The recent Disney+ series Andor is a tense, taut show about a rebellion taking shape in the fringes of a totalitarian galaxy. It’s a familiar story told in an unfamiliar way. We’ve seen plenty of Star Wars properties that focus on the nascent Rebellion–but not with this tone, this grittiness, this sheer unchecked fury at the fascist Empire.
Andor is a show about discontent. Characters all over the galaxy are shown to suffer at the hands of the Empire. The title character, Cassian Andor, suffers greatly: his life is remarkably more difficult than it would have been had he never encountered the Empire. Luthen, the art dealer who secretly bankrolls a Rebel cell, faces constant scrutiny from ISB agents. Mon Mothma, an Imperial Senator, secretly works to bring down the Empire from within–an Empire that she sees crushing innocent people and entire planets under its boot.
It’s astonishing what showrunner Tony Gilroy, composer Nicholas Britell, and cinematographers Adriano Goldman, Jonathan Freeman, and Frank Lamm have all managed to accomplish here. What makes Andor feel so fresh and intense in a deluge of middling Star Wars content? In a word, it’s real.
It’s About Fury
In the show’s first three episodes, Andor sets itself apart from traditional Star Wars stories by making its fury apparent. In the past, characters have rebelled against the unjust Empire because it infringes on their lives, but their desire to battle the totalitarian government has been as motivated by a desire to go on free-wheeling adventures as it has been a moral quest. With Andor, the Empire is presented as a force that you simply can’t help but join implicitly or resist on principle.
When Cassian meets Luthen to sell a stolen Starpath unit, Luthen recognizes something in the young thief that the burgeoning Rebellion will need. Cassian is a survivor, sure, but he’s also angry. The Empire took his home, his family, and everything he would have ever known had his people been undisturbed on Kenari. Cassian wants to believe that he’s a cynic, but Luthen senses the heart of a revolutionary beating in this bold young thief.
When the show turns to demonstrate the Rebellion and its disorganized cells, it showcases a number of different backgrounds that the Rebels all bring to the cause. Some, like Nemik, are true believers who will lay down their lives to see the Empire undone. Others, like Skeen, are selfish and simply fight for their own enrichment. No matter what brings them together, however, they’re united in their fury against the Empire that would dare claim sovereignty over something as massive and varied as the galaxy.
Andor doesn’t look like The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, or Obi-Wan Kenobi. Those shows don’t look bad, per se, but they do use a unique greenscreen process that Disney calls The Volume. The Volume is a 360-degree soundstage that utilizes advanced composite technology to create a believable background for alien landscapes. Filming in The Volume saves the production of those shows considerable money, but it also makes their outdoor shots look flat, static, and almost like a video game.
Andor refuses the temptation to use this cost-saving measure. Rather than being okay with “good enough,” showrunner Tony Gilroy chose to have the show shot on location in breathtaking real places that give the show a genuine sense of scale. The cinematographers, likewise, shoot characters in dynamic and unpredictable ways that make the show extremely enjoyable to look at. It’s easily the most beautiful live-action TV series Lucasfilm has ever put out.
That prestige feeling is present throughout all aspects of the show’s production, too. The costumes are believable and gorgeous, caught in glorious 4K resolution, and perfectly matched with the lived-in sets that bring life to the galaxy far, far away. And the actors all turned in some of the best performances we’ve yet seen in Star Wars.
Diego Luna stars as Cassian, reprising his role from Rogue One, and he’s a treat in every episode of this series. Cassian is a reluctant rebel at first, and his actions are constantly morally ambiguous. When he shoots a traitor without hesitation, the show allows audiences to read the act as either a tough choice to defend the Rebellion, or a pragmatic attempt to keep someone from shooting Cassian himself in the back.
