DisneyPlus has released the 4th chapter of its new Star Wars streaming series, The Mandalorian, which continues to homage the early inspirations of Star Wars, namely the films of Akira Kurosawa (1961’s “Yojimbo”) and classic westerns (in this case, 1953’s “Shane” and 1967’s Italian-made “A Fistful of Dollars”). This week’s chapter , “Sanctuary”, was once again written by series creator Jon Favreau (“Chef” “Iron Man” “Swingers”) and directed by “Jurassic World” star Bryce Dallas Howard.
*****IMPERIAL WALKER-SIZED SPOILERS!!*****
The story sees a peaceful agrarian village on a backwater planet, the locals fishing while their children play with local varieties of frogs. This would be the perfect planet for our hero Mando (Pedro Pascal) to seek refuge with his “Baby Yoda”; these two fugitives have prices on their heads and are looking for a safe heaven. A small, idyllic rural community would seem to be just what the medical droid ordered…
But, of course, paradise isn’t what it seems. This village is subject to bullying raiding parties of dog-faced monstrosities known as “Klatoonians” (a nod to 1951’s “The Day The Earth Stood Still”). These Klatoonians raid the local food supplies and keep the villagers in check with a post-war, repurposed Imperial AT-ST walker (the two-legged AT-scout class were the kid siblings of the more menacing 4-legged AT-AT walkers).
The action then cuts to Mando aboard the Razor Crest, with Baby Yoda (or simply a member of Yoda’s unnamed species) at his side in the cockpit. Eyeing the planet from orbit, he decides to set down, since the rural world seems to be off the radar of any would-be Guild bounty hunters who would bring both Mando and Baby Yoda in for reward.
Upon landing, Mando finds a local tavern where he orders ‘bone broth’ for Baby Yoda. He then sees a tough-looking woman with pieces of armor adorning her clothing, and his immediate worry is that she’s a Guild bounty hunter. In a distracted moment, she disappears from Mando’s view and he leaves to track her, but not before asking the tavern owner to keep an eye on Baby Yoda. Mando is soon ambushed by the mystery woman, named Cara Dune (Gina Carano). Their brief combat ends in a (literal) draw, and they agree to talk. Turns out Cara was a former shock trooper for the Rebel Alliance who’s been doing mercenary work since the fall of the Empire at Endor. She seeks to escape from her former life (“early retirement”) just as Mando is seeking refuge from bounty hunter rifle scopes. She tells him the planet isn’t big enough for the two of them, and Mando agrees to leave (“Looks like this planet is taken”).
Later that night as Mando prepares his ship for departure, two Krill farmers from the village, Stoke (Eugene Cordero) and Caben (Asif Ali), approach him with an offer. They are willing to pay Mando all they have in exchange for protection against the Klatoonians. Mando rejects the offer, as he’s not a mercenary (though he knows someone who is…). The two farmers begin to leave, griping about their dangerous wasted trip to seek Mando’s help (the moment is an homage to the two bickering peasants in Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress”… another early “Star Wars” inspiration). Mando changes his mind when the farmers mention lodging within their village. Presenting the farmers’ offer to Cara as well, Mando realizes that the money and shelter could be mutually beneficial to both.
Finding lodging, Mando meets attractive widow Omera (Julia Jones) and her daughter Winta (Isla Ferris), who takes an immediate liking to baby Yoda (who doesn’t, right? He’s so damn cute…). Mando (despite a mask shielding any facial expression) seems drawn to the peace that a life with Omera and her daughter might offer (the titular ‘sanctuary’). Omera then asks Mando if he ever removes his helmet, and he tells her he hasn’t removed his helmet in the sight of others since before he was the age of the children playing outside (with Baby Yoda). Omera brings him food, but offers to leave so that he may eat unmasked. After she leaves, Mando takes off his helmet for the first time that we see in the series to date. Mando’s head and face are cropped from audience view, but not from the view of the children playing outside. In a rare show of vulnerability, any one of the children could simply look up and see his as-yet-unseen face…
Cara and Mando meet the rest of the townsfolk, and soon realize that the Klatoonians have an AT-ST walker in their arsenal. Realizing that the two of them alone aren’t enough to repel the firepower fo an AT-ST’s twin blaster cannons, they withdraw their offer to the village. But the villagers are adamant; they already paid for their protection.
Out of options, the villagers offer themselves as additional troops. Cara and Mando agree to give them said training in hand-to-hand combat as well as tactical expertise in guerrilla warfare. They create a deep, muddy trench around the village which the bipedal AT-ST will not be able to traverse. This moat will act as the frontline against the machine while the rest of the villagers directly engage the brutal, dog-faced Klatoonians in personal combat. The first step of the offensive will begin with Mando and Cara.
Slipping into the Klatoonian scouts’ camp, Mando and Cara manage to kill most of the dog-faced creatures before blowing up the encampment itself. Stage One of the offensive has begun. Mando and Cara then head back to the village…
As the villagers prepare to take on the Klatoonians with their newfound confidence and training, the appropriated Imperial AT-ST walker cuts through the trees and stops at the muddy trench; the Klatoonian drivers of the machine stop short of treading it, knowing the walker will lose footing in its tenuous muddy waters. The villagers fire their hand blasters (courtesy of Mando’s arsenal) at the metal monster, but its armor is, to quote Luke Skywalker, “too strong for blasters.” Improvising on her earlier strategy, Cara takes Mando’s powerful Ambran rifle (the one with the disintegration option) and tries to lure the machine into the trench herself; she fires at its cockpit, causing it to slip and collapse into the muddy trench. Firing directing into the downed walker’s cockpit windows, they are able to finally stop the formidable machine. The AT-ST is destroyed, the Klatoonians are no longer a threat, the village is safe… for now.
