Star Wars: The Acolyte Review: Unraveling a High Republic Mystery

Star Wars: The Acolyte on Disney+ takes viewers to the High Republic era.

Star Wars: The Acolyte, the latest entry into the Star Wars canon by way of Disney+, brings viewers back to that familiar galaxy far, far away, but a bit longer of a time ago than they're used to. The Acolyte, created by Leslye Headland, occurs during the waning days of the High Republic era, about 100 years before Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, when both the Jedi Order and the Galactic Republic were at the height of their power and influence. It also may reveal the first cracks in these institutions' foundations that would leave them vulnerable to exploitation and lead to their eventual falls. With this coming darkness looming, The Acolyte offers a different set of genre influences than Star Wars has typically hewn to, though perhaps not blended to maximum potency.

WARNING: This review discusses plot points from the first four episodes of The Acolyte that could be considered mild spoilers

Star Amandla Stenberg centers the series in the dual roles of Osha and Mae, twin sisters separated after a traumatic event that left their family dead. Osha went on to become a Jedi Padawan but left the Jedi Order when she proved unable to let go of her feelings about what happened that day.

Mae is presumed dead until she emerges in The Acolyte's opening scene, striding into a cantina to goad Jedi Master Indara (Carrie-Anne Most) into a fight. It's a stunning scene, with ambiance set nicely by the streams of light coming into the saloon from the setting sun outside, and combat that blends beautiful moves inspired by martial arts cinema with Indira's Force abilities to offer something fresh in a Star Wars fight sequence. It ends with a standoff befitting the clear Western influences and is a stellar opening salvo for the new show.

Mae's reemergence triggers an investigation that reunites Osha with Jedi from her past, including her old friend Yord Fandar (Charlie Barnett) and her former master, Sol (Lee Jung-jae). Since Mae was believed dead, Osha is at first a suspect, but it doesn't take long for them to figure out the truth and begin investigating what appears to be a revenge-fueled killing spree.

But revenge for what? The Acolyte is less adept at building tension around its central mysteries than it is at framing exciting action scenes, less keeping its secrets tightly under wraps and more keeping them behind a thin strip of sheer fabric, obscured enough to be frustrating. Mae is seemingly motivated by vengeance for something that happened during or around the event that separated her from her sister. Sol was there when it happened, as was Osha, and several of the supporting characters seem to have some idea of what transpired, leaving only the audience out of the loop. Eventually, the show does offer a first-hand account of what happened, but while it leaves crucial moments unseen, it isn't hard for anyone paying attention to figure out what they're not being told. (Presumably. I don't want to spoil too much by spelling out my theory, but if it turns out to be anything other than, broadly, "The Jedi did something bad," I will stand corrected.)

Despite its prestige thriller ambitions, The Acolyte leans into several tropes and some of Star Wars' most melodramatic impulses. Characters are transfixed by flames that remind them of their traumatic pasts. There are mistaken identities, evil twins, and mysterious masterminds. These devices can be fun in the right context, but the storytelling isn't leaning into it. For the cinematic splendor of that opening scene, the spaceship-bound scenes that follow are uninspired, oddly quiet, and awkwardly staged, feeling somehow like they're being shot at an immersive Star Wars theme park.

The plot suffocates the characters, who are often left with little to do but deliver whatever bit of dialogue is needed to push the plot to the next scene, leaving their characterizations one-note. Yord is a young, by-the-book goofball. Jecki Lon (Dafne Keen), Sol's current padawan, is smugly brilliant, Vernestra Rwoh (Rebecca Henderson) is a severe Jedi elder turned jaded by Coruscant politics. They're fine starting points, but the series seems uninterested in giving any character an arc outside of the twins and maybe Sol, leaving the rest of the ensemble feeling more like plot devices than people.

Despite its flaws, The Acolyte offers some memorable moments. Anytime the series focuses on the unique practices of the Jedi of the High Republic era, it shines. The time spent with Mother Aniseya (Jodie Turner-Smith) and her coven of Force witches is fascinating and has some mesmerizing visual moments. While the series plays with certain familiar Star Wars themes (duality, chiefly), it also surprisingly elevates the type of Star Wars story previously confined to tie-in novels to live-action. As someone who has read a few Star Wars novels, I say that with affection, though it'll be interesting to see if it will lose more casual fans.

Star Wars: The Acolyte stands apart from other Star Wars projects for its unique setting and for bringing new influences into the universe. It isn't executed to perfection, and there are moments when it can feel lifeless. However, there are others when it succeeds at showing that there are still unexplored corners of this Star Wars universe worth investigating. As a series built on mysteries – likely another polarizing point – much of its value will come from whether it has satisfying answers. We won't know that until the final episode. For now, it's an uneven experience likely to appeal most to those already swimming in the deep end of the Star Wars pool.

Rating: 3 out of 5

The first two episodes of Star Wars: The Acolyte premiere on Disney+ on June 4th.