Review by C.J. Bunce
Two episodes in and it seemed like some kind of con, a Jedi mind trick perpetrated by Disney. Six episodes in and you’re left asking “what was the point?” That’s the Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi, which arrives as the least of the 21st century Star Wars television efforts, and after six episodes, probably falls short of Revenge of the Sith and The Last Jedi. Why was this an important story to tell? What entertainment value did it provide? In the end, the only thing the series served to do was give actor Hayden Christensen a chance to make up for George Lucas’s dismal script for Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. Other than that, it was like watching an assemblage of deleted scenes left on the director’s cutting room floor from the making of Revenge of the Sith.
But even Christensen was relegated to the role of David Prowse for most of the series’ six episodes, providing a body-in-the-suit physical performance, blocked from half his performance–his voice and facial reactions–by the admittedly entrancing voice of James Earl Jones. Anyone wanting to see more Darth Vader in action already got their wish in Gareth Edwards’ fantastic movie Rogue One. Has Vader become the Spock of Star Wars? (When the writers run out of ideas, they run back to the well, the bankable tried-and-true). Is it enough to just pacify the fans by throwing Vader and his lightsaber on the screen?
Fans already saw Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi go through the anguish and despair of destroying Anakin in a horrific, monstrous way at the end of Revenge of the Sith. We already saw Vader become his charred, Frankensteinian inspiration of a monster. Did fans, especially kids, need to watch that play out again, and for no reason? Major franchises have a way of chewing up and spitting out their young actors, often limiting their career options going forward, so giving Christensen this opportunity was a nice gift for the actor (will they do the same for young Anakin Jake Lloyd, or young Boba Fett Daniel Logan? Probably not).
The series wedged in minimal efforts to create some actual heroes. What could have been an interesting character on par with the Expanded Universe’s Mara Jade, Moses Ingram’s character Third Sister Reva, didn’t get a chance to be a hero because she was ultimately just Vader’s pawn. As a character she had multiple opportunities to wipe out eleven Star Wars movies–she could have killed Kenobi, or Leia, or Luke–it’s a failing of the writers to create such cringey plot holes. Vader could have killed Kenobi but didn’t. Then Kenobi could have killed Vader but didn’t (in the single scene where we see Kenobi finally use the full strength of the Force). Then a farm couple holds off a powerful, angry Jedi. These were dumb choices by any measure. Not even the worst of four decades of Star Wars comics and tie-in novels made these kinds of bizarre decisions.
The single stand-out performance of the series goes to Indira Varma as the double agent Tala. But her character begs the question: Did we need two double agents? Couldn’t Tala and Reva have been merged into a single more interesting character? Perhaps the mirroring of their roles was the point–one a tormented former youngling Jedi who rose up the Imperial ranks to eke out revenge against Jedi and Sith alike, the other an Imperial guard who couldn’t continue to watch the oppression against innocents–both to fail. Ultimately the only character fans got to cheer for in this story was Tala.
The only conclusion is that the series was all about creating the next Disney princess for merchandising purposes. One scene includes young Leia laying out her costume ensemble piece by piece so kids will be sure to purchase every piece (when available at a retailer near you). The young actress did great work for a young actor. But why was the character the focus of a Kenobi series at all? More nostalgia, returning to the well, etc. Certainly legions of writers could have come up with better situations and dialogue for an actor as fascinating to watch as Ewan McGregor. Similarly, talented performers Sung Kang, Kumail Nanjiani, and again, Moses Ingram, were wasted here with poorly written parts. Of course, no actor is going to say “no” to the money and street cred that comes with playing a Star Wars role, even if left to look at their scripts and shake their heads.
Worst of all, the series entirely lacked fun and humor. This tale was as hopeless and bleak as Revenge of the Sith. Even in Attack of the Clones Obi-Wan Kenobi got to face off with Jango Fett and sleuth out a mystery. Today’s Kenobi was left in “feel sorry for me” status. The very Star Wars-y designed NED-B droid was underutilized. The quick cameo force ghost at the end was a forgettable afterthought. If you select stories and situations where there are no stakes–when the outcome is known by everyone at the beginning–it must be counterbalanced by a compelling narrative.
At a certain level, fans can always turn off the sound and marvel at the visuals, like brilliant re-creations of a Star Destroyer bridge and the kinds of ship movements first seen in the opening of the original Star Wars. But why just stop there? As we’ve seen in The Mandalorian, and to a slightly lesser extent, The Book of Boba Fett, more is available for Star Wars fans to think about and marvel at than a few battle scenes. And those shows were also great fun, like the animated Star Wars Rebels and the final season of The Clone Wars. It’s nice to have a franchise wide enough now that there’s something for everyone. But even for fans of the prequels and its characters, Lucasfilm and Disney could do better than what they delivered in Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Unfortunately this isn’t Alec Guinness’s Kenobi, and it’s barely the character Ewan McGregor played in the prequels. Somehow they must become one and the same. All six episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi are now streaming on Disney+.