Not a Star Wars Fan from the Beginning
I’m not a fan of the Star Wars movies. The original 1977 Star Wars (now known as Stars Wars: Episode 4 “A New Hope”) was a disappointment for me. Don’t get me wrong – it was a milestone in moviemaking history. The complexity of the film, the special effects, the marketing, Lucas’ separation from the Directors’ Guild, all amazing achievements.
However, as a teen brought up on Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, I was expecting something more cerebral. Something that had an important message to convey. Instead, even at the age of 14, I recognized that what I got was the King Arthur legend, in outer space.
I had been mystified at the success of the film and the franchise for decades.
The film had two sequels that were equally disappointing. Star Wars Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back had some serious problems. Essentially, it was Luke in training, followed by Leia and Han traveling to the cloud city. Then in the last quarter of the film the reveal that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, and Han Solo was captured by a bounty hunter. The ending was a let down as there was no goal or conclusion to the film, it was just a set up for the next one.
Then came Star Wars Episode 6: The Return of the Jedi. This was a clear market grab aimed at children with the introduction of the Ewok. The destruction of a second Death Star was a lazy callback to SW:4.
Finally, the three prequel films were an embarrassment to fans and movie professionals alike. Lucas spent three films trying to explain everything in the Star Wars universe and failed miserably.
However, what many don’t realize is that Lucas’ prequel films weren’t really about Star Wars – they were about advancing the state of the art in filmmaking. These were the first films to be fully digitally produced. Lucas essentially invented digital filmmaking – and reinvented the art of making a movie.
Back to Basics: Star Wars: Episode 4: A New Hope
After I entered the world of novel writing, I learned what makes a great story. And to its credit, SW:4 was very much on the mark. Lucas had studied at the feet of legendary mythologist Joseph Campbell. He created a set of relationships between a hero, a scoundrel, a princess, and a mentor/wizard – as well as several secondary characters. I finally understood the appeal of Star Wars.
I realized that great stories are not about world (or universe) building – but about relationship building. While creating a rich universe enhances the story, universe building alone is boring. People – humans – go to the movies, watch television, and read novels to live vicariously through the characters in the story. And to create great characters, you need to create great relationships.
SW:4 gets this right. We meet a young man with hopes, dreams, and aspirations. He’s led into a strange and exciting new world by a mentor. He meets friends and allies. He overcomes his fear and achieves a great goal. This is the basis for all storytelling, and though I didn’t get the morality play I was looking for, Star Wars was a great story and is a template for other great stories.
The Disney / JJ Abrams reboot of the Star Wars franchise has left a lot to be desired. Episodes 7, 8, and 9 were not a coherent set of films aiming for a logical conclusion to the franchise. Instead, they were a mismanaged set of films that milked the fanbase while offering no coherent storyline. They checked off a number of well-intentioned social goals, but fell into the Disney “Princess” pantheon – perfect for marketing.
The Problem with the Mandalorian
There’s a lot to praise about The Mandalorian. Jon Favreau is at the helm of this new branch of the Star Wars family tree. He’s successfully created a universe consistent with Star Wars canon, and infused high production values and CGI while maintaining the look and feel of the Star Wars films.
But the problem with the series is that it feels very much like “monster of the week.” Each episode, or “chapter” shows our hero fighting a new creature. We meet new characters, but we don’t get much interaction between them so that true relationships are built.
Lead actor Pedro Pascal is getting accolades for his performances – but it’s hard to understand why. His face is always covered by a helmet – which apparently a true Mandalorian never removes. Aside from a few lines of dialog, we never really get any idea of who “Mando” truly is. If you cannot see a character’s face, it’s hard to know who he really is. Even his body language is shunted by a clumsy suit of armor.
Favreau picks up the action of the Star Wars universe soon after the demise of the Empire in SW:6. The Rebel Alliance (as the New Republic) has reestablished dominance, but not necessarily control, of the galaxy. There’s a lot of action in this series. The lightsaber fights, running gun battles, space battles, all look great. But all these episodes have the feel of old westerns of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Unlike westerns of days gone by, Favreau has created an overarching goal which ties the episodes together: that of saving the “Baby Yoda” character. (Many friends have compared the series to “Lone Wolf and Cub.”)
There is also a ton of fan service in this show. Much of the action takes place on Tatooine – Luke Skywalker’s home planet. And one of the characters is among the few survivors of poor Alderaan – Princess Leia’s home world. For me the Easter Eggs distract from the main story.
And let’s talk about the main story. The Mandalorian goes from planet to planet looking for the Jedi who can train the child. The Mandalorian also seems to be looking for more of his kind. In fact, it seems that EVERYONE in this galaxy is the last of their kind and is seeking to be reunited with whatever remnants of their kind there is.
The loyalties and motivations of nearly every character are variable and unexplained. The Mandalorian takes on the task of delivering “the child” to a scientist – then changes his mind, steals the child, and commits to returning the child to the Jedi. Why he is so committed to this, despite the fact that his “code” requires him to stick to his bargains is not fully explained.
Other agreements also confound belief. A Marshall has Mandalorian armor which our Mando wants back. The Marshall promises to return the armor if Mando helps him kill a (Dune-like) spice worm. Much to my amazement, Mando agrees. Why Mando doesn’t simply kill the Marshall and take the armor is beyond me. Then, to double my amazement, the Marshall makes good on his promise and returns the armor after the worm is dead. This is just one clear example of the many fits of code-honor and loyalty that have no apparent reason – except to further the plot.
The Mandalorian is a slick production which is true to Star Wars canon and extends the universe. The single show runner Jon Favreau keeps the series consistent – both from episode to episode and true to the aesthetic of the original movies.
But the overarching plot line is slow to develop. The planet-hopping creates a sort of vagabond feel to the series reminiscent of the old “Kung Fu” TV show. The fact that the Mandalorian helps the wayward remnants of the Empire’s citizens adds to that feel (Episode 4 looked like a remake of The Magnificent Seven). Each episode appears to be an excuse for elaborate action and fight sequences.
In short, The Mandalorian is an exercise in world building, but not relationship building. We barely care about anyone in this show. Characters could easily die or be replaced and we’d never know the difference. Even Pedro Pascal is disposable as the Mandalorian since he’s enshrouded in armor and (almost) never reveals his face. Even the central relationship between Mando and the child is weak at best. At the end of the day, there’s hardly any reason to watch The Mandalorian – except for the action.
One saving grace is the series’ coherent story line. That, at least, is better than the Star Trek universe is doing. But that’s different review.