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The Acolyte Sends Star Wars Into a Galaxy Far, Far In the Past

Like the Jedi and the Sith, the "Star Wars" universe of late has felt like a dueling dyad of creative directions for the franchise—each battling for supremacy on the now-fertile ground of Disney+. Some entries, like "Ahsoka" and the later seasons of "The Mandalorian" (and, frankly, "Star Wars, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker"), view the universe through an endless parade of cameos, fan service, and appeals to nerd nostalgia. Others, like "Andor," "Visions," and now "The Acolyte," make merry play with the potential of a galaxy far, far away, telling new stories that ask interesting questions about the very principles that undergird the "Star Wars" universe. 

Created by Leslye Headland ("Russian Doll"), "The Acolyte"'s greatest strength lies in its time period: The High Republic, a solid century before the events of the Skywalker saga. It's a time of prosperity, peace, and complacency; the Jedi are in grander form than ever, with their pristine white and yellow robes and sense of smug superiority to their benevolent mission to save the galaxy. But resentment brews on the Outer Rim, and dark forces conspire to strike a blow against these so-called guardians of peace and justice at the height of their powers.

A Jedi has been murdered: Master Indara (Carrie-Anne Moss), dispatched while engaging in a rousing mixture of Force powers and martial arts in the premiere's thrilling opening sequence. (Adding more explicit kung fu choreography to the mix is a lovely move to bring more dynamism to a fighting style that's long grown stale in the series, and a cameo from one of the stars of "The Matrix" helps sell this as the style moving forward.) The apparent culprit, as Indara's wise colleague Master Sol (Lee Jung-jae) quickly deduces, is Osha (Amandla Stenberg), Sol's former apprentice who quit the Order six years ago and now spends her time as a mechanic ("meknek") for the Trade Federation. There's just one wrinkle: Osha was half a galaxy away from Ishara when she died. So, who killed her, and why does she look exactly like Osha?

What starts as a case of wrongful accusation unravels into a tale of twins separated at birth and the nagging rise of a Sith on the outer edge of the galaxy. And, in the case of "The Acolyte," a fascinatingly complex attitude toward good and evil, religious subjugation, and the morality of vengeance. You see, Osha has a twin sister, Mae (also Stenberg)—long presumed dead, now reappearing at the galaxy's edge with Force training and a mission from her unnamed Master to kill four Jedi—including Sol. Desperate to find Mae and unravel the mystery, Sol recruits Osha to aid his cause, alongside his current Padawan Jecki (Dafne Keen) and recently-graduated Jedi Knight Yord (Charlie Barnett). 

The first two episodes, directed by Headland, sputter a bit just to get this branch of the "Star Wars" universe, and our characters, all set up. The dialogue is still a little clunky in that heightened, thee-and-thou way ("Attack me with all your strength," Mae boasts to any of her potential targets), and even these game actors struggle to imbue their Jedi with a whole lot of personality. Lee, however, acquits himself exquisitely as Master Sol, a world-weary Jedi whose guilt at Osha's origins and her falling out with the Force lend him some decidedly melancholic dimensions. As for Stenberg, she does a fine enough job differentiating the more laconic Osha with her fanatical sister, though the confines of the story often leave them bereft of much agency. (Mae is particularly stone-faced as an antihero, though she's aided by a rogueish smuggler and ally named Qimir, played by the always-charming Manny Jacinto.)

But the show really flowers in the third episode, directed by "After Yang" filmmaker kogonada, which flashes us back to the circumstances behind Osha and Mae's rift. Here, we're greeted with an entirely new world, subculture, and story that calls into question all preconceptions that fans have about the Jedi and the Force—a subtle but gripping fable about the destructive and liberatory power of our personal choices, the loss of childhood innocence, and what happens when we break from tradition. It also casts the Jedi in a far more morally ambiguous light, and we see the line where their stoicism borders on cruelty. It's a staggering hour that gives you more to think on than any recent "Star Wars" installment outside of "Andor."

It's such a brilliant hour that the rest of "The Acolyte" suffers a bit alongside; it's hard to return to the main story's comparatively more wooden characters in the fourth episode after getting such a satisfying, self-contained tale. Even so, there's potential in this series and its slower, more contemplative direction, even as Headland and crew pepper in one martial arts-infused Jedi fight after another to break up the tension. The show looks great as always, with production design, sets, and costumes that feel right at home in "Star Wars" but hearken back to a more pristine, ancient age. Michael Abels' score hums along in that John Williams mode but commits itself to subtler hues than the typical bombast. But it's the ideas that flourish in "The Acolyte"—mining the rich mythology of the universe to explore how our childhoods scar us, and what we do with that pain.

First four episodes screened for reviewFirst two episodes of "The Acolyte" are currently streaming on Disney+, with new episodes weekly.

Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Staff Writer for Consequence. He is also a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and Critics Choice Association. You can also find his byline at RogerEbert.com, Vulture, The Companion, FOX Digital, and elsewhere. 

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