Television

Disney’s Live-Action Star Wars Show Looks Great, but So Far It Isn’t

The Mandalorian has a big budget but little imagination.

IG-11, a droid voiced by Taika Waititi, and Pascal as the Mandalorian.
Taika Waititi and Pedro Pascal in The Mandalorian.
© 2018 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™

Congratulations! You are one of the fortunate few who have managed to avoid technical issues and connect to Disney+. Your reward: 39 minutes of mediocre Star Wars.

The Mandalorian, which was written by Jon Favreau and directed by The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels veteran Dave Filoni, looks great—or at least very much like something on which Disney spent one-eighth of the eight-episode season’s $100 million budget. But it feels uninspired from its very first scene, a confrontation in an intergalactic cantina that ends with the show’s titular bounty hunter … collecting a bounty. The show’s premiere (available now on Disney+, with others following every Friday) ends with a mild surprise, suggesting it will build out an area of the Star Wars universe that has been hitherto unexplored. But before that it’s at pains to confront viewers with the familiar, to make them comfortable enough that they can slide right into The Empire Strikes Back when they’re done and not feel the slightest jostle.

The Mandalorian is played by Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal, or at least that’s what the credits say. The show keeps his face hidden by a helmet for the entire first episode, which would be less of an issue if it didn’t try the same trick with his character. We learn that he’s ruthless, that he’s good in a fight, that he’s a man(dalorian) of few words—but when have those things ever not been true of a bounty hunter, in this or any other fictional universe? We also learn that there are more of his kind (which the prequels established), that he’s a “foundling,” and that he cares about more than money, but these are less revelations than Mad Libs blanks, empty spaces to be filled in once subscribers’ free trials have expired. The whole thing feels truncated and half-sketched, like you’re watching a pitch that never got turned into a script.

That outline involves sending the Mandalorian to collect an unusual kind of bounty, one whose details are suspiciously sketchy: There’s no hologram of the intended target, no information beyond an archaic tracking device. The path leads him to a mysterious employer, played with gusto by Werner Herzog, who follows in the paycheck-cashing footsteps of the original trilogy’s Alec Guinness, and a grizzled-sounding Ugnaught voiced by Nick Nolte, who evidently preferred to cash his paycheck from the comfort of a recording studio. There are aliens and beasties and droids galore, not to mention the inevitable Easter eggs. What there isn’t is a hint of purpose, or a burning desire on anyone’s part to do more than beef up Disney’s Star Wars collection.

It’s not hard to see where Disney’s money went, at least. There’s an early scene where the Mandalorian and his captive, played by a chatty, blue-skinned Horatio Sanz, are attacked by a giant wormlike creature that bursts through the surface of an icy sea, and a major shootout during the storming of an armored fortress. But the bar fight at the beginning looks cheap and awkwardly staged, which is another way of saying it looks like television—and not the prestige-tinted 21st century kind. This isn’t a Star Wars story that happens to be on TV; it’s a TV show that happens to be Star Wars.

Whatever their faults, the Star Wars prequels and the current trilogy have taken big swings, either visually or narratively or both. The Mandalorian, at least based on a single episode, is playing small ball. Given that it’s set between The Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, there’s a lot to explore, namely how the Empire, which once seemed vanquished, rose again in a new form. But the stakes the show establishes, through flashbacks and references to some mysterious something that happened 50 years ago, orient it toward the past and not the future. Considering how much of Disney+’s content is set to follow a similar template—there will be cracks-filling tales of a young Obi-Wan Kenobi and Marvel shows elaborating backstories or setting up undoubtedly minor plot points for the MCU movies—it’s worrisome that its flagship series aims so low and tries so little. Perhaps future episodes will broaden its scope, or at least allow Pedro Pascal to show his pretty face. But the streaming wars don’t give second chances, and Disney+’s first shot is a dud.