*****STAR DESTROYER-SIZED SPOILERS!!*****
“A Long Time Ago…”
A few years after Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012, we saw the first non-Skywalker standalone Star Wars film arrive in cinemas with 2016’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” which showed us a darker, more agnostic corner of the Star Wars universe. “Rogue One” dramatized the events summarized in the opening crawl of the original 1977 film; the Rebellion had won their first victory against the Empire and managed to steal plans to the dreaded Death Star. “Rogue One” centered entirely on those events, which took place right before the beginning of “A New Hope” (so retitled in 1981, upon rerelease).
“Rogue One” also showed us the morally ambiguous universe that these previously anonymous ‘Rebel spies’ inhabited. These were unsung heroes who didn’t receive medal ceremonies, or the gratitude of princesses. In fact, they often did things even they weren’t especially proud of, such as killing loose-lipped allies, or signing others up for suicide missions. “Rogue One” told the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the bitter, runaway daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), the man who designed the infamous Death Star. Galen was also a secret Rebel sympathizer, who planted a fatal flaw in the weapon’s design, hoping that it might be exploited someday.
With the aid of hardcore Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), that flaw was discovered, and those plans of the Death Star were transmitted to a nearby Rebel ship, the Tantive IV, which is then seen running for its life in the opening moments of the original film. The spies’ work ultimately led to the weapon’s destruction by Luke Skywalker in that movie’s climax. While Luke Skywalker was later celebrated for making the kill shot, “Rogue One” ended with all of its heroes dying in secret for the sake of a greater cause, including lead characters Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor.
The new Disney+ series “Andor” takes us back five years BBY (before New Hope’s famed “Battle of Yavin”), to Cassian Andor’s previous life as a closeted-refugee and thief to wanted killer and eventual Rebellion recruit…
Episode 1, “Kassa.”
The first episode begins like a film noir, with a younger Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) walking along the wet, grimy streets of Morlana One. At a brothel, he investigates the possible whereabouts of his long-missing kid sister from his home planet, Kenari. Cassian’s conversation with one of the preferred ladies sparks jealousy in two policeman sitting nearby, who’ve been waiting to meet her. Following Cassian outside, the cops pursue him into a dark tunnel, where they try to detain him on trumped-up charges. When the older cop pulls his blaster, Cassian smartly dodges its fire, which kills the cop’s partner. This accidental death causes a panicked Andor to execute the irrational surviving cop, and flee the planet. Returning the next morning to his adopted planet of Ferrix, Andor asks his mother’s old droid B2EMO to corroborate his false alibi, and later begs the same from his loyal friend and coworker Brasso (Joplin Sibtain). He then meets with his friend Bix Caleen (Adria Arjona) who carefully arranges a buyer for a rare piece of Imperial navigational tech that Cassian offers in trade to buy passage off-planet.
Note: Gorgeous production value throughout the episode, despite somewhat meandering pacing.
The murder of the two loutish cops on Morlana One reaches the offices of the Chief Inspector of the Preox-Morlana (PreMor) Authority; a privatized police force subcontracted by the Galactic Empire to keep peace among its lesser territories. PreMor polices Morlana One, and, technically, the lawless junkyard planet of Ferrix, as well. While the veteran Chief Inspector is willing to bury the case as a drunken dispute gone awry, his young uptight Deputy, Syril Karn (Kyle Soller), is unwilling to drop it—secretly ordering his own men to search for any leads. Karn soon learns that an eyewitness on Morlana One overheard the possible ‘suspect’ mention he was from Kenari. Meanwhile, back on Ferrix, Bix’s attempt to discreetly hide her shady business dealings with Cassian arouses jealousy in her coworker/boyfriend, Timm (James McArdle).
Note: Actor Kyle Soller bears an uncanny–no, downright distracting resemblance to a mid-1980s Kyle MacLachlan (“Twin Peaks,” “Dune”).
Flashbacks to Cassian’s childhood on Kenari reveals a group of his tribe’s young people watching a mining vessel crash into nearby jungle foliage. Leaving his kid sister behind to remain with the camp, young “Kassa” (as he was known) joins a party of older children, armed with blowguns, as they go off to investigate the crashed ship…
Episode 2: “That Would Be Me.”
