Despite that online halfwit insisting, “politics have no place in ‘Star Wars,’” or some nonsense about wokeness, I’m sorry to break it to you that George Lucas’ films have always been, in fact, political from the jump. It is an era where a totalitarian regime rules the galaxy with an iron fist wiping out all dissidents and agitators, after all. While its fantasy elements and family legacy perhaps overshadowed the franchise for years, the prequels were concurrently just as much about the tragic erosion of democracy as they were about the fall of the chosen one. Yet, in our modern age, it really wasn’t until “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” that Lucasfilm really started seriously examining the “war” in “Star Wars” and all its various meaningful implications in perhaps a starker, more resonant form.
Directed by Gareth Edwards, with its layered ideas of spies, saboteurs, radical terrorists, insurgents, prisoners of war, political defectors, and dicey, complicated characters, ‘Rogue One’ operated in a much murkier, moral gray. Troubled in its production, the film was rescued by writer/director Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”), who was brought on to rewrite the film midstream of production, direct reshoots, and seemingly take over and imbue even more political urgency into the drama about the unknown soldiers who sacrificed it all for the greater good.
It’s this jumping-off point— a much more adult, serious, dirtier, and complicated look at the “Star Wars” galaxy and what living under an oppressive regime does to its populace—that informs “Andor,” a new “Star Wars” prequel to ‘Rogue One,’ centering on one of its leads, Rebel Alliance Captain and spy Cassian Andor (a terrific and committed Diego Luna). Created, showrun, and written by Gilroy, “Andor” is essentially a doubling-down, expansion, and deepening of what began in ‘Rogue One’ and resembles something more of an HBO prestige drama than a galaxy far, far away (trust that this is a good thing) that pulses with a combustive dramatic tenor.
Set five years before the events of ‘Rogue One,’ “Andor” is essentially about the evolution of a man and the development of a bourgeoning resistance in the age of tyranny. Times are dire and grim, and Cassian Andor is no hero. Essentially a thief who has burnt most of his bridges and owes everyone money, Andor does what he can to scrape by and survive on the junkyard planet Ferrix. Constantly running little scams, friends and family like his droid B2EMO (Dave Chapman), his adoptive mother Maarva (the always-excellent Fiona Shaw), and his “it’s complicated” friend,sort-of ex-girlfriend and scrapyard fix-it whiz Bix (Adria Arjona), are continually helping him cover his tracks, much to their collective frustration. Rash and impetuous, Andor is essentially on everyone’s last nerve, perhaps resembling the worst version of himself. And when searching for his sister on an off-world planet, an ugly confrontation goes tragically awry, and soon Andor becomes a fugitive from the Empire.
This crime lights up several single-minded and uncompromising characters, including the determined but out-of-his-depth Imperial Deputy Inspector Syril Karn (Kyle Soller) and, later on, Dedra Meero (Denise Gough), an ambitious, high-ranking Imperial Security Bureau (ISB) officer who intuits some connection to fomenting rebel cell activity. While a “local” offense, law enforcement on nearby planets are put on alert, but perhaps no one is more keenly concerned about the criminal and the crime than the mysterious Luthen Rael (an impressively intense Stellan Skarsgård).
While he keeps his cards close to the vest, Rael soon hints at a master plan that will eventually reveal itself. The short version is: an uprising is simmering across the galaxy, unconnected dissident cells are popping up, and Rael not only sounds like a man of conviction who wants to stick it back in the eye of dictators and thugs but a leader and spymaster who might be able to tie disparate factions together. Senator Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) turns up, too, a politician navigating the Empire while clandestinely helping out Rael and his various revolutionary blocs. He’s also offering Andor a proposition; put those surreptitious, grifting skills to good use and get paid for it. But the cynical and impulsive Andor— having already witnessed the calamities of resistance firsthand as a child— isn’t all that interested in sticking out his neck, much less joining any foolhardy suicide missions. While the Empire is still consolidating its power across the galaxy, at this point, the deck of oppression already seems stacked in his eyes.
But difficult choices lie ahead for him in a series where everyone is making fast, real-time decisions under duress that may change the course of their destiny. While the action appears in fits and starts and not at all at first, the kinetic drive of the series’ political intrigue feels just as much as any accelerant. It’s a series of deception, distrust, danger, and high stakes for everyone involved as the climate of the galaxy seems to reach a dangerous fever pitch. Characters are weak, flawed, and seem highly capable of betrayal.
If ‘Rogue One’ showed hints at the complexities of certain characters—namely Cassian Andor, a spy who readily admits he killed for the Rebellion and done all kinds of questionable things in its name, “Andor” dives far back into that backstory, some of it even as Cassian as a child as part of a rudimentary insurrectionist force, seemingly run by outcast migrant kids. While “Andor” is slow-burning at first (which will feel slow to “Star Wars” fans more attuned to the current pace of its storytelling), it builds a deeply compelling world and setting that feels authentic, lived-in and desperate (the tactile sensibilities of its sets and cities are palpably more convincing that the volume VFX). And as if to set you straight fast, in its first episode, we’re introduced to Lucasfilm’s first brothel, that aforementioned altercation that leads to a murder, and then two episodes later, characters f*cking with dimensions of lust that aren’t exactly hidden.
Moreover, there is an intense immediacy and potent, simmering tension to it all; this isn’t a superficial adventure about retrieving some McGuffin; it’s a somber consideration of life during wartime that’s gritty, gray, and despairing. While a lack of Easter Eggs, cameos, nods, and winks may disappoint some fans who confuse those elements with being meaningful storytelling, it surely won’t dishearten those who have been frustrated with the more superficial, serialized, gunslinger-of-the-week, “Bonanza” narratives that has seemingly permeated their other shows (“The Book Of Boba Fett,” “The Mandalorian”).
To that end, there is not a Jedi in sight, and in removing some of the more fantastical, white knight heroic elements of “Star Wars,” Gilroy crafts a show that, like ‘Rogue One,’ is more sophisticated and morally ambiguous. Characters seem more three-dimensional and hold dualities, contradictions, and question mark asterisks next to their nature (it’s unclear where Syril will go, but he’s generally a character to keep an eye on). In general, the series is open to human flaws of obstinance, shortsightedness, and behaving out of self-interest, survival instincts, and fear.
It’s a spy thriller about a wrought moment in history, essentially, and about a dubious, distrustful, skeptical man, not at all interested in becoming a spy, much less working for someone else’s cause. Beyond war, Gilroy puts a serious lens onto ideas of rebellion and rule—what it’s like to resist and what it’s like to enforce, showing both sides and granular nuts and bolts of what that means. Moreover, “Andor” is angrier than most “Star Wars” shows. While it’s not quite enraged and overt about it, there is an undercurrent of hostile resentment and bitterness that comes from living under a cruel and despotic thumb. Luna’s disdain and contempt is far from the naive hopefulness of a young Mark Hamill.
If “Andor” is slow to start, it ignites with fury in episodes three and four, paving the way to a show that, so far, feels gripping in its tension and resolve. It’s debatable if the series will be embraced universally by all “Star Wars” fans, but if you’ve been disenchanted by most of the Disney-era Lucasfilm projects—or at least craving something more substantive with depth— “Andor” is likely a provocative one that will light a fire under you, and compel you to sit up and take notice. [B+]