The recent efforts of the Disney/Lucasfilm behemoth to free the Star Wars universe from the shackles of its own story have met with mixed results, to put it mildly. Standalone films Rogue One and Solo billed themselves as “A Star Wars Story” in an effort to break out of the trilogy-of-trilogies while retaining the essence of the franchise, whatever that much might mean. (That definition being either the thrill of intergalactic derring-do or the built-in brand-name familiarity, adjusting for cynicism.) Both features, however, failed to conjure an ineffable something that’s always made the numbered installments pop. The spinoffs’ preoccupation with proximity to the earlier films’ context – trumpeting all the ways in which these expansions connect to or, even worse, explain the magic of George Lucas’s far-far-away – weighed them down and held them back from full independence.
The Mandalorian, Jon Favreau’s small-screen addition to the canon and the marquee release for the nascent and bug-riddled Disney+ streaming platform, largely evades this pitfall. Excepting the more detour-heavy episodes of the assorted animated series, this represents the first successful attempt to reconcile the distance between being an appendage of a popular intellectual property and being its own work. Favreau sets his latest effort apart by assuming the cinematic language of the spaghetti western, a genre that looks and feels sufficiently different from what’s come before. But while the series’ pilot episode achieves a certain distinctness, it lacks in distinction; it is its own thing, and yet not much of anything.
Pedro Pascal portrays the title bounty hunter, though we have to take the production’s word for it. For the entirety of the first episode’s 40 minutes, Pascal’s face remains concealed beneath a mask of the sort previously worn by Fetts Jango and Boba. The character’s identity remains concealed and any link to the Fett lineage blessedly unremarked upon, but it does contribute to his overall impression as a nonentity. Even Casey Affleck’s performance from behind a linen sheet in A Ghost Story had more nuance and emotional conveyance than the blank non-stare of the Mandalorian’s mask.
Favreau’s only slightly missing the mark of “enigma” he’s going for, in accordance with the already espoused reference point of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name from the films of Sergio Leone. (We even get faux-Ennio Morricone riffs on synthesizer in the background.) It’s a sturdy model from which to build this figure of otherwise little palpable substance. Aside from his clumsily written quips, he prefers to operate as the strong silent type, traversing the cosmos and hauling in law-breakers in exchange for a quick payday. Favreau sets the majority of this episode’s scenes in genre-appropriate desert climates, with a noteworthy departure on an ice-planet concealing a less-than-impactful CGI monstrosity. The long-form homage works, on the whole, until the time comes to lay the cards on the table and Favreau has to re-stage a classic sequence from The Wild Bunch just to muster a grand finale.
“Spaghetti western but in space” is so much better in theory than in practice, a recurring theme in the pilot episode. Other concepts more entertaining as written sentences to be mentally gnawed on than realized images: “Nick Nolte in prosthetic makeup as an alien blerg-rancher”; “Carl Weathers exchanging laments about the travails of freelancing”; and “Werner Herzog delicately enunciating the word ‘parsec’”. However outré the building blocks of this first episode may be on paper, they lose their sense of wonder in translation to the screen. Maybe it’s just the absence of John Williams’ theme music that triggers childlike awe as if from Pavlovian conditioning.
The pilot’s final moments, in which – and stop reading here if you’re wary of spoilers, though to what extent can one spoil the first episode of a serial television show, really? – Pascal’s gunslinger discovers what sure looks like baby Yoda, foretell future episodes embedding themselves in the narrative tapestry of the main films. The revelations of what role this shriveled-up 50-year-old infant will play, as well as the reason Herzog’s antagonist wants it dead, will undoubtedly drag this series closer to the superficial resemblance of a Star War. Though that feels immaterial to the question of whether the show will improve over time. Its issues hew toward the fundamentals of direction, performance, and dialogue, more problems of basic filmmaking skill than miscalculated vision. Favreau started from a more specific, vivid place than in his jobs for Marvel or on Disney’s wretched Lion King remake. Unlike his nomadic antihero, however, he doesn’t take it much of anywhere.