Since Disney’s acquisition of the Star Wars franchise, the explosion of new movies and television shows has had its good and bad entries. Andor is definitely one of the good ones, but it’s certainly instructive that, on Twitter at least, that compliment has often been somewhat backhanded.
What is it—apart from the careful pacing, naturalistic performances, incredible visuals, and a down-and-dirty story full of heists, laser gun fights, and razor-thin escapes through celestial phenomena—that has inspired such goodwill from reviewers who don’t normally give a shit about this stuff? I think it might have something to do with the fact Andor finally dares to steer hard into a completely different genre than nearly every other movie or show in the franchise. Like Rogue One before it, Andor isn’t a space fantasy adventure full of destined heroes on a fated journey. But unlike the movie that introduced us to the show’s eponymous star, Andor actually bothers to interrogate what kind of empire the Empire is, and why there’s a rebellion against it.
Even in newer and more imaginative Star Wars projects, much of the runtime still focuses on space wizards beating each other over the head with laser swords. All that ponderous Jedi lore has come at the expense of making the world feel like a real place, inhabited by real, regular people. Star Wars has generally not cared too much about what makes its heroes good and its villains evil, or at least not cared about any complexity inherent in that good or evil: The Empire was mostly coded like Nazis, but it felt like George Lucas did that more because he was a Baby Boomer raised on a diet of post-war film.
It really wasn’t until other creators got a turn at the wheel that Star Wars stories began to extrapolate on the Empire in the many tie-ins and spinoffs that followed the original trilogy of films. Andor, more so even than Rogue One, takes this approach and runs with it. We’ve known jerks like the Emperor and Darth Vader aren’t above blowing up a planet to make a point. Andor dares to actually show us the miserable, petty people who enable all that, and why (for their own good, honestly) they have got to go down.
It feels completely unlike anything Star Wars has done in the past, and it’s a good thing.
In Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, the French resistance members fighting the Nazis in occuppied France are lean, paranoid, and as hell-bent on eliminating traitors within their own ranks as they are fighting their German conquerors. The message is pretty clear: Even if you’re definitely on the right side of it, war is evil. I didn’t for a minute think Andor, of all Star Wars stories, would recall a tense French spy flick to me, but I thought of it in scenes where Diego Luna’s desperate criminal ducks local security forces and breaks bread with wily and nearly feral resistance members in the show’s second three-episode arc, which culminates in their small rebel cell pulling off a near-disastrous heist at an Imperial base on a backwater planet.
It’s deeply amusing, because Star Wars could’ve gone this direction at literally any point. There is nothing new here from the standpoint of complicated lore or history: The show is pretty ballsy about literally informing us that this is occurring four years before Star Wars: A New Hope. It is a part of the story that involves little more than some rebels using an inside contact to help them steal a bunch of money, presumably so the Rebellion can go buy more guns to smoke more stormtroopers. It is what violent political revolutions tend to do, and the men and women doing it are doing it for the reasons violent political dissidents tend to do that kind of thing: The misfits under jumpy rebel leader Vel (Faye Marsay) have lost family members or had their livelihoods ruined by the Empire.
And the Empire, it should be noted, isn’t treating its own subordinates any better. The miserable Karn (Kyle Soller) is a true believer in his role as one of the local security forces under the Empire’s heel, keenly aware of how unworthy he is of the respect of his fellow jackbooted police, and yet understandably and even justifiably outraged that the crime Cassian committed that incites the whole plot is being swept under the rug by his lazy superior. Further up the food chain of the ruthless surveillance state is Dedra (Denise Gough), a member of the Empire’s equivalent of the CIA or KGB or one of the other useless acronyms the world would be better off without. She’s convinced that mysterious thefts of Imperial equipment around the galaxy are related, but her superiors and backstabbing colleagues are as invested in undermining her ambition as she apparently is invested in skipping sleep. Darth Vader could and absolutely would Force-choke both those pawns for getting his Starbucks order wrong, and yet I’m almost more afraid of them. I’ve quit jobs where these dickheads have been my supervisor—like, recently.
Star Wars shows, even The Mandalorian, which took a hard turn into Western and samurai movie influences, have always made sure to remind viewers that they’re taking place in a space fantasy and that your favorite characters are never very far out of frame. (God help us when they come into frame.) Andor is a drama, a crime thriller, and a piece of spy fiction, set in a world where people have one night stands and need a cup of coffee in the morning so they can drag ass back to their unbearable job at a junkyard. It’s a world where the guy whose job it is to ring the morning bell is happy in his work. A world where the space Nazis spend astronomical amounts of money on stormtroopers so they can grind up indigenous peoples, and on spies so they can quell any rebellion that their genocide inspires. They’re not evil because the Dark Side is pulsing through their blood, but because they are petty and weak.
Star Wars has never really aspired to feel real before. I wouldn’t have thought doing so would even work. Maybe other creators aspiring to get their hands on the property should take a cue from Andor and ignore fans like me.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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