One of the more intriguing quirks of the Disney era of Star Wars, following the megalith's acquisition of George Lucas's Lucasfilm in 2012, has been the growing re-evaluation of Lucas's critically panned prequel trilogy. This, of course, could simply be a case of millennial nostalgia, although I would say it is also founded on a valid sense of appreciation for movies that – while undeniably flawed in execution – are rich in the kind of cohesion and ideas that Disney's sequel trilogy sorely lacked. Whatever the reason for it, this reappraisal is evidently a driver for the latest Disney+ Star Wars show, Obi-Wan Kenobi, a slick six-part series that seeks to explore what happened to the Jedi Master after the harrowing events of 2005's Revenge of the Sith. The show even begins with a recap of the prequels.
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Directed by TV veteran Deborah Chow, from scripts by showrunner Joby Harold, Obi-Wan Kenobi finds Ewan McGregor's stoic Jedi still in hiding on Tatooine, where he has given himself the holy mission of protecting the young Luke Skywalker. In reality he is a broken man, haunted by the fall of the Jedi, the death of his friend Anakin (Obi-Wan is unaware that he survived to be Darth Vader), and stuck in a daily loop of drudgery and boredom. In interviews leading up to the show, Chow referenced films like 2017's Wolverine-centred X-Men spin-off Logan in describing Obi-Wan's darker, more character-driven approach compared to the rest of the franchise. Judging from the two episodes that premiered today, she wasn't wrong. It's a compelling portrait of defeat and regret, bolstered by a sad, soulful performance from McGregor, who has managed to dim the twinkle from Obi-Wan's eyes.
To make matters worse, Obi-Wan is now cut off from the powers of the Force, for fear of alerting the Empire's Inquisitors to his presence. These Jedi hunters, who hardcore nerds will recognise from animated show Star Wars: Rebels, take advantage of the Jedi's compassion. In one key scene, the ambitious Inquisitor Reva (Moses Ingram) lures a Jedi out of hiding by threatening to kill a barkeep, revealing the Jedi to be played by none other than Uncut Gems co-director Benny Safdie. He highlights Obi-Wan's dilemma: to act, to play the hero, to save others, is to condemn yourself (and likely Luke) to death. "What happened to you?" Safdie's character Nari asks Obi-Wan at one point. "You were once a great Jedi". Nari is later found strung up in the town square.
Obi-Wan is eventually forced into action by episode one's big surprise: the kidnap of a 10-year-old Princess Leia, played with an endearing precociousness by Bird Box's Vivien Lyra Blair. Obi-Wan, who is one of the few people in the galaxy aware of her importance, is approached by her adoptive father Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits reprising his prequel role) to rescue her. Now he must decide – will he act, will he play the hero, will he save Leia? "You couldn't save Anakin," Organa says, "but you can save her".
A recurring problem with Disney's era of Star Wars spin-off films and TV shows has been that the more gaps they fill in the overarching timeline, the more backstory of big characters that is illuminated, the smaller and less interesting the universe becomes. Did seeing Han Solo do the Kessel Run match up to your imagination? Did Boba Fett taking off his helmet and revealing himself as a nice guy make his character any more engaging? Obi-Wan Kenobi runs the same risk here, but justifies itself by being the first Disney+ Star Wars series to feel like a main Star Wars story, rather than some offcut, with its centring of lead characters from the films. After all, it's hard to think of anything else that could tempt Obi-Wan out of his cave. Of course it had to be Leia.
Episode two offers another rare treat when it comes to the recent Star Wars TV shows: a trip away from Tatooine. Obi-Wan ventures to the Blade Runner-esque planet of Daiyu, a hive of scum and villainy where he must avoid detection and track down Leia.
The dynamic between Obi-Wan and Princess Leia is a delight, while there are pulpy shades of John Wick in the way that Obi-Wan is plagued by bounty hunters
Joby Harold's script is remarkable in the first episode for its tightness, with not a single scene feeling superfluous or wasted. Episode two is slightly baggier, and lends weight to the argument that perhaps this project would have worked better as a two hour movie rather than a five hour TV show. You could also argue this based on the show's production values, which are of course absurdly impressive for television but are still unmistakably televisual. Even with the involvement of cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, known for his work on Oldboy and The Handmaiden, scenes on Tatooine and Daiyu have a strange, artificial quality to them unbefitting of Obi-Wan's grand status. Doesn't he deserve a bigger stage?
Still, there is a lot to enjoy here. The dynamic between Obi-Wan and Leia is a delight, with the scene in which he is reminded of her mother (Natalie Portman's Padme) proving particularly poignant, while there are pulpy shades of John Wick in the way that Obi-Wan is plagued by bounty hunters throughout the city. Kumail Nanjiani's fraudulent Jedi, who wears a bath robe and uses magnets to move objects across the room, will perhaps divide opinion. The joke is undoubtably funny, but there's something about Star Wars being this wacky and self-aware that feels jarring. Plus, why would you pretend to be a Jedi in a time when Jedis are being strung up in the street? Surely there are safer cons.
The second episode ends with Obi-Wan discovering the truth: Anakin Skywalker survived, and now lives on as Darth Vader. The shock is immense – and poses intriguing questions for how he will react going forward. They were like brothers once, and now they are enemies. The closing shot shows a burnt and scarred Vader in a bacta tank, giving us our first glimpse of the returning Hayden Christensen, who reprises his role as Anakin. It's no secret that they will fight again in this series, which has attracted some concern that it could undercut the significance of their duel in 1977's A New Hope – again, making the universe feel smaller.
But for now, based on the strength of these two episodes, I'm willing to give Obi-Wan Kenobi the benefit of the doubt. Much like the man himself, we must keep the faith.
The first two episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi are on Disney+ now, with further episodes launching weekly.
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