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‘The Acolyte’ Introduces Viewers to a Stilted New Era of Star Wars

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Star Wars returns to Disney+ today with the two-episode premiere of The Acolyte. Created by Leslye Headland and starring Amandla Stenberg in the titular role, The Acolyte introduces viewers to a completely new era of live-action Star Wars. I attended a Fandango-exclusive fan screening of the first two episodes, excited to see what the past of the Star Wars galaxy looks like.

Set 100 years before the time of the Skywalker Saga, The Acolyte explores the cracks forming in the Jedi Order’s dominion over the Force. Introducing a new setting immediately sets the series apart, but the stilted pacing of the first two episodes starts The Acolyte off on uneven footing. 

WARNING: Spoilers ahead for Episode 1 of The Acolyte.

The Acolyte’s greatest strengths

The series’ strongest asset is certainly its setting, which provides a much-needed break from the 70-year period that almost all other Star Wars content is set in. The Acolyte strikes a strong balance between the old and the new. The spaceships don’t look exactly the same, yet they’re familiar enough that it’s easy to see how they evolve to become what we know. The bars and Jedi temples aren’t exact copies of what we’ve already seen, but they aren’t totally unfamiliar environments either. 

As someone who isn’t a huge Star Wars fan and is exhausted of the Skywalker Saga, it’s refreshing to see how different everything is in The Acolyte while still very much feeling like part of the same universe. In fact, as long as we don’t end up on another desert planet, The Acolyte might take the crown as the most unique live-action Star Wars project to date! Some things never change though, like the inefficient bureaucracy of the Jedi and the Republic’s baffling inability to ever successfully transport a prisoner.

Amandla Stenberg as Mae in ‘The Acolyte’
Amandla Stenberg as Mae in ‘The Acolyte’ (Lucasfilm/Disney+)

Amandla Stenberg carries the entire series on her shoulders, navigating tricky dual roles as both Mae and Osha, twin sisters attuned to the Force. A Sith acolyte and a former Jedi Padawan, respectively, the sister’s relationship has barely been touched upon but I’m excited to see how they relate to each other. It’s unexpected to see Stenberg as the lead of a sci-fi action series but she certainly holds her own here. And make no mistake, she’s undoubtedly the lead despite her extremely limited presence in the trailers for The Acolyte

Stenberg brings incredible depth and emotion to her performance as Mae, although Osha is much harder to figure out. That’s certainly due to Mae being the more complex character, but it’s also a testament to Stenberg’s acting ability. It feels like there’s a disconnect between her performances as Mae and Osha, although I see that as a positive. The two feel like polar opposite characters despite being played by the same actress with nearly the exact same look for each character. 

Lee Jung-jae stars as Osha’s former Jedi master, Sol, bringing a level of emotional depth we don’t usually see in the closed-off, militant Jedi Order. There’s a lot of backstory between the characters left to be revealed but his teases of their past tantalizingly hint at the Jedi’s fallacies. Carrie-Anne Moss has a disappointingly small role but strikes the perfect note as another Jedi Master, while Charlie Barnett and Dafne Keen appear as younger Jedi who we don’t really have a read on yet. Rebecca Henderson plays Vernestra Rwoh, a returning character from the High Republic publishing initiative, but who doesn’t have a lot to do yet.

The action in The Acolyte is another standout, with Stenberg’s choreography particularly engaging. Her action scenes with Carrie-Anne Moss and Lee Jung-jae are electric, particularly her showdown with Jung-jae’s Sol. The action is helped again by differing from other Star Wars shows with its strong focus on martial arts and knife fighting, far from the lightsaber clashing of Obi-Wan Kenobi or the gunslinging duels of The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett

The Acolyte’s missteps

Unfortunately, The Acolyte’s filmmaking missteps kneecap the series in multiple regards. The pacing of the show’s first two episodes feels extremely stilted at points, particularly the endings of each. Both endings were disappointingly anticlimactic and didn’t have anywhere near the level of tension and drama needed to keep viewers hooked. You start to get excited at what you’re seeing, almost in a confused way since the scenes are presented without any sort of dramatic weight, before they suddenly end while you’re still figuring out what exactly you’re supposed to feel.

The Jedi in ‘The Acolyte’
The Jedi in ‘The Acolyte’ (Lucasfilm/Disney)

While the second episode’s ending felt stronger, the premiere’s conclusion was extremely weak. Several interesting concepts come into play as the premiere draws to a close but exciting plot developments are presented in an almost boring manner that lacks any dramatic tension. Here’s hoping the other episodes end on a stronger note rather than a whimper that should’ve been a scream.

Despite the strong mystery thread running through The Acolyte, some plot developments are confusing in an unintentional way. There’s a dramatic moment in the second episode that’s executed wonderfully on its own but doesn’t make any sense given the twist in the first episode. It doesn’t seem like the kind of discrepancy that will be addressed in the show but rather sloppy execution on behalf of the filmmakers.

The pacing and lack of built-up tension in certain scenes really hurt the show. Ahsoka had me hooked on every plot development, but The Acolyte feels like less than the sum of its parts. The first two episodes are a surprisingly weak start for a series that’s full to bursting with so many unique storylines and opportunities. 

The future of The Acolyte

I was very excited going into The Acolyte’s premiere, but the episodes have dampened that emotion a bit. I’m still very interested in some parts of the series but I’m not on the edge of my seat by any means. Amandla Stenberg’s performances are the most interesting part of the show so far, which is a good thing since she’s the main character(s)! The rest of the world isn’t as engaging, though. 

I’ve longed for a series centered on the villains of Star Wars and it looked like The Acolyte might deliver that. There’s still so much to explore with Mae’s connection to the dark side of the Force, but the series’ rocky start does have me worried that it will edge into undercooked melodrama rather than a thrilling science fiction adventure. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong over the next six weeks!

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