‘The Mandalorian’ Goes Full ‘Seven Samurai’ With “Sanctuary”

Naturally, there are spoilers here.

With every bounty hunter in the Guild gunning for both The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) and the asset, this week’s episode, “Sanctuary,” sees the title character hitting the proverbial mattresses. The Mandalorian seeks out a small farming planet called Sorgan in order to lay low. It’s so small it doesn’t even have a spaceport. There, he meets a fellow fugitive and former rebel operative, Cara Dune (Gina Carano). After a misunderstanding and a glorious fistfight, the two decide to go their separate ways, but fate has something else in store for them.

A small krill farm in the outskirts has been ravaged by raiders and seek to hire the pair to protect them. The Mandalorian and ex-Rebel operative set up a plan, train the farmers for war, and take out the raiders, including their seemingly possessed AT-ST. They win the day, but the action is too much and the Mando seeks to leave. Foolishly, he thinks he can leave the asset behind with Omera (played by Julia Jones), a young widow on the farm with a past as mysterious as his. She tries her best to convince him to take his mask off and stay with them, but any choice he might have had in staying in such a peaceful life is destroyed when a bounty hunter with a tracking fob arrives to kill the youngling. The episode ends with the Mandalorian and his young charge heading once more to the stars in their bid to survive.

Seven Samurai

Star Wars has always borrowed heavily from the influence of Akira Kurosawa, and even more specifically his film Seven Samurai. It tells the story of a group of impoverished farmers who have the audacity to hire samurai to protect them from the bandits that will surely steal enough of their food that they will starve. They’ve adapted this essential story into Star Wars before (from comic books to Star Wars: The Clones Wars) and obliquely referenced it in live action before, but this is the first time the story has been borrowed from so heavily in a live action format. (I wrote about all of this over here). The story for this episode is set on a krill farm, rather than rice paddies, and it’s told from the perspective of the Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura) character rather than that of the farmers. 

This creates an interesting relationship with the expectation of the source material and actually allows us to imagine Kurosawa’s film in a new way. What would it have looked like if the opening act was told from Kambei’s view? What was he doing before he shaved his head and foiled that kidnapper? Where was he heading? Where had he come from? Seven Samurai addresses that in small ways, but we don’t really see it, and watching this episode of The Mandalorian kicked off my imagination for it.

When the Mando and Cara Dune train the farmers and create the barricades around the village, it’s right out of Seven Samurai, and Howard manages to get all of the geography correct and help us understand the plan. Forgetting to do that was one of the chief failings of the most recent big-screen remake of Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven (2016), though that wasn’t the only level that film failed on.

So much of the editing and cinematography in this episode, as it came together as storytelling, felt pulled directly from Seven Samurai and projected it through a prism of Star Wars. It made me happy to see how well done it was.

The Direction

This episode puts Bryce Dallas Howard in the director’s chair and she gives us the Mandalorian at his most talkative, showing us that in his solitude with the little one he’s letting his guard down. But there’s a naïveté to this as well. The Mandalorian isn’t as streetwise and worldly as we’d like to suspect based on some of his actions in this episode, whether it’s leaving the kid with the server at the bar or trying to leave the kid on Sorgan entirely. I hope this is part of his growth arc, so that by the end of the season he’s no longer so naive and can more easily see the obvious threats around him.

Howard also gives us the episode with by far the most female characters, including Gina Carano’s Cara Dune, who is a delight in this episode. Dune is a character that we’ve been waiting for and she didn’t disappoint; she’s just fun to watch every moment she’s on screen. Carano has an incredible presence that balances her femininity with her lethality, giving us a rich character added to the Star Wars mythos. My one complaint here is that it seems as though her appearance on the show is limited (at least for now.) 

The character that steals every scene she’s in, however, is Julia Jones’s Omera. She creates a chemistry with Pedro Pascal’s masked Mando almost instantly and creates a tone that makes it so that it truly hurts that lone wolf and cub have to leave Sorgan. This has the same bitter-sweet tone as the ending of Seven Samurai, when Kambei and the surviving samurai look out over the village and see the farmers happy and singing as they plant their crop. It feels like a victory, but Kambei reminds us, “Again we are defeated. The farmers have won. Not us.”

What to look out for

There were a lot of cool things to spot in this episode of The Mandalorian, but my favorite might have been the Loth-cat. Loth-cats and tookas have been populating the Star Wars universe in the animated series and aside from the caged Loth-cat at Galaxy’s Edge, we’ve never seen one rendered in live-action before. The Loth-cat appears in a wonderful moment with the youngling that is incredibly well-designed. In Hidden Fortress, Kurosawa created a “worms-eye view” that set the POV to the lowliest characters in the story. This inspired George Lucas to make the droids the POV characters in A New Hope, but this moment with the Loth-cat shows us that Bryce Dallas Howard has taken this even more literally, hovering near the floor to show us the youngling’s point of view.

“Sanctuary” gives us another window into the version of Mandalorian culture that our title character adheres to. Though on the surface it might seem inconsistent with previous story installments featuring Mandalorians. The Mandalorian elaborates on the circumstances with which he is able to remove his helmet and it is only by himself. If he were to remove it in front of others, he would not be able to put it back on, giving up the life of a Mandalorian. He tells Omera that he’s been living like this since he was a boy after the Mandalorians took him in. Given the knowledge that one of the Vizsla clan is in the Mandalorian’s group, and that Pre Vizsla’s intention was to bring back the glory of Mandalore’s warrior past, it seems as though this is a much more martial and ancient belief of the Mando culture that they are living. Much more so than, say, Sabine Wren, who removed her helmet often. Some might say that this is in conflict with other Mandos we’ve seen in this way, but I would withhold judgment until we learn more about this particular sect. They’re clearly doling out the information slowly, and I suspect this will be one of the major revelations of the show.

Coda

This episode brought with it a lot of fun to the series, but also a much lighter touch that I found refreshing. The more talkative Mandalorian was a nice change of pace and his deepening relationship with the youngling is everything I want from this show. Their opening bit, where the child keeps pressing buttons was nothing short of gold. Bryce Dallas Howard gave us a wonderful look at a kind of world we haven’t really seen before in Star Wars and she did it with gusto. The design of the entire episode was beautiful and I wish we had more stories in this locale to tell.

My only major complaint was the music. I felt like this might have been composer Ludwig Göransson’s first near miss on the series. The music was serviceable, but the aesthetic of Seven Samurai felt as though it called for more Seven Samurai-like music. The score we got felt much more reminiscent of Peter Bernstein’s (excellent) score for the Ewok Adventures. I don’t bring that up as a negative, but that’s just the tone it felt like. Even the opening, pre-credits scene felt like the raid on Cindel’s family in The Battle for Endor. For someone who finds campy, nostalgic charm in the Ewok movies, this didn’t rub me the wrong way, in fact it brought a smile to my face. And if Star Wars isn’t bringing a smile to our faces (or emotive tears to our eyes) why are we here?

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