3 out of 5 stars

Following the creative and financial disappointment of Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), contrasting with the wild success of The Mandalorian on television, the long-rumoured Star Wars story focusing on Obi-Wan Kenobi’s (Ewan McGregor) exploits between trilogies arrives on the small screen. The smaller medium throws up the expected pros and cons, as a multi-episode series allows for more characterisation and narrative deviations, but comes at the cost of scale and focus. The bigger problem with Obi-Wan Kenobi is that there aren’t really six hours of story to be told about what a downtrodden Jedi Master got up to on Tatooine. And while The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett offer impressive visuals for television, seeing characters you identify with multiplex spectacle reduced to weekly streaming content has a psychological toll.

It’s been 10 years since Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) and the Jedi have almost been eradicated thanks to the work of the Grand Inquisitor (Rupert Friend) and his subordinates, Fifth Brother (Sung Kang) and Reva Sevander (Moses Ingram). However, prime target Obi-Wan Kenobi still eludes them, to the chagrin of Sith Lord Darth Vader (Hayden Christensen, voiced again by James Earl Jones). Of course, as anyone who’s seen Star Wars (1977) already knows, Obi-Wan has changed his name to ‘Ben Kenobi’ and now scratches out a living on the desert planet of Tatooine. But while George Lucas’s original trilogy made us believe Obi-Wan spent a few decades living as a hermit, it turns out he’d taken a personal interest in little Luke Skywalker being raised by his Uncle Owen (Joel Edgerton) on a nearby farm. And that’s despite being a more defeated man who hasn’t practised using the Force in many years. Naturally, this all changes when Luke’s secret sister—Leia Organa (Vivien Lyra Blair), given the better deal as a princess and rich senator’s daughter—is kidnapped by bounty hunters working for the Inquisitors, and her father Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) asks Obi-Wan to effectively come out of exile to find her.

Considering Obi-Wan Kenobi was delayed due to the original pitch having too many similarities to The Mandalorian, I’m confused this show essentially still has the same core idea of an adult protecting a cute child from evil forces. We just have more famous characters in Obi-Wan and Leia than Mando and ‘Baby Yoda’. One assumes Leia’s involvement was once more prominent—as her situation recedes into the background halfway through—or perhaps they just pushed events further into the future so the Skywalker siblings weren’t babies and could be more active participants in this adventure? Whatever happened, there’s the unshakeable feeling The Mandalorian did this idea much better some years ago, and the elements unique to Obi-Wan Kenobi ultimately amount to an encore of Revenge of the Sith with Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi reflecting on the irrecoverable loss of their friendship.

Despite Revenge of the Sith being many people’s favourite entry in the prequel trilogy (three mostly bad movies being reassessed now the kids raised on them are budding film critics), it’s still fair to say George Lucas’s grip on the emotional throughline of Anakin Skywalker’s downfall was poorly handled. Obi-Wan Kenobi thus has an opportunity to patch over some of that film’s dramatic shortcomings and make things more consistent with how Obi-Wan was portrayed by Alec Guinness in 1977. And there are definitely moments, mainly in the finale, when McGregor and Christensen are clearly savouring the chance to replay the ending of Episode III and play off each other more as actors than costumed figures twizzling lightsabers around in a greenscreen void. Was it worth six episodes of television to reach that point? It’s debatable.

For me, The Mandalorian (and even the maligned Book of Boba Fett, to a lesser extent) are great ways to expand on the Star Wars universe and tell more intimate stories in less prominent corners of the “galaxy far, far away”. Unfortunately, both are guilty of tethering themselves to the movies too much because it’s seemingly impossible to resist the chance to play with famous toys and utilise recognisable characters, but at least they’re mostly adjacent to the ‘Skywalker Saga’ and include lots of new characters and fresher ideas.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, unfortunately, can’t escape the fact it’s an unnecessary idea that could have been an entertaining two-hour film, much like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), but expanding the idea into a television show is a disservice. The environments look cheaper than we’re used to seeing these characters exist in, even with the blessed relief of more practical locations than the prequels gave us, and this makes the series feel like an impressive fan film at times. This is particularly true whenever Darth Vader appears, as most of his scenes are either oddly low-key or he’s demonstrating ridiculously overblown powers he never once utilises in the subsequent three movies.

Ewan McGregor has his reasons for returning to this role—both financially after an ugly divorce settlement with his ex-wife, and I’m sure creatively after voicing his disappointment that his Star Wars films drowned in excessive CGI and shoddy screenplays. Obi-Wan Kenobi puts the spotlight on his character and certainly does a better job of making him a believable figure, even if his downtrodden nature in the first half of the show gets a little tedious. McGregor does his best with the material, even if the scripts aren’t much better than what Lucas wrote. Indeed, a different production team made Obi-Wan than Mandalorian and Boba Fett, which is noticeable in how inferior this show looks and feels. I’m not sure if that’s entirely down to budget, difficult coronavirus restrictions, Disney’s timescale for its release, the stalled pre-production, or a combination of all four… but Obi-Wan Kenobi only truly impresses with a few sequences (the fight choreography and some VFX shots).

Deborah Chow directed all six episodes, which gives the show creative unity, but it’s also apparent that Obi-Wan Kenobi isn’t as well-made as what we’ve come to already expect from Star Wars in most forms. There are some laughably bad moments along the way—from imprecise editing, weak action choreography (Leia’s chase through the woods being a particular embarrassment), and a general feeling the filmmaking is below prestige TV level. I rarely feel that with The Mandalorian, in particular, which has delivered some of the best sequences of anything in the Star Wars universe to this point, but with Obi-Wan Kenobi it often feels like a smaller $40M sci-fi film or something made in 2008 that’s been given a lick of paint.

Of course, if the story and characters were strong none of those complaints would be foremost in my mind, but while McGregor does his best and nobody outright embarrasses themselves, this doesn’t offer an especially dynamic story with memorable performances. Moses Ingram (The Queen’s Gambit) does her best with an odd role that throws in a twist that didn’t sit well with me; Rupert Friend (Homeland) looks goofy as the Grand Inquisitor and lacks enough screen time; Indira Varma (Game of Thrones) goes through the motions as an undercover rebel; while Kumail Nanjiani (Eternals) crosses off another franchise for ultimate geek cred after appearances in The X-Files and Marvel. And while it’s a key part of the marketing that Hayden Christensen is back playing Darth Vader, he’s mostly unidentifiable (of course), and there’s a jarring flashback where it seems Disney didn’t want to fork out the money to de-age him—so a guy in his early-forties is trying to pass as a teenager.

Overall, Obi-Wan Kenobi would have made a decent entry into the aborted Star Wars Story projects, as it seems like there’s 150-minutes of material that’s been stretched beyond its means. But it doesn’t offer much that’s fresh or interesting for the franchise, being squarely aimed at the type of fans who just want to see two characters they already know go through a cat-and-mouse chase enlivened by a few lightsabre duels. Ewan McGregor at least seems more engaged by the material than he was during the prequel films, and there are moments of fun and entertainment to justify your time over six episodes… but it lacks the emotional peaks of The Mandaloran and, by virtue of its placement in the chronology, you’re never in any doubt about how it’s going to end.

USA | 2022 | 6 EPISODES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writers: Joby Harold, Hossein Amini, Stuart Beattie, Hannah Friedman & Andrew Stanton.
director: Deborah Chow.
starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Vivien Lyra Blair, Rupert Friend, Moses Ingram, Kumail Nanjiani, Indira Varma, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Joel Edgerton, Jimmy Smits, Sung Kang & James Earl Jones (voice).