Weeks later, Cara and Mando realize that their actions on this planet will create ripples which will alert the Guild to their presence. They have to leave. As the farewells begin, a grateful Omera says her goodbyes to her savior (and almost paramour). While the two are distracted, Baby Yoda is left unattended and is within the sights of an unknown rifle scope! A laser is fired…and the would-be assassin falls dead to the ground, as Cara stands behind him, her blaster still smoking. Word has got back to the Guild, and Mando’s ‘sanctuary’ is now compromised.
Mando takes Baby Yoda (whose departure breaks a few kids’ hearts, including Omera’s daughter Winta) and says a final goodbye to his ally Cara, as the two fugitives prepares to leave this temporary sanctuary.
What’s Old is New Again.
“Sanctuary” manages to take the AT-ST walker, also known as the ‘chicken walker’, and turn it back into a formidable menace; we only see it at night, with its two reddened cockpit windows resembling a pair of evil glowing eyes. The AT-ST isn’t even fully revealed until the final act of the 41 minute episode; in the opening teaser, we only see its blaster fire. After their somewhat comical demises in “Return of the Jedi” (tripping over and later smashed by Ewok-chopped logs), it was interesting to see this repurposed Imperial war machine become a barely-seen menace, much like the shark in 1975’s “JAWS”.
I also noticed that the homes in the village looked much like the Ralph McQuarrie-designed Wookiee treetop residences seen in both “Revenge of the Sith” (2005) as well as the legendarily awful “Star Wars Holiday Special” (1978).
While there is much to admire and appreciate about “Sanctuary” (strong characters, nice direction) I had a couple of nits with it. My primary gripe was the waaaay overused cliche of the rogue strangers defending a town/village against a marauding force of bandits. Writer/co-creator Jon Favreau has been reissuing other western cliches for this series, but the rogue fighter(s) protecting a helpless village has been recycled one time too many (the films of Akira Kurosawa, 1953’s “Shane”, 1960’s “The Magnificent Seven”, 1967’s “For a Few Dollars More”) . Even within the science fiction genre, I’ve seen this exact same story reused (recycled?) in 1978’s “Battlestar Galactica” (“The Lost Patrol”, “The Magnificent Warriors”) and a bit more recently in 2001’s “Star Trek: Enterprise” (“Marauders”). It’s beat for beat in some instances. While the same old story is well told in this particular incarnation, it is almost entirely without suspense.
A much more minor nit of mine was in the Baby Yoda puppet; for some reason, it looked a bit more plastic in “Sanctuary” than it had in the previous three installments. The movement of the puppet looked a bit more artificial as well. I suspect this may have been for practical reasons; a lot more actors interacted with the Baby Yoda puppet in “Sanctuary” than in the previous three episodes, so this ever-so-slightly less realistic-looking Baby Yoda puppet may have been some sort of ‘stunt’ version with better mobility and interactivity than the slightly more organic-looking version seen previously. It still looks great, and it’s hardly a dealbreaker. I’m only pointing it out because… well, that’s what we geeks do.
Balance to the Force.
One of the early criticisms leveled against this series was that it featured no women in the cast. This was true in the first three episodes, but that point is no longer valid with the introductions of Cara Dune (physically well cast with Mixed Martial Arts fighter Gina Carrano) and Omera (Julia Jones). The two represent diverse examples of woman; one is a burned-out former soldier/mercenary (which what was once a traditionally male type of character) seeking refuge, and the other is a single mother/widow seeking only to live in peace. Both are well-acted, and have the mutual common denominators of both war and motherhood… perseverance and strength.
The original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) didn’t have a lot of strong female representation either; we only saw Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa (a princess turned rebel fighter) and Caroline Blakiston’s Mon Mothma (the political leader of the Rebel Alliance seen in “Return of the Jedi”, later recast with Genevieve O’Reilly for a deleted scene in “Revenge of the Sith” and in “Rogue One”). Yes, there was Luke’s long-suffering Aunt Beru (Shelagh Frasier), but she was closer to the maternal, nurturer stereotype seen so often in pre-enlightened TV shows and movies. Cara Dune and Omera are welcome additions to the Mandalorian’s story.
There are also, of course, some strong women behind the camera of The Mandalorian as well… with two of the chapters (to date) directed by women (Margaret Chow, Bryce Dallas Howard), and, of course, mega-producer Kathleen Kennedy, a former Steven Spielberg collaborator who’s been president of Lucasfilm since 2012. Howard is the star of the last two “Jurassic World” movies and daughter of former child actor/producer/director Ron Howard (who directed 2018’s Star Wars story, “Solo”). Kennedy’s production experience dates back to 1982’s “E.T” and many other high-profile blockbusters. This strong diversity within the cast and crew of The Mandalorian makes for a nicely inclusive Star Wars series.
The Mandalorian, with its fine casting (the helmeted Pedro Pascal continues to amaze), high-caliber cinematography and visual effects, continues to advance the artistry of the entire Star Wars universe (I really love those production art end credits’ title cards). Like Baby Yoda itself, the force is strong with this one. I’m looking forward to Chapter Five.