One of our key perceptions of the Star Wars universe is that the stories being told have to be huge. The title points to and practically demands interstellar scope on all levels.
Nobody has quite attempted to do a filmed Star Wars story accentuating intimacy. No, not the “Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo” kind of intimacy, but the kind where two nerf herders sit on a sand dune, contemplate the moons and converse. I’m talking Waiting for Godot, if “Godot” were the name of an adorable furry mine worker from Mygeeto.
The Mandalorian, which premiered its first episode in the early hours of Tuesday morning on Disney+, probably won’t be that intimate Star Wars story either, but through that pilot, the thing that struck me first was how small, relatively speaking, it is. The premiere is still fun and packed with technical marvels that devoted Star Wars fans never could have even fathomed appearing on TV a decade ago. It’s just small.
Written by Jon Favreau and directed by Dave Filoni (Star Wars Rebels), the pilot clocks in at less than 40 minutes, which is barely enough time to establish a premise, much less characters. Nearly everything we think we’re introduced to in the premiere could be undone in short order.
Our ostensible hero has no name. He’s a Mandalorian bounty hunter and he seems to sound like actor Pedro Pascal, but since he doesn’t take off his mask for the entire pilot and gives no biographical details, I don’t know if Pascal is under the mask or if it’s just a vocal modulation doohickey, and neither do you. He’s traveling the universe solo in a beat-up space vessel tracking down bail jumpers and the occasional smuggler. None of it is lucrative.
Then Greef Carga (Carl Weathers), kinda his bounty hunter dispatch, offers the Mandalorian a plum gig, or at least sends him to a client (Werner Herzog) who offers him a plum gig: Using only limited information, a vague location and a sensor fob or something, he has to get an unknown target in exchange for a substantial quantity of some precious metal. Or something. It’s intentionally vague. So off he goes!
The series is set after the fall of the empire, but it’s a world filled with things even the most casual fans will recognize and the pilot is designed more than anything to be comforting and not off-putting. Remember the first cantina scene in A New Hope? Of course you do. That scene was designed to knock viewers out of any complacent idea they had about the movie’s world, to cycle through one weird alien creature after another. In The Mandalorian, there are a couple scenes in comparable bars or establishments of ill-repute and they’re packed with a near-checklist of oddballs that are completely identifiable. Since The Mandalorian doesn’t have characters we’d met previously in the franchise, it has to set us at ease in other ways, with species and races we know, with technology we’ve seen utilized in other movies. It’s a good way of making sure we don’t get twitchy just because some of us don’t necessary know what a Mandalorian even is and we definitely don’t know who our main character is.
It’s a peculiar review where you can’t say anything at all about the lead performance. He’s a loner and has very little dialogue and that’s about it. I can’t even say much about the physicality or expressiveness Pascal has brought here.
I love having Weathers appear in a serious, straight-forward dramatic role and he conveys stern authority. Herzog is wonderfully Herzogian in his five-minute appearance, confirming that no matter how clunky the dialogue, when delivered with Herzog’s unique cadences and accent, it sounds profound and meaningful. He should be encouraged to redub Attack of the Clones himself. Nick Nolte makes a vocal cameo as an Ugnaught moisture farmer who assists the Mandalorian and proves that Nick Nolte doing a Star Wars character voice basically sounds exactly like Nick Nolte. And then there’s the ultra-literal bounty hunter droid whose name apparently is IG-11 and whose voice is apparently provided by Taika Waititi, though the first is never said and the second is never necessarily clear.
At least for a while, the Mandalorian and IG-11 form a bantering, gunfighting duo as the pilot begins aggressively aping Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, which is about as good a thing to echo as I can imagine. Previously the pilot had been more in the vein of a Clint Eastwood-style Man With No Name genre piece, but one way or another the Western DNA is strong in this one, from Greig Fraser’s widescreen cinematography — watch on your largest available TV, not on your phone or watch — to the wonderful score by Ludwig Göransson that I’d describe as Ennio Morricone by way of the cantina band.
The creature effects and space craft effects are all solid, though I might quibble that some of running effects with the giant biped-tadpole-with-teeth Blurrgs came across as a bit weightless. Where the series feels intimate, or underpopulated, is in the largely vacated city streets, less-than-packed bars and general conflicts. The outside world and franchise context is barely acknowledged. The first half of the pilot has only a single skirmish and it lasts less than 10 seconds. A gatling gun becomes involved in a later fight, but it doesn’t reach the level of a star battle, much less a star war. For most of the running time, it’s just the Mandalorian bopping along from one location to another facing minimal jeopardy and putting no more effort or ingenuity into his quest than the challenges of learning to ride the aforementioned Blurrg. It’s not bad. It’s just small and it moves quickly, but not breathlessly. Then the pilot ends with the first sense of an actual mission for the series. It’s a cliff-hanger that offers a totally effective record-scratch moment and puts everything somewhat in context.
Presumably, that’s what Favreau and Filoni were aiming for, hence premiering with a single episode in a streaming universe that previously demanded binging. I’m guessing that Friday’s second episode will open the story up more, but for now my review of The Mandalorian goes: Small, fun, Werner Herzog and a surprisingly brief running time, that’s unexpected, not unpleasant.
Cast: Pedro Pascal, Carl Weathers, Gina Carano, Werner Herzog, Nick Nolte
Creator: Jon Favreau
Premiered: Tuesday (Disney+)