'Andor' review: 'Star Wars' series brings grit and politics to galaxy far, far away
Watch: Trailer for Disney+ Star Wars series Andor
It's been difficult for some to get really excited about Star Wars for a while now. The Mandalorian provided the shot in the arm that so many fans needed after the big screen disappointment of The Rise of Skywalker, but much of that show's Grogu-induced goodwill was tested by the middling mediocrity of The Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Now, though, arrives something different – a show that could provide the separation from the Skywalkers this franchise so desperately needs. And there's not a Tusken Raider flashback in sight, thank goodness.
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Andor — finally arriving on Disney+ after a month's delay — takes place in the years before the events of the 2016 film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, with the galaxy locked in the iron grip of the Galactic Empire.
Diego Luna reprises his role from that film as Cassian Andor, who we meet as a thief scrapping his way through life with the help of childhood friend Bix (Adria Arjona) and nursing a dislike for the powers that be. They're not too keen on him either, with Imperial middle-manager Syril Karn (a terrifyingly icy Kyle Soller) defying his higher-ups to mount a search for Andor after a nightclub altercation turns violent.
It's this investigation that serves as the central plot for the opening trio of episodes, though series creator Tony Gilroy – who helped shepherd the stricken Rogue One through its reshoots – does a stellar job of expanding the world beyond that core narrative. By the time episode four begins, the canvas gets noticeably broader. This looks to be a show with a built-in ability to reshape itself every few episodes into something entirely different. The pace is methodical, but the pay-offs are absolutely worth it.
Despite taking its name from a single title character, Andor is a true ensemble piece in the way that the best Star Wars material tends to be. It unfolds in a world firmly under the jackboot of the Empire where there's a palpable sense of paranoia and danger, with a subsequent undercurrent of resistance bubbling up against it.
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The early episodes see Andor introduced to Stellan Skarsgård's mysterious outlaw figure Luthen, who also appears to have some sort of relationship with future Rebel leader Mon Mothma (Genevieve O'Reilly). Here, the woman who would go on to inform us of the death of many Bothans is framed as a politician attempting to change things from within the system via her role as a senator.
Gilroy's experience in the arena of dark, often political thrillers really helps him to provide a different slant on the Star Wars universe, gradually unravelling a web of intrigue and clandestine resistance. He's helped by the decision to eschew the technology of “the volume” — digital sets projected on enormous LED screens behind the actors — in favour of huge physical sets, one of which stretches to more than eight acres. The result is a world that feels genuinely lived-in and immersive, as opposed to the clean artificiality that has characterised the recent Star Wars shows.
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It also benefits from having a slightly different perspective on the franchise as a whole. Gilroy enters the fold not as a lifelong Star Wars obsessive who knows every detail of lore, but as someone who wants to use the existing framework as a scaffolding to say something worth hearing.
It's not a “kill your darlings” approach to the material — Gilroy clearly has a healthy respect for fans and their affection for George Lucas's world — but, much as Rian Johnson did in the unfairly maligned The Last Jedi, Gilroy knows there's a benefit to pushing people out of their Skywalker-sized comfort zone. This isn't a cosy game of easter egg Where's Wally? for fans of the animated shows. At least, not yet.
But, lest you worry that this is all sounding a bit serious, Andor remains a tonne of fun. It's a show that thrives in the dark, shadowy corners of the galaxy far, far away, with a protagonist who's deeply uncomfortable ever stepping out into the light.
This provides an opportunity to delve into areas Star Wars has never really explored before, as well as providing its fair share of big-time action. Episode three delivers a large-scale battle sequence that's as straightforwardly thrilling as anything Star Wars has produced in a long time.
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The performances, too, provide a palpable sense of energy and add further to the sense that this is a lived-in world with a history before the show and a future after it. Luna and Arjona have terrific chemistry and their relationship feels layered by the decades of complex but unspoken backstory between them, while the ever-reliable Fiona Shaw does great work as a matriarch-like figure with a key role in Andor's life.
Soller gives great villainy and joins Denise Gough's fellow Imperial office climber Dedra in feeling more dangerous precisely because of their relatively low status in the gargantuan machine of the Empire and desire to prove themselves at all costs.
A third of the way through its run and with the stage set for an even bigger next few episodes, the signs are good for Andor. At a time when many of the Star Wars shows have begun to feel like lazy exercises in fan service, this is something different – something that actually wants to explore what it was like to exist in the years before Luke Skywalker gazed up at those twin suns and provided a new hope.
It's gritty without being gloomy, and smartly political without losing the spectacle and wonder that made us all fall in love with this world.
Unless you're here for the Tusken Raider flashbacks. In which case, I can only apologise for your disappointment.
The first three episodes of Andor will arrive on Disney+ on 21 September, with subsequent episodes set to premiere weekly on the platform.