The following is a spoiler-free review of Episodes 1-4 of Andor. The three-episode premiere debuts on Disney+ on Sept. 21.
Much how the movie in which Cassian Andor made his entrance (and exit) focused on a Jedi-free pocket of the resistance that we had yet to see on screen, Disney+’s Andor offers Star Wars a more grown-up tone thanks to established heavyweight talent behind the camera and measured performances in front of it. Set five years before the events of Rogue OneAndor makes a strong first impression in its initial four episodes, wonderfully setting the stage for its steadily unwinding mystery to play out.
It’s a well-worn reference point by now, but it’s borderline impossible not to be reminded of Blade Runner in the series’ opening seconds. Pounding rain. Neon lights shattering the darkness. Sparkling pulses of music. A shuffling protagonist in a brown coat – the ingredients are all there. But as touchpoints go though, the 1982 classic isn’t a bad one, is it? Its grimy sci-fi noir tone is one that Andor attempts to replicate in the first third of the 12-episode first season, blending it with a helping of modern corporate espionage thriller touchstones.
Showrunner Tony Gilroy is no stranger to weaving conspiratorial stories of characters operating in morally gray areas going rogue in order to bring down a larger, undoubtedly more evil entity. Writer of the original Bourne trilogy, he also brought Michael Clayton to the screen – one of the sharpest film scripts of the past 20 years. When you combine these credentials with the fact that he was a co-writer on Rogue One, it all makes sense why he was chosen for the project, and crucially why so much of it works so successfully.
While there’s no Paul Greengrass or Doug Liman here to execute it, much of the action wouldn’t look far out of place performed by Jason Bourne either. Its grounded nature is a refreshing break from the ever-more frequent lightsaber duels and shoddy blaster fights we’ve become accustomed to in Star Wars’ more recent output. In truth though, there’s very little action to speak of at all across Andor’s opening hours, preferring to thoughtfully set the table neatly rather than regularly flip it over.
There’s a heightened sense of maturity to Andor that we haven’t seen regularly from Star Wars. It’s not stuck in the shadow of a singular family tree or poisoned by the overplucked Skywalker fruit that grows on it. Whisper it quietly, but there are even attempts to generate some sexual chemistry on screen at times – something Star Wars, and in a wider sense Disney, has long turned its blushing cheeks away from. That’s not to say that Andor is a strictly adult show by any means, but one that is definitely shooting for more depth than you might expect. The writing is strong, which is again something recent Star Wars projects have been crying out for. Natural dialogue is tinged with humor but never winking, taking its time for characters to have meaningful conversations rather than scenes designed to dish up the next Clone Wars cameo or helping of fan-service fodder.
Nothing looks cheap, and instead often feels like premium burgeoning on prestige TV. This is no coincidence when you take a look at the experienced operators set to share cinematography duties over the course of the series – Jonathan Freeman and Adriano Goldman, both Emmy Award winners for their work on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Netflix’s The Crown respectively. It’s Goldman’s eye that guides the first three episodes, with an abundance of tracking and steadicam shots combined with a healthy amount of close-ups keeping us tied to the characters. The low angle and often waist-high position of the camera also helps convey the message that we are with these people at the ground level of the resistance, helping us feel more connected to them as a result. It all comes across as carefully plotted and in no way accidental, with the people positioning the lens working as creatively to tell us the story as the actors performing in front of it.
Diego Luna effortlessly steps onto center stage as Cassian Andor. We learn a lot about his no-nonsense attitude in Episode 1’s Goodfellas’-infused bar altercation in which he speaks no words, but ultimately says all he needs to later with a vulnerability in his eyes and the pull of a trigger. Luna is a smooth operator, combining a valid sense of paranoia with a survivor’s resourcefulness throughout.
Each character behaves like a fully formed human as opposed to a speaking plot device present only to conjure up a macguffin. Bix, portrayed by Adria Arjona, is a perfect example of this – providing warmth whenever on screen and a genuine sense of a long personal history between her and Andor within just moments of us meeting them. Then there are the veterans like Stellan Skarsgård and Fiona Shaw, whose gravitas only elevates any scene they are in, further adding to the sense of Andor as a premium product.
And as for Andor’s antagonist, it’s welcome to be presented with a relatively fresh threat. There’s no doubt that Vader is one of the most iconic villains of all-time, but over exposure has led to us seeing almost everything he has to offer and, in turn, made him a less frightening presence. Andor’s enemy, on the other hand, is shrouded in oppressive governmental uniforms and is much more intimidating as a result. Acting as an avatar for that evil early on is Kyle Soller as Deputy Inspector Karn, who is charged with spearheading the hunt for Andor. He’s suitably slimy, bringing with him an air of dread whenever one of his sly smirks appears on screen – this cold exterior masking complexity inside, however.
Episode 1 does a great job of laying down the tonal groundwork for the series, reintroducing us to Cassian and establishing his accomplices as we steadily learn which can be trusted. The small industrial town we spend much of the opening episodes in serves effectively as the galaxy in microcosm – one where anyone can be your enemy at the height of Imperial-instigated turmoil. There’s a tangible feeling that we’re spending time with the people actually living day-to-day in this world, rather than the chosen few we so often follow the stories of.
Without spoiling anything important, Episode 2 continues to give us an insight into each of the characters’ backgrounds and motivations, while not necessarily moving the overarching plot along greatly, before 3 and 4 dive headfirst into it. This is where things kick into the next gear as the stakes are heightened, danger waits behind every door, and alliances are formed and broken. Episode 3 is a thrilling standout, with a clanging, street-level metallic ode to The Lord of the Rings’ Beacons of Gondor which ushers in siege-like guerrilla action.
The show does, however, fall flat slightly in some of the semi-frequent flashback sequences to Andor’s childhood. These are necessary to the plot and helpful in gaining a fuller understanding of his past and future motives, but are admittedly never as compelling as when we’re with the main cast. Saying that, they do eventually pay off towards the end of Episode 3, which is quietly, yet powerfully emotional thanks to some smart cross-cutting.
The overall pacing of the first four episodes may prove a little sluggish for some, but in truth I enjoyed it, finding the steadily revealing plot refreshing when compared to the majority of Disney’s recent MCU and Star Wars output. It’s not afraid to slow down and indulge in the atmosphere it often successfully generates. Again, feeling deliberately and maturely constructed rather than a string of intestinal hyperspeeding between fight scenes.
The Disney+ Star Wars shows may well have fluctuated in quality, but music is something they’ve consistently excelled in – whether it be the hypnotic percussion of Ludwig Göransson’s Mandalorian score or Natalie Holt’s glitching twists on the classics in Obi-Wan Kenobi. This time it’s Nicholas Britell adding yet another slathering of class, and while not producing anything as instantly recognizable as his Succession theme over the course of the first four episodes, he does make his mark with stoic strings, crashing cymbals, and hostile, textured chimes and drones – fitting the bubbling paranoia of Andor perfectly and only adding to Gilroy’s compelling vision.