A PreMor APB comes in over all galactic coms seeking Cassian Andor’s arrest in connection with the death of the two Morlana One cops. Cassian’s adoptive mother Maarva (Fiona Shaw) loses her cool with her son, as she demands to know what’s happened The APB has also caused Bix’s needlessly jealous boyfriend Timm to turn informant–an act that, if discovered, will put a strain on his relationship with Bix.
More flashbacks to Kassa’s backstory on Kenari sees the group of blowgun-armed children reaching the crashed vessel, when a panicked crash survivor sees the group of ‘primitives’ and shoots their young leader dead. In retaliation, the kids spray him with darts, killing the man. Meanwhile, the ever-curious Kassa roams deep within the bowels of the ship…
Meanwhile, Bix’s mysterious “Buyer” (Stellan Skarsgård) is already en route to Ferrix to purchase the Imperial navigational device offered by Cassian…
Note: I find it amusing that a planet whose economics revolve around scrap metal is named “Ferrix”; I’m assuming that’s an intentional reference to ferric-oxide, aka, ‘rust.’
Episode 3: “Reckoning.”
The last series of flashbacks sees a younger Maarva Andor and her husband, Clem, boarding the crashed ship to scavenge it. There, they find an angry young Kassa, smashing consoles in retaliation for the tragedy this crashed ship has brought to his friends. Maarva, fearful of what might happen to the ‘wild’ boy if he’s found by the authorities, forcibly sedates young Kassa, as she and Clem take the child off-world…
Meanwhile, Rael arrives on Ferrix, where he eventually meets with Cassian in an abandoned factory to discuss trade. Karn, along with his own deputy, Sgt. Mosk (Alex Ferns), also arrives on Ferrix after receiving Timm’s message. Finding the home of Maarva, Karn and Mosk threaten her, but she refuses to cooperate. Karn then overhears a transmission from Cassian routed through a comm link into B2EMO’s receiver, which allows them to isolate Andor’s whereabouts. While Cassian is desperate to sell the Imperial navigation device and leave Ferrix, Rael tries to persuade him to join the Rebel Alliance, noting Cassian’s apparent successes with stealing valuable from Imperial ships. When Karn’s officers raid the factory, the two men are pinned by blaster fire, until they manage to escape back to Maarva’s place, where Cassian overpowers Karn—who manages to get a quick glimpse of his quarry before his humiliating defeat.
With the PreMor authorities wreaking chaos on the streets of Ferrix, a bloodied Bix learns that Timm was the snitch. Trying to make amends, a contrite Timm yells to the trigger-happy policemen to seek medical aid for Bix’s bloodied head. Panicked by Timm’s shouting, one of the officers unthinkingly shoots Timm dead. The officer who fired the deadly shot is relieved of duty, and sent back to the shuttle. That shuttle is soon destroyed, after being anchored in place by a resourceful Brasso, causing it to spiral in on itself after takeoff. Creating a deadly diversion with an unmanned speeder that manages to kill a few more of the remaining PreMor security officers, Rael and Cassian then steal a speeder-bike and escape the planet—leaving a humiliated, tearful Karn and his sergeant behind.
Note: The third episode really ups the action quotient and the tension. This is where the series finally kicks into gear.
Core Characters of “Andor,” Episodes 1-3.
Star and coproducer Diego Luna gives his all to the series, and to his character of Cassian Andor, slipping right back into that role, though a lot less experienced and less confident than we see Cassian in “Rogue One.” The character’s arc swings from ‘forcibly-adopted’ (i.e kidnapped) Kenari refugee to scavenger-thief, and to eventual Rebel recruit. That we see him looking for his lost sister on Morlana One tells us that he’s never fully made peace with his forced relocation from Kenari, even if remaining there would’ve killed him, along with the rest of his people. Luna’s performance is nuanced and natural. The actor has the cool, yet nervous, edgy vibe of a young Al Pacino, during his “Godfather” and “Serpico” heyday. Cassian’s perpetually-gray morality is a refreshing contrast to they typically binary good/evil characters that populate the Star Wars universe.
