The Mandalorian feels like true vintage Star Wars
Werner Herzog — the legendary German director who plays a client of the title character in The Mandalorian — has "never seen a Star Wars film, but it doesn't matter," he told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year. I'm inclined to agree with him; aside from a few moments of inside baseball and that big reveal at the end, staged like The Creation of Adam, the first episode of The Mandalorian seems to exist in a galaxy far, far away from the more familiar movie franchise.
Some of that is simply logistics. The Mandalorian character lives on the galactic frontier, where he makes increasingly meager money bounty hunting. Set between the end of Star Wars' original trilogy and the beginning of The Force Awakens, the heroes we know and love are far away and out of sight (there is no cryptic mention of any "Skywalker" here). The Mandalorian even loses John Williams' iconic compositions, which have defined the Star Wars universe for decades, opting for a wholly inventive score by Ludwig Göransson. It was not just because of the locale that I was wondering where are we? almost as soon as the show began.
But casual viewers and superfans alike need not despair over The Mandalorian's many departures; despite its glossy and alien appearance, the first episode suggests the show is vintage Star Wars through and through.
While details about where the series goes from here are still thin (the second episode will go up on Disney+ on Friday, which will more or less remain its release date through the rest of the eight-episode season), we now know that Pedro Pascal plays a Mandalorian, who, despite his people's renowned reputation, is just scraping by catching rogues who've skipped out on their bail. The inciting incident (The Mandalorian as of yet shows no signs of diverging too greatly from Star Wars' love of the Hero's Journey structure) comes in the form of an assignment from the aforementioned Herzog character, to track down a new, pricey target.
While Pascal has said in interviews that he modeled the Mandalorian on Clint Eastwood's chilly-yet-charming Man With No Name, newcomers who aren't familiar with Spaghetti Westerns might more immediately recognize in him the galaxy's other most famous outlaw, the smuggler Han Solo. Admittedly, the Mandalorian is more composed than Han, who was a little rougher around the edges, but he does share Solo's knack for ending up working with the most incompetent allies (in this case, a quickly dispatched IG-11, voiced by Taika Waititi). Through the Mandalorian's frustration with his colleagues — a groan of "droids" not so unlike Indiana Jones' "snakes" — we come to understand him as being talented even for this universe, where heroes somehow never seem to get hit by the trillions of blasters constantly aimed in their direction.
Really, it's remarkable all on its own that we can use words like "frustration" in relation to Pascal's character, who wears a mask for the entire episode. While anonymous vigilantes are all the rage this season, even the protagonists on HBO's Watchmen take their masks off every once in a while so you can connect with their expressions. We read emotion in faces and eyes, which is why even beneath Nick Nolte's prosthetics that he wears to play Kuiil, an Ugnaught alien, we see a wizened space cowboy yearning for peace. No such luck with our main guy Mando.
Still, this is Star Wars we're talking about, a franchise that has managed to even make us fall in love with a chirping orange orb. Pascal at least has a human voice — one he uses to great effect in the episode, to communicate exasperation, amusement, irritation, and wistfulness, such as when he is pulled back into the violent memories of his childhood. Star Wars has decades of similar experience, convincing us to react to nonhuman faces whether they're Stormtroopers or Phoebe Waller-Bridge's revolutionary droid L3-37. Those techniques come into play with Pascal, who uses well-timed head-tilts to give us a clue about what he is thinking and how he is reacting under the mask. For the most part, it works, although there is still something awkward about the use of close-ups on impassive armor during his flashback montage.
In truth, the real star of the premiere is Göransson, the composer. If you don't have a face to connect with, then you are almost certainly going to rely on the emotional cues of the music. While Star Wars has now ventured beyond Williams' triumphant theme — also absent, as might be expected, is the familiar yellow crawl of opening text — Göransson has created an incredible world through his sounds, blending Western themes while keeping the music not-quite-placeable and strange. If it weren't for Pascal's dog-like head-cock, and the tense music at the episode's close, there could have been potential to misread the relationship between the Mandalorian and his new target as threatening, rather than curious and hypnotic.
Then, of course, there are those transitions. For as far as The Mandalorian strays from Star Wars in a quest to claim its own identity on the small screen, the show still uses George Lucas' clunky, signature PowerPoint-like wipe transitions. My favorite of Mando's wipes — about 20 minutes through the episode — actually balloons out from the Mandalorian's ship, a kind of transition you will not see anywhere else in the year 2019. It's perhaps the most Star Wars-y thing about the pilot episode of all; not just that it cribs edits directly from Lucas, but that those edits serve as a reminder to not take it too seriously. As self-important as Star Wars often can be, we would be remiss to forget to laugh at it, too.
Fans will obsessively pick apart this first episode in the coming days, but Star Wars has always been at its best when it's welcoming to even the most casual audiences. The Mandalorian hasn't forgotten those roots, nor has it left behind its predecessors' lessons in what makes a great space story: Incredible worlds, captivating music, strange and unique creatures, and most of all, a hero who — even if you can't see his face — you'll follow to the ends of the galaxy.
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