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‘Andor’ Review: Tony Gilroy’s ‘Star Wars’ Series Revives the Rebellion

The "Rogue One" writer builds out his "Star Wars" story in a welcome return to tactile environments, meaningful arcs, and gripping battles.

Andor (Diego Luna) Disney+ Star Wars series

Diego Luna in “Andor”

Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

The “Andor” premiere is full of resonant, relevant imagery, but it’s hard not to get hung up on dozens of dangling gloves. Elbow-length and densely padded, each pair of worker’s mitts are tied together and stored on floor-to-ceiling hooks. Soon, the mechanics and scrap collectors who use them to salvage spare parts from broken or discarded machines will arrive, lift their set from the wall, and proceed with the daily grind. As they do, I doubt they think much about their gloves. Each pair has its assigned position and distinguishing colors, but they’re essentially the same. Their owners know they need them for the job, and that’s all they need to know.

But the mere existence of these gloves, highlighted in director Toby Haynes’ brief but memorable framing, is enough to spark interest in the latest “Star Wars” series. For one, the gloves are real; weathered workers pick them up and put them on. Like so many other objects in “Andor,” they can be touched and held, and like so many more shots in “Andor,” this one is designed with intent. The gloves fill the screen, edge to edge, which means the wall was built, the props were made, the colors were chosen, all to tell us something about the world we’re being invited into and the characters who fill it. Rather than another fantastical tale of glowing swords and magic powers — where stagecraft isn’t the skill of bringing stories to life, but a cost-saving set built by Industrial Light and Magic — the tools essential to this “Star Wars” chapter are practical. Utilitarian. Common. You may only see them for a second, but their impact lasts much longer.

After the recent chicanery of “Obi-Wan Kenobi” and “The Book of Boba Fett” — two Disney+ originals that held some promise before soon revealing their hollow, content-driven cores — it’s a relief to get swept up in a “Star Wars” show that adores details and puts them to good use (like investing in characters and enhancing an unambiguous perspective). Writer and showrunner Tony Gilroy gets so much right about underdogs and uprisings in his working class vision of George Lucas’ mythical universe, while also investing this rousing fantasy revolution with pointed real-world parallels. There are structural and conceptual issues (some irritating, others unavoidable), but even within its canonical and corporate constraints, “Andor” appears primed to revive the franchise’s rebellious streak — and make it OK for “Star Wars” to take risks again.

On one gloved hand, “Andor” is like many other “Star Wars” stories. It mirrors the classic trilogy in following a young, restless man who’s told he’s special and gets called to a higher purpose. It even fits snugly in the franchise’s decade-long Disney-fication: a prequel series to a prequel movie, made to fill in the chronological gaps once left to our collective imaginations. (Gilroy co-wrote “Rogue One,” the 2016 film which outlined events leading up to 1977’s “Star Wars: A New Hope.”)

But held firmly in “Andor’s” other protective mitt is something distinctive. Despite taking place on planets beyond our solar system, this “Star Wars” story doesn’t start with the famous blue text “In a galaxy far, far away…” — its conflicts, crises, and characters are designed to reflect what’s happening here and now. If the two-season series tells the origins of a “fermenting” rebellion, as one flustered Imperial guard describes it, the uprising’s impetus isn’t a lone dark figure wielding a red lightsaber, but the barking faces of a corrupt autocracy. Be it corporations or cops, “Andor” is intent on stirring the ire of its audience toward particular present-day problems, while humanizing the people fighting for both sides.

Reportedly featuring 195 speaking roles in what Gilroy has rightly described as a “large-scale character study,” “Andor” is led by Diego Luna, reprising his role as Cassian Andor from “Rogue One.” Five years before he steals the plans to destroy the Death Star, Cassian lives on the planet Ferrix, a salvage and repair hub, where he works part-time recycling discarded materials (or, at least, it’s implied he does), but tries to get ahead by acquiring and selling specialty parts. A local shop owner, Bix Caleen (Adria Arjona), helps when she can — particularly if the stolen collected materials will be used to fight the Galactic Empire.

Andor Disney+ Star Wars Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgard) and Mon Mothma (Genevieve O'Reilly) in ANDOR on Disney+. ©2022 Lucasfilm Ltd

Stellan Skarsgard and Genevieve O’Reilly in “Andor”

Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

All of this is backstory, filled in by the series’ two active timelines: one in the past, when Cassian is a young boy, the other when a grown Cassian is just a guy, visiting a bar, looking for someone. In a bit of bad luck, two local security guards (working for an unnamed corporation with ties to the Empire) choose the same gin joint for their nightly shit-stirring and make sure to exert their meager authority over the bar’s only less-powerful patron. The situation escalates. Cassian flees. Soon enough, he’s a wanted man.

Leading the crusade is Syril Karn (Kyle Soller), a deputy inspector and total boy scout, who — in a hilarious defining moment — admits to modifying his own uniform for a better fit and crisper colors. Through Syril, “Andor” illustrates the type of people who are attracted to power for the wrong reasons; people who toe the company line, no matter how cruel or unusual, because they can’t tell the difference between earned loyalty and enforced obedience. His merciless, mindless devotion to a stone-cold corporation contrasts nicely with Cassian and his rebel friends, as they pursue a better life for the majority through considered dedication to a shared cause.

Early episodes are a bit slow to set the stakes (or even define the Rebellion), but their tactile environments help make up for the lag. (Plus, they go a long way toward erasing recent, painful memories when “Star Wars” became overly reliant on the “magic” of a digital soundstage, like Obi-Wan and Darth Vader’s pathetic CGI dirt fight). While not as awesome in scope as Gareth Edwards’ “Rogue One” vistas,”Andor” doubles down on the director’s intimate approach to spycraft and warfare. Shootouts are well-staged, with piercing sound and traceable choreography that keeps you in the firefight. Wind and rain lay heavy on the rebels, while stuffy ship quarters and buttoned-up uniforms insulate Imperial guards from the elements (not to mention reality). Scavengers don’t just sift through neatly organized piles of parts; they wrench cables from the wing of a plane, as a crane lowers the next chunk of wreckage for their busy hands to pick apart.

“Andor’s” pacing can be clunky, too. As an introduction, the first three episodes only work when seen together, and the fourth entry’s momentum-defying ending seems to kick off a similar structure. Key information is held back long enough to make you wonder if it’s ever coming, and the connections to the world aren’t yet realized in the characters. (Such signifiers of the dreaded “one long movie” approach to TV mean I can’t endorse watching along with Disney’s weekly rollout.) Lingering prequel issues will bother some more than others — knowing the fate of not only Cassian, our lead, but the Rebellion itself can lend a futility to sluggish scenes — but a quarter of the way into Season 1, “Andor” has established itself as the most deeply felt “Star Wars” series yet. And that’s worth holding onto.

Grade: B

“Andor” premieres Wednesday, September 21 with three episodes on Disney+. New episodes will be released weekly through the Season 1 finale (Episode 12) on November 23.

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