Dual (Roles) of the Fates? Stylish yet sloppy ‘Acolyte’ forces no boundaries…

Lots of gloss and set-pieces but Lucasfilm's latest feels like it's ticking compare/contrast boxes...

It is the time of the High Republic, years before the Empire will become a dark force in the universe and there seems little need for a Rebellion of any kind. So, when an esteemed Jedi Knight is murdered in a crowded bar in downtown Ueda there’s no short of witnesses who can willingly identify the assassin. It would seem to be a young woman, Osha Aniseya, who washed out of the Jedi Academy six years before.

But the problem is, Osha may have no exact alibi, but she is currently working as a menial mechanic on the opposite side of the universe and says she has no real malice to her career-change. Are all the witnesses wrong? Before she can be fully taken before the authorities and questioned for her ‘crimes’, she’s caught in a prison break-out and ends up crash-landing on an icy planet with plenty of people determined to track her down to find out the truth.

Her old Jedi Master Sol finds it hard to believe, emotionally and practically, that Osha is guilty but what other explanation could there be?   It appears that there is more at stake than realised: a darkness rising, but can it be stopped?



And so the latest Disney+ / Star Wars off-shoot is here and while it has a guaranteed checklist of elements suitable for ‘Even longer ago in a galaxy even further away…‘, there’s a feeling of familiarity – one that doesn’t breed contempt but seems like only playing to those hits rather than doing anything new. At its heart is a mystery involving the death of several Jedi masters and the secrets behind a past tragedy.

The question for most of the opener is where our loyalties should lie with main star Amandla Stenberg: we see her kill Master Indara and later have a dodgy alibi in front of her co-workers, but she seems honest in her confusion and protests of innocence when confronted about her culpability. The deceit is somewhat obvious, even if cast-lists didn’t reveal that…. drum-roll, Stenberg is playing both Osha and her supposedly dead twin sister Mae. The only question then is the how and why of the sleight-of-hand. The opener still has ‘vision’ sequences that suggest there could be more to the connection between the sisters than just one setting up the other. I briefly wondered if Mae is dead and Osha has two personalities but the internal logic of where events happen and the second episode seems to scotch that potentially interesting avenue to go through the more obvious mirror darkly as its core. On the pragmatic side, little is done to make Stenberg’s dual roles different enough from each other – physically they both have similar hair-styles (well, isn’t that convenient?), but while Mae has the better apparent fighting-skills, their body-language and voice-patterns are also too similar. Mae should be the far better fighter as she’s undergone training that Osha didn’t complete, but that inevitable full-on fight sequence is probably a few episodes away yet.

Carrie-Anne Moss as Master Indara has been seen as a major figure in the trailer and is more than up to the job of handling the austere air and ballet-like posing of a trained Jedi, but for exactly the same reasons it’s hard not to flashback to her days as Trinity in the Matrix movies. But – and this is another spoiler warning if you haven’t seen the episodes – she doesn’t make it out of the first fifteen minutes after she’s forced into a duel with the ‘Acolyte’ of the title and has to lower her defenses to save an ‘innocent’ bystander.  Squid Game‘s Lee Jung-jae gives his Jedi Master Sol just the right amount of stoicism, able to reel out exposition with the needed frown and a glance that settles somewhere between deep thought and ready to kick-ass.

Dafne Keen (Logan, His Dark Materials and definitely, absolutely not in this year’s Deadpool and Wolverine) makes a better impression as another padawan Jecki who quite understandably wonders why her current mentor seems more interested in his ex-student than her training. Some scenes feel even more like a checklist. There’s a scene involving pre-school padawans discussing spiritual metaphors for the sea (‘still‘ certainly wouldn’t have been my first go-to) and a beefcake shot of a young newly-minted shirtless, cloakless Jedi Knight Yord (Charlie Barnett) who looks like he’s barely old enough to have finished Jedi High School (get off my lawn!).

The Hong Kong influence is everywhere: fight sequences are of the glossy, wu-shu variety, akin to choreographed dance-offs that admittedly look stylish and sleek in the moment, yet don’t have the sheer urgency we’ve seen elsewhere. More depth than the surface-tension of The Mandalorian and its own pointless twin The Book of Boba Fett but nowhere near the tonal darkness of Andor, it’s hard to note from the opening double-bill as to which cosmic windmill the show will ultimately tilt.  Yes, yes, it’s all set a hundred years before the prequels and the sequel to the prequels and most of the tv stuff to date but with the exception of the Jedis not having to skulk about like hermits, there’s really not a huge difference in look or feel – and, there’s actually quite a lot of skulking to be found here, regardless. There are some moments that don’t so much require a suspension of disbelief as a severe palm to the face. It’s one thing to have visible lazer-beams and sound sin the void of space (such adherence to the law of physics may conflict with the shock-and-awe required for contemporary sf… but someone going outside a space-craft to put out a naked flame on the wing?) Seriously – that kind of ‘you do know this is in outer-space, right?’ moment would have been embarrassing in Buster Crabbe’s days of Flash Gordon and for a cutting-edge Lucasfilm outing it’s unforgivable and sloppy and lifts you entirely out of the experience. Let us also skirt past the awkward looking chin-wig supported by another Jedi Master as he floats using an old stage trick that’s obvious when you think about it and a new hair-bunned wookie named Kelnacca who continues the problem of potentially being a Bigfoot stand-in.

Writer/director writer-director Leslye Headland is decent enough but feels no need to go outside the established mythology in style or content. There’s suggestions that it will explore the grey area between the more traditional light and dark elements of the original trilogy, the dangers of emotions channeled in the wrong way or in badly-chosen loyalties coming back to haunt our various characters. (And what better/obvious way than to do it with that go-to twins trope?) But there’s also the possibility that for all the very crisp, vivid, shiny yet somehow uninspired and inconsistent decorations and frills, The Acolyte could still be little more than a sequence of traditional set-piece dual/duels contractually separated by glossy but moody moments that still seem somwahat half-hearted in execution.

Essentially, The Acolyte will satisfy the faithful, ever eyeing the horizon for the next Star Wars tie-ins, good at some of the things it does and surprisingly less so in others, but in the short-term but probably won’t convert anyone else to its cause. The ratings for the double-banked opening episodes were impressive for Disney+ and the episodes are certainly easy on the eye, but one can’t help feeling that Star Wars – once one of the pillars of cosmic excellence – is now just another sf show in an already competitive (occasionally innovative) marketplace that is settling for a nostalgic, journeyman style and no longer maintaining the true ‘event’ status it once enjoyed…


'Star Wars: The Acolyte' EP 1 and 2 (Disney+ review)
'Star Wars: The Acolyte' EP 1 and 2 (Disney+ review)
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