And Luna is hardly the only actor bringing his A-game. Essentially everyone who appears on-screen, from Kyle Soller as the stern-jawed Cyril Karn to Genevieve O’Reilly as Mon Mothma hits the marks expertly and makes the galaxy a believable place. The show’s decision to focus on regular people, soldiers and politicians, pays dividends. The lack of Sith warriors and Jedi monks helps the show remain grounded and dialed in with its steely-eyed approach to showing us a realistic conflict between insurgents and totalitarian forces.
Even when aliens appear in the series, they’re brought to life with practical effects. A particularly memorable example is a four-armed doctor who is clearly being portrayed by two actors, one of whom has his arms sticking out from a custom-made shirt. By choosing to use two sets of human arms to create this visual effect, the show helps audiences stay in the scene and not eliminate their suspension of disbelief.
Sense of Place
Another element of Andor that sets it apart from some Star Wars media is its sense of place. The TIE fighters that intercept our heroes don’t appear as if from nowhere–we’re treated to scenes of pilots climbing on catwalks (practical sets!) and dropping into their fighter craft, all while silhouetted against the same night sky the protagonists see in the distance.
The threat of the Empire isn’t just represented by legions of white armored Stormtroopers, either. Their influence is everywhere, with Imperial insignias dotting the buildings of Coruscant, security forces crawling all over the Mid Rim planets Cassian frequents, and constant threats of moles infiltrating the Rebellion and undoing the organization before it can even get started. In fact, the show does an incredible job of making each and every villain feel entirely human.
This is a feat of some magnitude, given Star Wars’ predilection to hide its antagonists under masks, both figuratively and literally. There is no Darth Vader under his mask, no faceless Stormtroopers massing in their bunkers. Instead, evil has an identity: Cyril Karn, the short-tempered corporate security officer. Dedra Meero, the ISB agent who suspects the rebellion is gaining steam. Even Mon Mothma’s suspicious husband, Perrin Fertha, is played with convincing menace. Rebels and their sympathizers are surrounded by enemies, and even their own neighbors could turn them in.
Finally, a Grown-Up ‘Star Wars’
One of Andor’s biggest strengths is introducing characters who have realistic motivations and are fully fleshed out. The series doesn’t need to spend too much time with Rebel sympathizers or Imperial agents for you to get a sense of who they are and what drives them. That’s a testament to the actors, the scripts, and the show’s directors all at once for making complex people easy to read at a glance.
And, by making these characters believable and engrossing, you begin to care about what happens to them. When a Stormtrooper catches a stray blaster bolt in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair that carries no emotional weight. When an Imperial soldier is struck down in Andor, it’s almost always a character with a name, a character whose face was visible throughout the fight, and whose pain you can understand.
Likewise, when the show deals with the horrors of war, it pulls no punches for our Rebel heroes. The warriors who would rid the galaxy of the Empire aren’t afraid to take hostages, shoot before asking questions, and do whatever it takes to win an asymmetrical war with an unscrupulous enemy. In a sense, this is liberating. Seeing Star Wars take off the kid gloves and treat its subject matter in a mature way is something fans have been asking to see for decades.
Retelling in a Way that Matters
Of course, Andor isn’t showing us anything new in the grand scheme of things. It’s a prequel to a prequel, a recursive work that is unable to dramatically change the status quo of the wider Star Wars universe. We know where Cassian needs to be before the Battle of Yavin–he dies in a fiery blaze on Scarif after stealing the Death Star plans.
Moreover, the show isn’t even covering events that are unfamiliar to Star Wars. The film Solo also showcased a heist, and The Last Jedi included a similar gritty attitude and steely resolve to confront oppression. What makes Andor special isn’t some long-awaited cameo from a fan-favorite character or the introduction of some new color of lightsaber for a space wizard to wave around.
Instead, this show finds something worthwhile in the struggles of everyday people. It’s nothing for a Luke Skywalker or Rey From Nowhere to pick up a lightsaber and face down legions of impossibly evil bad guys. It’s another thing entirely when Cassian Andor, the born survivor, decides to stop just fighting for himself and join a real cause.