(This review contains major spoilers for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “Andor”.)
Why do I watch Star Wars? Sure, part of it is the science-fantasy setting and the richly imagined worlds that George Lucas and his many disciples have populated. From aliens and droids, laser swords and psychic powers, cool hyperspeed-capable ships that for some reason always change shape when landing, to indelible characters like everyone’s favorite swashbuckling smuggler Han Solo or the epitome of evil, Darth Vader.
I grew up with the original trilogy, even loving Return of the Jedi – I was a kid at the time! The prequels were formative for a younger generation – I maintain the best storytelling is in Dave Filoni’s animated “The Clone Wars.” The sequels were a mess and have dominated the conversation ever since. But in 2016, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” changed the game.
No longer was the story utterly immersed in the Skywalker family drama. Our heroes were not Jedis, not carrying lightsabers, and not obviously Force-sensitive (except for Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe as a blind warrior and one of the Guardians of the Whills). They were simply caught up in a rebellion against the Empire due to the circumstances of their lives and the long grasp of the fascist government oppression taking hold of the galaxy, leaving nowhere to hide.
These stories hold much of their power in their ability to reflect our desired reality. The other reason I watch Star Wars is to feel the hope and joy of imagined direct action against tyranny. Truly great anti-fascist art allows us to escape the dreary confines of the hopelessness of combating fascism in an era when what is politically possible does not allow for the glory of “winning” – blowing up a Death Star or overthrowing an Emperor.
However, this art must also reflect that current reality in which some “great victory” over the evil that plagues us is not possible yet, lest it fails to rise above the label of lurid escapism. All we can do in the meantime is minimize harm and keep working towards a situation that would allow for systemic change. Our lot is to accept that we must keep working towards an idyllic future while knowing that we will not live to see those sweet tomorrows.
In “Rogue One”, the future victory (and racist medal ceremony?) for Luke, Han, and Leia is set up by Cassian Andor and Jyn Erso, among others, who sacrifice themselves to steal the plans of the Death Star that reveal the critical weakness built into the weapon by its creator, Jyn’s father.
That movie takes up the mantle of great anti-fascist art, from Picasso’s “Guernica” to films like “Casablanca”, “V for Vendetta”, “Porco Rosso”, “Pan’s Labyrinth”, “Gattaca”, and Terrys Gilliam’s “Brazil” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”.
In the same vein, Tony Gilroy’s prequel show “Andor” shows us how the oppression of the Empire molded our hero into the resistance warrior and deadly spy he becomes. His adopted father is killed by stormtroopers while trying to break up a potential riot. Years later, his ex-girlfriend is imprisoned and tortured by the Imperial Security Bureau – the C.I.A. of the Empire, who are looking for Cassian.
Andor himself is on the run after a deadly encounter with local Imperial law enforcement and then participating in a heist of the payroll of an Imperial supply hub. He is living under an assumed name when he is wrongfully imprisoned and sentenced to six years of confinement in a prison where people are worked to death. After finding out that prisoners are not being released after their sentence ends, Cassian recruits the shift leader Kino Loy, played brilliantly by Andy Serkis, to assist in a prison break. Then, finally, he comes home to Ferrix for his mother’s funeral only to end up witnessing the initial spark of the rebellion he would eventually help lead.
The banality of evil is represented by the Imperial Security Bureau (ISB), as embodied by the horrifying diligence of Dedra Meero (Denise Gough), an officer with sneering ambition and a desperate need for approval. She finds herself entangled with Syril Karn (Kyle Soller), a civil servant for the ISB, as both chase Cassian Andor. His motivation for his allegiance to the Empire is symbolized by his pride in his tailored uniform. These characters are more terrifying than Vader cutting his way through helpless Rebels at the very end of “Rogue One”. Syril’s mother, as played by Kathryn Hunter, seems like a reference to the mother from “Brazil” who also bemoans her son’s supposed lack of ambition.
Luthen Rael, who recruited Andor for the heist on Aldhani, is portrayed by Stellan Skarsgård with a burning ferocity hidden behind his mask – the innocent grin of a Coruscant antique dealer. This character, more than any other in Star Wars history, epitomizes the idea of the resistance warrior who lives in the moral gray and knows he will not survive this insurrection – certainly not with his soul intact. This is a man who condemns 30 rebels to die in order to, theoretically, fuel rage among the citizens under the Empire’s thumb and motivate uprisings. His speech in the tenth episode, in which he outlines his personal sacrifice for the rebellion, is possibly the best I have heard in fictional drama in years.
Genevieve O’Reilly has also stood out for her tense depiction of future Rebel leader Mon Mothma who funds Luthen’s rebel activities from her family bank account at the risk of her own life, while still serving in the Imperial Senate.
Diego Luna has been nominated for a Golden Globe for his tough, yet vulnerable performance as the titular Cassian Andor. A second season has been announced and is expected in the fall of 2024 on Disney+.
Upcoming releases for Star Wars fans: