‘The Acolyte’ Review: A Star Wars Show That’s Halfway Special (Which Beats the Average)

Set hundreds of years before the events of the Star Wars saga we know best, this show gets to tell its own story—making it better than most of the series Disney+ has pumped out.

Amandla Stenberg as Mae in The Acolyte. Lucasfilm Ltd.

If you’re not a die-hard Star Wars fan, it’s likely that LucasFilm’s recent output of Star Wars shows will have totally lost you. With a few exceptions (namely the excellent Andor), each new series seems to pile directly on top of the last, creating a precarious tower of impenetrable lore that comments on previous Star Wars stories and little else. The Acolyte steers clear of this problem, becoming the rare Star Wars streaming series that might be approachable to the non-obsessed. Judged exclusively against other live action Star Wars shows that Disney+ has pumped out since acquiring the franchise 12 years ago for $4.05 billion, it’s better than average simply by having a clear point of view and something to say. However, simply avoiding the pitfalls of its sister programs may not be enough to make it worth watching. 

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The Acolyte is set hundreds of years before the events of the Skywalker Saga, during the age of the High Republic. The High Republic Era has been explored previously in novels, comics, and animation, but this is the first live-action depiction of the Star Wars galaxy’s golden age, before the Republic became a corrupt bureaucracy and the Jedi Order a cult of complacency. (Or, at least, that’s how it appears.) This setting isn’t too different from The Phantom Menace or the rest of the Prequel Trilogy in terms of technology, culture, or fashion, but it has one key distinction that immediately makes it more approachable than recent Disney+ entries like The Mandalorian or Ahsoka—practically no established Star Wars characters have been born yet, and those who have are not involved in the story. (Will Yoda, here a mere 500 years old, make a cameo at some point? Probably, but he’s not in the way.) Rather than resolving dangling threads from some other series or thrilling audiences with dead-eyed deepfake cameos of their childhood heroes, The Acolyte gets to tell its own story in the rich world of Star Wars.

The story in question concerns Osha Aniseya (Amandla Stenberg), a former Jedi Padawan who is drawn back to the Order to help apprehend her murderous twin sister, Mae (also Stenberg). Osha is reunited with her sentimental old master, Sol (Lee Jung-jae), her handsome but extremely mild-mannered old classmate Yord Fandar (Charlie Barnett), and most importantly, her long-lost twin, who’s been presumed dead for sixteen years. While Osha’s grief over her family kept her from completing her Jedi training, Mae’s has only made her a more powerful practitioner of the dark side of the Force under the tutelage of an unseen, unnamed master. While the mystery of Mae’s motivations and training does have greater implications for the Jedi, this is not a tale of galactic jeopardy. Instead, the stakes are whether the rift between Mae and Osha can be repaired before one or both of them loses everything.

Ed Kear, Dafne Keen, Lee Jung-jae and Charlie Barnett in The Acolyte. Lucasfilm Ltd.

The Acolyte kicks off with a strong and distinctive action sequence between Mae and Jedi Master Indara (Carrie-Anne Moss) that is mostly hand-to-hand. It’s a refreshing change from the past few years of Jedi action, which has mostly consisted of fighters lazily parrying blaster gunfire. The influence of wuxia action films, though incorporated into Star Wars as far back as The Phantom Menace, is cranked up significantly here, and this, more than anything, is what sells The Acolyte’s High Republic setting as something new.

Otherwise, The Acolyte feels akin to George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, in ways that appear deliberate but are not always flattering. The first two episodes are directed by Leslye Headland, but in contrast to her snappy, irreverent Russian Doll, The Acolyte is arch and earnest. Characters say exactly what they mean and how they feel, and these feelings aren’t terribly complex. There is political subtext, but very little personal subtext, which means that no one’s performances—including Amandla Stenberg’s dual roles—are particularly interesting. There are little quirks that feel inherited from Lucas, like the way scenes centered around dialogue tend to be photographed in static shot-reverse-shot and then ended abruptly via circle wipe the very moment the exposition has been dispensed with, as if to say “Thank God that’s over.”

Of the four episodes provided to critics in advance (the first half of the season), only the third chapter leaves a strong, lasting impression. Written by Jasmyne Flournoy and Eileen Shim and directed by arthouse darling Kogonada, this episode has its own sense of style and pace and essentially its own cast, providing the context and emotional core on which the rest of the series relies. Directors do not always get the freedom to bring their own voice to an episode of television, but The Acolyte does not squander Kogonada’s eye, patience, or empathy.

“This isn’t just about good and evil,” Jodie Turner-Smith’s character, Mama Aniseya, tells us in that episode. “This is about power and who is allowed to use it.” The story interrogates the Jedi’s legal authority over the Force—which even they admit belongs to no one—and the way that affects people of other faiths and cultures. Yet, having reached the midpoint of the season, I’m not yet convinced that The Acolyte will draw any new or interesting conclusions from this interrogation. Already, the delineation between good and evil is becoming more clear, when it feels as if it should be more complex.

Of course, not every Star Wars series can or should be Andor, a series that dove headlong into the mud and blood of the Rebel Alliance’s insurgency against the Galactic Empire and made little effort to amuse the kids or sell merchandise. I do not begrudge The Acolyte its silly droid and creature comedy, in fact I think whimsy is a key ingredient in the Star Wars recipe. But ever since Andor demonstrated how rich and compelling and genuinely thrilling these Star Wars series have the potential to be, it has become harder to accept when new entries fall short of that potential. The Acolyte is halfway to being special. That’s more than I can say for Ahsoka, or Obi-Wan Kenobi, or The Book of Boba Fett, but it’s not enough to make me a believer. 

The first two episodes of ‘The Acolyte’ premiere on Disney+ on June 4th. 

‘The Acolyte’ Review: A Star Wars Show That’s Halfway Special (Which Beats the Average)