified mall cops, but thanks to some quick thinking, he escapes to his home on the mining planet of Ferrix.
At this point, Cassian is more of an economically desperate scavenger than the cocky mercenary we met in Rogue One. But he has a piece of purloined Imperial technology that he thinks could make him a lot of money if his pal Bix (Adria Arjona) can just connect him to the right buyer, which may or may not be Stellan Skarsgard’s Luthen Real.
Meanwhile, what happened on Morgana One attracts the attention of Kyle Soller’s Syril, part of an Imperial security team looking to seize control of the galaxy and one of those petulant man-child authority figures who reliably rise to power in this sphere. Syril goes in pursuit of Cassian, who must run from his past — his childhood on a doomed planet is explored in flashbacks as really rudimentary character development — or toward his destiny.
That description, which spoils nothing and tells you nothing likely to make you watch Andor, includes details stretching into the third episode. Disney+ is wisely deciding to launch the series with those first three episodes, because the level of annoyance if the show rolled out one at a time would have been epic.
The first two episodes are generally formless, convincing neither as episodic television nor as a 74-minute movie. After the stylish preamble, they’re basically action-free and I don’t honestly think they do much to make Cassian more interesting as a character. It’s a lot of legwork to make us understand that Cassian is in debt and that he and law enforcement don’t get along well, but I think similar points could have been made far more efficiently.
But I didn’t dislike the first two episodes, because they’re as close as we’re ever going to get to a Ken Loach Star Wars movie. My favorite part of Obi-Wan Kenobi was the first half of the first episode, in which our protagonist mostly went to work, struggled through shifts at a soul-sucking job and came home to eat a lackluster dinner alone. Talk about relatable! Even that, though, had the relative comfort of its Tatooine settings, jawas and various adorable background CG creatures.
Before that series went off on fan-friendly Muppet Babies Star Wars adventures, it briefly was about how much it sucks to be an ordinary, blue-collar person in this universe, with no access to the Force and no hope of upward mobility.
The first two episodes of Andor are that and then some. Cassian is a sad and desperate character and Ferrix is a sad and desperate planet. Instead of cute critters and anthropomorphized robots, it’s all scrapyards, warehouses and industrial pollution. Even the robots all seem to be poorly refurbished and several system upgrades behind.
The planet is already under the thumb of corporate interests and corporate authority, and knowing what we know about what’s coming as the Empire takes over, the prospects are only downward. We see in little glimpses the way these struggling people find outlets, whether it’s Cassian and his use of the black market or even sex. Sure, it’s sex on a Disney+ level — Luna and Arjona are actors who smolder even in coveralls — but Andor features a red-light district, the aforementioned brothel and even the first booty call I remember in the Star Wars universe. There’s no nudity or thrusting, but I appreciated the implication that in a context this dreary, people would be equally likely to turn to boinking or revolution.
The gap between the haves and have-nots — see why I warned you that this is gonna bore Generation Baby Yoda to tears? — is illustrated further by the series’ arrival on the opulent capital planet of Coruscant in the fourth episode, with exquisite contrasts drawn by production designer Luke Hull.
By that time, Cassian has finally gone in the direction of the event that will actually be the season’s main plotline, an opportunity that relies on our conviction that he has a very high-level assortment of skills, something those first two episodes fail to illustrate in any way. Rogue One‘s treatment of the character was primarily as a contrast to early Han Solo as devil-may-care rapscallions. With additional character-building time, the first two episodes of Andor set up a simple origin, but they fail to give Luna anything new and notable to play or Cassian any attractive shadings.
Stuck in the character’s glumness, Luna is constantly being upstaged by other actors, including Fiona Shaw as a woman from Cassian’s past, and then Skarsgard, whose arrival marks an easy-to-recognize point at which Andor begins finally to become fun for an hour. That’s followed by a fourth episode that’s primarily beautiful scenic backdrops and new characters introducing themselves to each other.
Soller (Broadway’s The Inheritance) is giving easily my favorite performance in these first two episodes, but since he’s playing a character who is making the choice between weakness and evil, I’m expecting a lot of knee-jerk “He sucks, I hate him” responses. Kathryn Hunter appears for two seconds as Syril’s mother and her mere presence — watch Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth if you haven’t already — filled me with both excitement and dread, because if ever an actor was made to be a Star Wars breakout, it’s Hunter, a walking special effect in a series that’s impressively light (or subtle) when it comes to its effects.
So after four episodes of Andor, that leaves me most invested in the bad guy, curious to see how they’re going to use Hunter and a little perplexed on why Gilroy and his writers don’t seem to know what medium they’re telling this story in. But if that sounds negative, at the same time I’m more curious to see what unseen corners of the galaxy Andor takes viewers to than I ever was by the pandering — “Hey, remember Jabba? What if there were two Hutts?” or “Remember Princess Leia, what if she was a little girl?” — of the most recent couple of Disney+ series.
Andor doesn’t instantly deliver the thrills I expect from a Star Wars show, but it’s different and that may turn out to be the best thing about it.
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