The slowest, most personal story in Star Wars may also be its most expansive and meaningful. “Andor” tells the story of Cassian Andor, one of the heroes of Star Wars prequel movie “Rogue One”. This is a prequel to that prequel, which sounds like a lot of homework for the viewer – but no previous Star Wars knowledge is actually needed to understand and enjoy it. It’s a refreshing change in the franchise that we’ve got something which could easily stand as its own science-fiction entry.
Diego Luna stars as Andor, down on his luck and fusing scheme to scheme as best he can to survive. One night, he goes to a club in a company town hoping to track someone down. Two security officers harass him for no reason other than having the privilege of doing so without repercussion. It goes badly for them. Andor may only have days to find a way off-planet.
This, we’re given to understand, is his origin story on joining the fledgling Rebellion against the Empire. Yet it’s not his only origin story. Flashbacks show a very different life, as part of an indigenous people on a planet the Empire’s gutted for minerals and metals. The two origins increasingly echo each other, the twin backstories reflecting tragedies as large as genocide, and as personal as being trapped in a cycle of endless false starts.
It’s enough to make you angry, and this is where “Andor” might be one of the truest Star Wars entries in a long time. The original Star Wars trilogy drew from westerns, samurai films, and fantasy, sure, but it also drew from the other popular genres of its time: conceptual sci-fi, protest films, spy cinema, and exploitation movies.
These threads have largely been dropped from other Star Wars properties. “The Last Jedi” might be a standout commentary on the need for protest and rebellion, but it does so in a very modern way. I love it for that, but much of that original Star Wars aesthetic was replaced. The prequel trilogy and other shows have left those genres behind, too, so it’s hardly alone. The major genre throughlines we recognize – the samurai, western, and fantasy elements – they all survive.
Those less recognized elements have given way. Dystopia and exploitation in Star Wars has become a passing set design rather than a core motivation, and you can’t really get existentially angry at a passing set design. “Rogue One” stands out as special because it touches on some of those lost threads, but it only has so long to do it. “Andor” gets twelve 40-ish minute episodes, so it dwells on these lost ethics, considers why they exist and why they give this franchise life.
“Andor” is an evolution of those 70s genre threads the original trilogy utilized, where the climax is held off as we learn about a world and its people, its dystopia, how it became this way, how that way reflects our own path. Some might call it too slow. They’re absolutely right: “Andor” is extremely slow and those viewers may rightly be disinterested. If you took a look at “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” and you found that too slow, it’s a car with enough jet engines strapped to it to make some bad decisions on a salt flat when you compare it to “Andor”.
“Andor” is the slowest series I’ve seen all year. Is that a bad thing? What’s too slow for one person can be a meticulous build-up for another if the show’s done work to make it meaningful and put its details in the right places. “Andor” knows exactly what to do with slow. Slowness is a paintbrush in writer Tony Gilroy’s and director Toby Haynes’ hands. Would I want all Star Wars series to be like this? Not a chance. Do I want a franchise with this many entries to be able to do this at some point? I’d say its a requirement – if you’re not going this far off-piste by now, you’ll just be stuck in endless repetition.
Outside of “Andor”, the franchise has become too obsessed with tying all loose ends together. A backwater desert planet like Tatooine is now the central hub of destiny for half its named characters. It’s like if the MCU suddenly realized everyone had connections to Dayton, Ohio and we had to spend the next four films tying everyone together there in ways that are more and more contrived. That Star Wars has vaguely made it work across the underrated “The Book of Boba Fett” and a solid “Obi-Wan Kenobi” is a testament to the skills of its writers, artists, and actors…but you can see in how immediately classic “The Mandalorian” has become just how much they could accomplish if let loose on some new parts of this universe.
