‘Andor’ Breaks the ‘Star Wars’ Mold With a Dark Adventure Rooted in Adult Themes

Disney’s “Andor” poses some intriguing options for approaching it. It is the latest in the mouse’s eternal cache of “Star Wars” spinoffs, detailing events set about five years before “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” At the same time, it never actually feels like a “Star Wars” show. Gone is the innocence and fairy tale cheer of the franchise. This is an intense, moody drama where barely any action takes place in the first few episodes. Creator Tony Gilroy, who also scripted “Rogue One,” has mostly been a writer of serious, focused dramas. He brings that spirit to George Lucas’ creation, going beyond even the recent sequel movies. The result is an impressive series that travels to new emotional plateaus, even if it may feel alien to the classic, original movies.

Those who remember “Rogue One” will instantly recognize its main character, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who we meet here before he becomes a member of the Rebel Alliance fighting the dreaded Empire. This Cassian is wandering the gritty alleys of Morlana One, unconcerned with revolutions. Instead, he’s searching for his sister. Flashbacks reveal how years ago on their home planet of Ferrix, Cassian and sibling Kassa (Antonio Viña) witnessed a ship crash. It was a moment that would spell doom for their Indigenous community. On Morlana One, Cassian’s search lands him in a corner where two security thugs try to shake him down and he accidentally kills them. He goes on the run back to Ferrix, carrying with him a smuggled NS-9 Starpath Unit. On the hunt for Cassian is Syril Karn (Kyle Soller), an inspector desperate to ascend in the ranks. It’s a tough situation for Cassian since back home he gets little support. Even his droid, B2EMO, isn’t too happy in his company. But Cassian will need all the help he can get to evade the authorities and find his sister.

“Andor” is the first Disney production not only to challenge the old “Star Wars” mold, but to seriously try and bring a Peak TV sensibility to the streamer. The Marvel shows have been a mixed bag of offerings basically connecting to the movies. “Star Wars” shows, even very good ones like “The Mandalorian,” have been about continuing the cheerful, swashbuckler spirit of the franchise. “Andor” begins with a visual tone and even music score more suited for “Blade Runner,” with atmospheric pacing and a haunted lead character walking through rain and shadows. Cassian steps into a low-lit bar without the usual, cheery music being played by alien creatures. Instead there are dangerous louts drinking here and a woman greets him, who in any other show would be a brothel worker. If “Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett” were semi-Westerns, and the ill-received “Obi-Wan Kenobi” a clunky chase thriller, “Andor” is a serious drama. Cassian has to run because he killed people, not because he’s looking for some long-lost Jedi.

The first chapters of “Andor” don’t even feature the usual “Star Wars” action scenes with space battles and shootouts. For younger viewers raised on the original films they might even prove taxing. Then again, they are not the intended audience. This is the first “Star Wars” title anywhere where people quite openly have sexual relationships. Cassio has to convince friends like Brasso (Joplin Sibtain) to lie for him so he can have an alibi. He’s like a classic noir character in a world where there are no heroes. This is the “Star Wars” underworld populated not by rebels, but by smugglers like Bix (Adria Arjona), who has a boyfriend, Timm (James McArdle) who does not like Cassian. It’s Bix and Timm who we are a bit startled to see having a sex life. In a first for a Disney show set in the galaxy far, far away, we even get morning after moments with a clearly nude from below Adria Arjona. On HBO that’s nothing, but here it’s a testament to how much the studio is allowing Gilroy to prove you can have adult drama in this franchise. Like Fox Mulder in “The X-Files,” Cassian is a character walking around an unreal existence but driven by a very human tragedy. He lost his sister and needs to find out if she’s even alive.

A more traditional plot element is thrown in to give the plot some coherence. Not only is Cassian running because of who he killed, but he also has attained a box containing particular information being sought by the Empire. Cassian needs to sell it to buy his passage to more secure freedom. He also brings trouble to Ferrix when imperial figures arrive, including an enigmatic operative played by Stellan Skarsgård. Familiar characters from “Rogue One” also reappear such as Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) who we know secretly supports the Rebels, and even Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera, the Clone Wars veteran. But they all take a back seat to Cassian Andor, who is written in a way that requires Diego Luna to do some serious acting. He’s not necessarily dashing but actually insecure and feeling the weight of great forces chasing him down. The flashbacks to Cassian’s childhood also touch on the theme of indigenous communities coming under assault by outside forces. In a way “Andor” is also about the historical and generational trauma left in communities suddenly invaded by violent imperial interests. There is comic relief with B2EMO, another one of those “Star Wars” droid cousins to R2D2, meaning it looks cute, swivels its head and has a comforting, yet hilarious voice.

Franchises like “Star Wars” either sink into recycled factory products or find ways to branch out into fresh, innovative territory. The recent sequel films were an unbalanced package. Ironically, “Andor” stems from one of the more underrated prequels. “Rogue One” was a production riddled with controversy due to its original director, Gareth Edwards, delivering a cut Gilroy was brought in to massage into final shape. Yet it’s an excellent adventure film that surpasses the three sequels initiated and finished by J.J. Abrams. Its ending was also grand, tragic and stirring. Now as a spinoff, “Andor” gives us an essential backstory to Cassian Andor before he became a rebel, while standing on its own as an engaging character study. This may not be the same “Star Wars” viewers are used to, but that’s its strength. It’s something new and fitting for an uncertain time.

Andor” season one begins streaming Sept. 21 with new episodes premiering Wednesdays on Disney+.