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The Acolyte review – Star Wars gets a thrilling new hero
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The Acolyte review – Star Wars gets a thrilling new hero

When you are trying to craft compelling new stories within a well-established fantasy franchise, it can help to ditch the baggage and put some clear water between your baby and the existing mythos. Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon jumped back a couple of centuries. Lord of the Rings rewound Middle-earth thousands of years for streaming series The Rings of Power. Now Star Wars – the inescapable space opera that, for good or ill, has fully embraced prequels since The Phantom Menace in 1999 – has boldly opted to travel further into the past than it has ever gone before on-screen.

An opening title card confirms that The Acolyte takes place a longer time ago in a galaxy far, far away: a hundred years before the rise of the malevolent Empire. Peace has flourished across the Galactic Republic thanks to a cosmos-spanning religious order who dress in monkish robes but wield laser swords and psychic superpowers via their cult’s mastery of the Force. In this harmonious era, no one messes with a Jedi. But The Acolyte’s creator, Leslye Headland – who previously co-wrote the fiendish time-loop comedy Russian Doll – poses a juicy question: what if someone did?

It begins, thrillingly, with a duel. A purposeful warrior (Amandla Stenberg) strides into a bar on the sort of hardscrabble Star Wars planet that is familiar from recent series such as The Mandalorian and Andor. With her Mortal Kombat face mask and ready supply of kunai throwing knives, this young woman appears to be a space ninja. But rather than sneak-attacking her Jedi target, she announces her lethal intentions: “Attack me with all your strength.” As their fight intensifies, it becomes clear that the titular Acolyte has Force powers too. It does not end well for the Jedi.

This appearance of an “unidentified Force user” sends the Jedi leadership into a tizzy. They apprehend far-flung starship mechanic Osha (Stenberg again), a dropout from their order who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to the suspect. But Osha’s old teacher Sol – played by Lee Jung-jae with a much more noble bearing than his squirming Squid Game character – intuits that something does not add up. It helps that he knows his former apprentice had a twin sister, Mae, who seemingly died the day he recruited Osha into the Jedi religion.

Before long, Osha and her chirping handheld repair droid Pip have been cleared and mobilised into Sol’s taskforce to neutralise the ninja, who apparently has a Kill Bill-style hitlist of Jedi to work her way through. Their mission is classified as hush-hush from the highest echelons, suggesting that the Jedi hegemony is not as rock-solid as it might seem.

If this eight-part series presents as a sort of Star Wars whodunnit – who is the shadowy mastermind pulling the strings of this Jabbatha Christie murder plot? – it does not feel too stingy with its disclosures. By the end of the opening double-bill Osha and Mae, who have spent the past 16 years mourning a lost sister, are fully aware of each other’s existence and are clearly struggling to process that revelation. An imminent flashback episode delves into their unorthodox childhood on a remote Edenic planet, offering an intriguing new perspective on the Jedi, the Force and who gets to use it.

Playing an outsider twice over, Stenberg impressively delineates her dual roles. As the prickly Mae, she has a rocky but charming rapport with her spliffed-out underworld sidekick Qimir (The Good Place’s chiselled Manny Jacinto). As the guarded Osha, she cautiously makes a connection with Jedi trainee Jecki (played by Dafne Keen from His Dark Materials), an alien whose ghostly complexion, platinum mullet and ravishing orange eye streaks suggest she is from Planet Synthpop. Osha also has a pleasing push-pull with her former Jedi master (Sol clearly does not approve of the tattoo on her bicep).

But despite – or perhaps because of – its unexplored setting, The Acolyte leans heavily into some old-fashioned Star Wars tropes, from the blurry wipes that signal scene transitions to recycling catchphrases (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this” gets an early outing). Kinetic fight sequences aside, it also feels occasionally stodgy. It does not help that Jedi are canonically devout dorks who shy away from emotional attachments.

The most recent Star Wars spin-off Ahsoka felt like the continuation of a larger saga that had been seeded in animated series like The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels. In contrast, The Acolyte benefits from being a fresh start for the creators and the audience alike, with no homework required. Things may skew a little familiar in the early running but the subversive Headland surely has some more sneaky rug-pulls up her sleeve, a tantalising prospect that makes The Acolyte worth sticking with.

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Source: theguardian.com