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Obi-Wan Kenobi is Fun but Incredibly Familiar

We are in an era of increasing reliance on familiarity to sell new movies and TV shows. “Remember how much you loved this!?!? Please love it again!” The Disney+ Marvel and Star Wars shows have been criticized as fan service before but the two-part premiere of “Obi-Wan Kenobi” struggles more than any other property to date to develop its own personality outside of the two famous trilogies it seeks to connect (and even a hit Disney+ Star Wars show in its protector/child dynamic). However, this is a case wherein reviewing a show like director Deborah Chow and showrunner Joby Harold’s blockbuster series after only two episodes is almost impossible. One hopes that the first two episodes have gotten the callbacks out of the way and that the program will develop its own personality now, but there’s little evidence here that this will actually happen. If “Obi-Wan Kenobi” is content to be a big budget reminder of famous movies, fans will likely consider that fun enough to kick off the summer, but this kind of forgettable storytelling just doesn’t last like the properties that inspired it.

“Obi-Wan Kenobi” opens ten years after the events of “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.” Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is basically in hiding on Tatooine, keeping an eye on young Luke from a distance, while Jedis are hunted around the galaxy under Order 66. Kenobi believes Anakin Skywalker to be dead, and goes by the name Ben, basically hiding his skills and past. McGregor captures a Kenobi still haunted by what happened with Anakin and convinced there is no place left for Jedis. And yet there may be hope in young Luke because Obi-Wan tries to convince Uncle Owen (Joel Edgerton) to train the lad when he’s ready.

Everything changes for Obi-Wan when Leia Organa (Vivien Lyra Blair) is kidnapped from her home planet of Alderaan by a group of bounty hunters (that includes Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers!) Leia’s guardians—Breha (Simone Kessell) and Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits)—reach out to Obi-Wan and ask him to track down the missing child. At the same time, a group of Jedi hunters led by the Grand Inquisitor (Rupert Friend) come to Tatooine hunting their prey. There’s infighting within the inquisitors as a ruthless predator named Reva Sevander (Moses Ingram) doesn’t believe the Grand Inquisitor is tough enough. Kumail Nanjiani guest stars in the second episode as a memorable con man on Daiyu and Hayden Christensen will eventually reprise his role as Anakin/Darth.

Once again, a Disney+ Star Wars show wears its Western influences on its sleeve. An opening scene in which the Inquisitors track a Jedi played by Benny Safdie to a Tatooine bar feels like a showdown in a Wild West saloon, which puts this show in a similar visual/thematic lineage as “The Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett.” One hopes that “Andor” and other upcoming Disney+ Star Wars show might consider leaving the desert behind and focus on stories that don’t all feel so similar. Explore this universe (and, to be fair, the second episode does a little of that setting shifting and yet still comes back to a few "High Noon" stand-offs in the street.)

McGregor brings some nice gravity to this iteration of Obi-Wan, convincingly bridging the gap between “Sith” and the Sir Alec Guinness version from the first film, one that felt like he carried grief and trauma into his time with Luke Skywalker. And McGregor is surrounded by talented performers, including the always-solid Edgerton, and fun turns from Nanjiani and Flea. Ingram gives the most interesting early performance, setting up a strong nemesis for the season, but I worry that she will have to play second fiddle to the Anakin/Obi-Wan reunion that’s sure to come. Why flesh out a new character when you can fall back on old ones?

Ultimately, it’s impossible to really judge “Obi-Wan Kenobi” after only a third of its six-episode season. Is this just the prologue to something that stands on its two feet or will it be willing to lie down on the Lucasverse foundation for four more hours? I can’t tell. There are signposts in both directions. On the one hand, the ensemble is up for the challenge of telling a new story instead of just a familiar one. On the other hand, the creators of this show seem so content to color within the lines of fan expectations, perhaps burned by the responses the few times the “Star Wars” universe has felt different in the last decade or so. The truth is that people seem content to play in a sandbox that they recognize and already adore. Familiarity is comforting and safe. But it doesn’t stand the test of time. 

My concern is that the Star Wars Disney+ universe is kind of like Obi-Wan in the first episode—stuck on Tatooine, looking at the memory of Luke from afar, doing its job, but also questioning its purpose. I would imagine the show that follows this premiere will help its title character find that purpose. Let’s hope the Star Wars television machine does too.

First two episodes screened for review. "Obi-Wan Kenobi" airs weekly on Disney+. 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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