One of Cassian’s staunchest allies on the junkyard planet of Ferrix is Bix Caleen (Adria Arjona), who helps him facilitate his illegal parts trades whenever she can, to their mutual benefit. Their partnership is platonic, and one gets the sense Cassian has an almost fraternal protectiveness towards Bix. She, like Cassian’s adoptive mother Maarva, seems to be one of the few people who gets the bigger picture of Cassian; both are able to see the good person beneath his scrappy exterior, just waiting for the chance to prove his true value to the universe someday, somehow. While she tries to set boundaries for how far she’ll go to help Cassian, one gets the sense that when all hell breaks loose, she’ll always have his back. In other circumstances, one could easily imagine she and Cassian becoming lovers. Adria Arjona’s quiet intensity balances with Diego Luna’s outward desperation, and their performances nicely complement each other. Here’s hoping Bix and Cassian see each other again sometime in the remaining episodes of season 1.
A character very typical of the murkier “Andor” corner of Star Wars’ universe is Bix’s coworker boyfriend, Timm Karlo (James McArdle). Not fully understanding and even jealous of Bix’s sisterly relationship with Cassian, Timm discretely answers the All Points Bulletin on Cassian—a move that not only puts distance between himself and Bix, but also unwittingly brings his own life to an end, not long afterward. James McArdle plays this flawed everyman as a relatable guy who’s living under the thumb of a repressive Galactic Empire … doing whatever he can to survive, up to and including selling out a man to which his girlfriend has become uncomfortably close. As a character, he’s more a means to an end, and it’s unfortunate but fitting that we won’t see more of him going forward, since he’s served his purpose—to drive a desperate Cassian into the arms of the Rebellion. McArdle gives the impression that in better circumstances, there’s probably a nice-enough guy living under the flawed exterior of Timm.
Brasso (Joplin Sibtain) is the loyal work buddy of Cassian, who always lets him know when the heat is on, or cooling down just enough for him to safely show his face. Brasso’s a side character, whose role in the story could’ve easily been absorbed by Bix. All the same, Sibtain plays him with an amicable, open-faced, everyman quality that justifies his character’s existence, even in the somewhat padded first two episodes. Brasso finally gets a heroic bit of business in “Reckoning,” when he sabotages an outbound enemy shuttle, but otherwise, he’s just a working-class fella in this more secular corner of the Star Wars universe.
One of the most interesting characters is Syril Karn (Kyle Soller); the unbearably tenacious, yet cowardly Deputy Inspector for the PreMor Authority. Karn is the Inspector Javert to Cassian’s Valjean—an uptight, imperious lawman doggedly pursuing one man for an offense that even his superiors are quick to bury. Granted, Cassian did a lot more than steal a loaf of bread, but in the Star Wars galaxy, such altercations are relatively common occurrences. Nevertheless, Karn is out to prove his worth by needlessly bringing in the man who killed two dirty, corrupt bullying cops (who were illegally perusing Morlana’s red-light district when they stopped Cassian under false pretenses). After being held at gunpoint by Cassian in “Reckoning,” we see Karn nearly broken and utterly humiliated by his quarry … this will, no doubt, serve to fuel his obsession going forward. Actor Kyle Soller plays this ramrod stiff lawman with enough perverse oddness to make him genuinely entertaining.
In this shady corner of the Star Wars universe, even the act of adopting a refugee child becomes a morally gray act. Fiona Shaw’s Maarva Andor, the adoptive mother of young Kassa, has done her best to look after and raise the boy into adulthood, despite her own questionable line of work in illegal salvaging. Maarva is equal parts Martha Kent and Fagin; a woman whose loving act was as much for her own needs as those of the child she forcibly abducted from Kenari. Changing Cassian’s birth records to mask his true origins, Maarva claims to have protected young Kassa from a mining disaster on Kenari that is said to have rendered his home planet uninhabitable. While Maarva is nobly protective of her adopted son (along with her droid, B2EMO), flashbacks reveal her initial abduction of the frightened young Kassa was quite terrifying, at least from the confused child’s perspective.