Disney hasn’t made a bad Star Wars live-action series, and what I’ve seen of the various animated series has also been good. At the same time, they are absolutely running up against the point of diminishing returns when it comes to all these series having to reference and tie in to both current and previous work in the franchise. The suspension of disbelief about everyone tripping over each other in the same corner of this supposedly vast universe has become extremely elastic. It feels on the verge of snapping hard. If Star Wars is a road trip across the universe, Tatooine is the driveway you never leave.
That’s why I’m thankful for “Andor”, which treats the Star Wars universe as far-reaching enough that a relatively unfamiliar character and a new location can exist in our minds without ever needing to name-drop or tie-in. This is sci-fi, it’s supposed to extend into places unknown. What’s alien out there can make us reflect on what’s alien in us, what we would or wouldn’t accept for ourselves, how we accept others or fail to. It can’t be unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and tense if it’s holding our hand and throwing our favorite guests at us with the speed of a late-night show.
Show me a universe that sweeps from tale to tale and I’ll keep asking if we can spend longer at the new stops. Sometimes there’s value in not being able to, since our imaginations can yearn for all these aspects we’ve only glimpsed. Yet to be a storytelling universe of consequence, you’ve got to focus in on one person in a new place from time to time.
Game designer Warren Spector once described his dream game as a “One City Block RPG”. It would simulate one city block perfectly, immersively, and let you interact with anyone and everything in it. It would be so detailed, with so many daily routines, that it could exist as a world unto itself, as perfect a simulation of reality as can be achieved.
Needless to say, we play games to enjoy art and escape, and there would need to be something else involved in order to grab very many players. The ethic of this idea has rung true in many modern designs, however. “Gone Home” simulates one house with engrossing attention to detail. The upcoming “Shadows of Doubt” looks to do this with a city so long as the detail you want is voxel noir. Immersive sims have long sought to achieve a selectively deep take on this level of detail in service of knocking people out and stealing their fancy candlesticks.
Before I go too far afield and you wonder if I accidentally dropped part of another review in, the point is that this same ethic can serve a series. You can show me every place in a universe, but if I don’t get to visit one city block in it for an extended period of time to understand how a place and its people fit into that universe, then what do all those places really mean? How do a people see their place in it, how do they dream about it, what dreams about it have broken or run their course, how do they fight for and struggle against their roles in it? That’s what gives a universe meaning. You can stay there too long without coming up with a cogent take on it (hi, Tatooine), but “Andor” gives us someplace new that defines itself by this level of detail. Sometimes that’s sad or haunting, sometimes that’s angering or frustrating, but every one of those emotions is an investment in the story being told that helps us identify with its characters and the risks they take.
“Andor” takes this approach with a bit more than a city block, but the majority of its story does focus in a company town that exists to serve a salvage yard. By doing this, by focusing in so precisely, in such minute, studied detail, we understand how one incident – Andor’s run-in with the police – can spark a cascade of repercussions, each bounding against the city’s limit and swelling back to intersect with another repercussion, creating some new, stronger wave that smashes into those limits and comes surging back. By knowing characters’ daily routines, we can see how the small interruptions to those routines speak to monumental sea changes in the direction of that city. It’s a stunning way to look at the Star Wars universe, on a deeply personal level that hasn’t been explored before, with a respect for its reality as a universe unto itself, all mounting toward a sense of shattering that as a viewer I both feared and needed.
Pair this with Andor’s twin origin stories – one speaking to surviving an “incidental” environmental genocide, the other speaking to a sense of survival that only treads water – and you have a story that’s presented with cold, painstaking procedural detail, and the towering ache of surviving the horrors with which that meticulous build-up eventually lashes out.
What is justifiably slow to some viewers will be absorbing and emotionally captivating to others. I found “Andor” to be charged and resonant, a masterwork of escalating tension, its glimpses of beauty and loss like a gut punch because every morsel of our attention and emotional investment is recognized and accounted for. “Andor” is the most real the Star Wars universe has ever felt. To some, that’s a disappointment, and that’s fair. To others, it opens up a universe of possibilities.
You can watch “Andor” on Disney+.
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