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Disney+’s Latest ‘Star Wars’ Spinoff

Disney+’s Latest ‘Star Wars’ Spinoff

It would certainly be unfair to say that all Star Wars stories have the same plot. Andor is not The Last Jedi and The Last Jedi is not The Phantom Menace, and each is more interesting for the new paths they cut across familiar territory. In broad strokes, though, a whole lot of them seem to come down to the same trusty formula: heroic Jedi freedom fighters versus dark-side imperialists, on and on across the galaxy for decades.

In that light, Disney+‘s The Acolyte represents an intriguing shakeup. The spinoff, set roughly a century before the events of the films, finds the Jedi not as scrappy underdogs but as entrenched establishment. How precisely they’ve wielded that influence remains murky in the four 40ish-minute episodes sent to critics. But there are worse qualities for a new series to have than an overabundance of potential — and wherever this one ends up, it’s got enough on its mind to make the journey worthwhile.

The Acolyte

The Bottom Line

An intriguing shakeup to the Star Wars formula.

Airdate: Tuesday, June 4 (Disney+)
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, Lee Jung-jae, Dafne Keen, Charlie Barnett, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joonas Suotamo, Manny Jacinto, Jodie Turner-Smith, Rebecca Henderson, Dean-Charles Chapman
Creator: Leslye Headland

While the opening text indicates a time of peace and prosperity, the premiere, directed by creator Leslye Headland, makes clear that those blessings are not shared equally by all.

Our protagonist is Osha (Amandla Stenberg), a former Padawan who washed out of the academy before reaching full-fledged Jedi status. Now she works as a “meknik,” doing outer-ship repairs for wealthy clients who don’t care that the job has been deemed too dangerous for anyone but R2 droids. (That her name happens to be the acronym for the agency that regulates workplace safety in our own reality seems a sardonic joke.) But when Mae (also Stenberg), the twin she believed died 16 years earlier, resurfaces as a killer of Jedi, Osha reluctantly teams with her old master (Lee Jung-jae) to find her sister and bring her to justice.

While Mae’s spree has political implications for the Jedi, The Acolyte concerns itself with its more personal impact, with uneven results. Stenberg makes restraint her weapon as Osha; the more she turns her rage inward, the more we feel for the anguish bottled up inside her. Lee does similarly subtle work as Sol, conveying more tenderness with a single facial expression than could be explained in any clunky speech. (Though he’s very smooth at delivering necessary chunks of exposition, too.)

But the series doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with more marginal members of its ensemble, like Jedi Knight Yord (Charlie Burnett) or criminal supplier Qimir (Manny Jacinto). And while there are plot reasons to keep Mae difficult to pin down, the effect is a main character who feels distant, murky in her motivations and random in her choices.

As Osha slowly pieces together the truth about her and Mae’s shared history, The Acolyte takes on the grim momentum of a conspiracy thriller: every answer seems to raise more unsettling questions, until it feels impossible to know whom to trust. The Jedi’s role in the sisters’ childhood starts to look less benevolent than Osha had always assumed it to be, though perhaps also less malicious than Mae had.

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“This is not about good or bad. It’s about power and who gets to wield it,” their mother (a regal Jodie Turner-Smith) says in a flashback — and indeed, the closer the series stares at the line between the two sides, the blurrier it becomes.

A standout third episode, directed by Kogonada (Columbus, After Yang), embeds itself with a coven persecuted for their “unnatural” use of the Force. Yet what we see of their ways hardly seems sinister; they seem like women who want only to be left alone to practice their traditions in peace.

From their perspective, the Jedi are the persecutors who barge in where they’re not wanted, imposing their traditions on others with the full might of their institutional power. “Thank you for your cooperation,” the Jedi add after their most unreasonable demand, a fig leaf of courtesy to reframe their intervention as a civil exchange.

The Acolyte does not throw out the Star Wars playbook entirely. It’s faithful to the charms that have carried this series for so many decades: strange planets, weird creatures, lightsaber battles with a fresh wuxia flair. Mae’s murderous quest is backed by a mysterious figure whose helmet, weapon and mechanical voice recall Darth Vader, suggesting this narrative could yet come down to another Sith-versus-Jedi battle. And though I have yet to catch any famous last names or obvious Easter eggs, I would never put it past this franchise to circle back to Skywalkers or Palpatines at the last second.

But in its willingness to challenge our assumptions, The Acolyte finds its own place. It’s one deep in the gray, between the poles of light and dark that have defined so much of its galaxy.

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