Finally, actor Stellan Skarsgård plays the man who acts as Cassian’s new adoptive ‘father’; Luther Rael, the mysterious ‘buyer’ who comes to Ferrix under the guise of purchasing Cassian’s stolen Imperial navigation device, which turns out to be something of a red herring. What Luther has really come to buy is a resourceful new recruit for the Rebellion against the Empire. Rael assumes that anyone with the technical savvy to quietly steal such a coveted piece of Imperial hardware might be just the man his Rebellion needs. Rael’s instincts prove correct, as later seen in “Rogue One,” when his recruit unflinchingly gives his own life to the cause. Since we don’t see Stellan Skarsgård’s character anywhere in “Rogue One,” it’s possible that Cassian learned the art of self-sacrifice from his mentor, Luther. Skarsgård has had a long career in movies, including a rrecuring role as Dr. Eric Selvig in the Marvel cinematic universe, as well as roles in “The Hunt for Red October” (1990) and as ‘Father Merrin’ in both versions of the “The Exorcist” prequels; “Exorcist: The Beginning” (2004) and “Dominion: An Exorcist Prequel” (later completed for home video release in 2005, after being initially shelved by Warner Bros in favor of “The Beginning”).
Summing It Up.
After watching the first three installments, it’s easy to see why Disney chose to include Episode 3 in the opening salvo; the first two are not exactly ‘grab you by the collar’ material. They’re slow-burning, world-building ‘atmosphere’ episodes, but nothing to compel a casual viewer to keep watching. All the same, these early episodes are certainly more cinematic than prior Disney Star Wars shows, particularly the recent, made-for-TV looking “Obi-Wan Kenobi.” The high-quality look and feel are visually hypnotic, despite lacking some needed forward momentum—which finally kicks in with the third episode.
During those first two episodes (“Kassa” “That Would Be Me”), I kept looking at moments and even entire scenes which could’ve been easily trimmed or deleted, with no real consequences to the story. This issue of languid pacing is made even more ironic, when it’s pointed out to Deputy Inspector Karn by his superior that the best way to make an impactful speech is with brevity. Brevity is also something that George Lucas intuitively understood when overseeing the editing of the original 1977 movie, which was reportedly saved in the editing bay (“faster, more intense”). It’s very easy to see why Disney chose to bundle the first three stories together as one release. The first two by themselves would not have been strong enough to ensnare a casual Disney+ subscriber into this series. The third installment is where I came to realize I was going to stick with this new show.
I was also intrigued by the subtle (and not-too-subtle) political messages woven into the fabric of the show, with young Kassa’s experiences on his home planet being a stern warning on the dangers of foreign exploitation (oil, agriculture, precious metals, take your pick) at the risk of native ecologies. The planet Kenari’s human culture is a fascinating blend of South American indigenous tribes, and some of the fashions even reflect Southeast Asian cultures, as well. Kenari and its indigenous people are representative of all peoples exploited by aggressive foreign colonizers–coalesced in the Star Wars universe as one Galactic Empire.
There is also much said on the topical issues of police brutality and overreach, as well as everyday life under the specter of encroaching authoritarianism (something experienced in the US and UK soon after the release of “Rogue One”). To those who say Star Wars “shouldn’t be political,” I would direct them to watch the original movies with their eyes and ears open this time. Star Wars, like its nerdier older cousin “Star Trek”, has always been political. How exactly is a civil war between a brutal authoritarian regime and an underdog democracy not supposed to be political, anyway?
Created by “Rogue One” writer Tony Gilroy, the foundations of “Andor” are certainly solid enough, despite its earlier aforementioned pacing issues. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman gives the series with a gritty, war-movie feel as well. With strong actors such as Diego Luna, Fiona Shaw, Stellan Skarsgård and Kyle Soller in the cast, there is plenty of talent in front of the camera, with promised appearances from “Rogue One” costars Forrest Whittaker (“Saw Gerrera”) and Genevieve O’Reilly (“Mon Mothma”) in future episodes, too.
Even at this early stage, “Andor” is already an improvement over the ill-conceived misfires of “Obi-Wan Kenobi” and “The Book of Boba Fett,” yet it still lacks the freshness and originality of “The Mandalorian,” which remains the high bar for live-action Star Wars television. Given that this series is a prequel to 2016’s “Rogue One,” it’s options for growth going forward are also reigned in by the very movie that inspired it.
That said, even a predictable ride can still be an enjoyable one.
Where To Watch.
“Andor” is currently streaming exclusively on Disney+.