‘The Acolyte’ Review: New ‘Star Wars’ Series Has Prequel Vibes but Breaks New Ground

Leslye Headland wrote and directed two of the new century’s best and sharpest relationship comedies — “Bachelorette” and “Sleeping with Other People” — just as cultural tides were starting to toss that kind of material onto streaming services, whether in direct-to-wherever movies or short-run series. (Indeed, her major follow-up to “People” was co-creating the Netflix series “Russian Doll,” as well as directing various episodes of series she did not create or write.) Given that, seeing such a tart, talented filmmaker and playwright absorbed by a force as galactic as the “Star Wars” universe, even the corners shrunken down for Disney+ shows, should be an exercise in surrendering to the depressing inevitable.

And maybe it is, in the sense that the characters on Headland’s new “Star Wars” series “The Acolyte” don’t speak with the rueful wit, playful banter, or all-out bile that characterizes her best work as a writer. Instead, they split the difference between Headland’s bite and the faux-Marvel cutesiness that’s become Disney’s de facto house style – looser and less formal than George Lucas/Dave Filoni fundamentalism without quite nailing that Rian Johnson-style zippy sincerity. And, to be clear, not as full of weak joke soundalikes as so many other Disney shows.

But as with Headland’s understated but exceedingly well-directed films, her secret weapon in “The Acolyte” is attention to visual detail. In the first four of the season’s eight episodes, the first two of which Headland directed herself, “Star Wars” feels a bit more vibrant that it typically has on television. In place of the quasi-western spareness of “The Mandalorian” or the seemingly stretched-thin budget of “Obi-Wan Kenobi” is a colorful sort-of mystery series that takes off like a rocket.

Set close to a century before the events of “The Phantom Menace,” previously the earliest live-action media on the “Star Wars” timeline, the show opens with a vaguely “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”-like sequence in a watering hole. A mysterious, half-masked young woman (Amandla Sternberg) approaches a Jedi and challenges her to a duel to the death. It’s not in a Jedi’s nature to accept such aggression, but the challenger persists in placing others in harm’s way, the Jedi rises to defend and soon the masked woman is on the run for murder. The initial mystery, dispatched relatively quickly, has to do with whether ex-Jedi-in-training Osha (also Sternberg), who matches the assailant’s description exactly, is actually guilty of the crime. (Her manner as a freelance mechanic, performing duties usually and legally assigned to droids, doesn’t much suggest a simmering, murderous rage.)

Through an entertainingly loopy series of circumstances that include an accidental spaceship prison break, Osha winds up alongside Sol (Lee Jung-jae from “Squid Game”), a composed Jedi master; his new Padawan trainee Jecki (Dafne Keen from “Logan”); and stern Jedi temple protector Yord (Charlie Barnett) as they investigate this potential assassin and her “Kill Bill”-ish Jedi death list. The bad-guy POV is amply represented, too; the assassin seems driven by personal animosity, yet she also appears to be taking orders from another, more shadowy figure, unrevealed in the first half of the season. To say more would probably constitute spoilers for the first “Star Wars” series since “Mandalorian” that isn’t a prequel, midquel or sequel to franchise-famous characters and pre-existing stories. As such, the new show has its own sui generis urgency, derived from the fun hook of the premise rather than outside knowledge of where the characters are going.

At the same time, “The Acolyte” does have prequel vibes, in a different sort of way. Headland has professed a love for the once-unfashionable “Star Wars” prequel trilogy released from 1999-2005, and her show often plays specifically like a remix of “The Phantom Menace,” the first entry. Sol’s quiet confidence recalls Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn; an alien race prominently featured in the earlier movie turns up early on here; and another episode runs through some of the early Jedi tests we saw young Anakin go through in “Phantom Menace,” with similarly lingering questions about whether Jedi practices are all that healthy for those chosen to join their ranks.

This creates some neat thematic continuity with the George Lucas-directed movie on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, celebrating its simultaneous sense of planet-hopping, world-building wonder and growing skepticism over the “Star Wars” good-and-evil binary. But for prequel agnostics, “The Acolyte” still has plenty to offer, especially in terms of design. Even further removed from the aesthetics of the original “Star Wars” while staying true to its overall sensibility, the show’s sets are more overtly colorful in potentially familiar locations like ships’ interiors, and the various planetary locations are more distinguishable than a lot of its TV cousins (save “Andor,” which remains an outlier in terms of sophisticated craft).

The assassin’s attacks, too, have more verve than what we’ve been accustomed to seeing on the TV version of “Star Wars,” probably because they incorporate hand-to-hand fighting and knifework rather than lightsabers (though multicolored blades do make their obligatory appearances). Older and more jaded fans will probably still grumble that the fights aren’t intense or violent enough. But at its frequent best, “The Acolyte” feels like solidly constructed YA: snappy, well-paced and attentive to the choices we make when coming of age. (If this sounds disappointing, maybe you haven’t yet keyed in to how much of “Star Wars” works as children’s entertainment.)

With only half the season available for review, of course, it’s hard to say whether Headland and her staff will stick the landing, or whether “The Acolyte” has its eye on an extension beyond these eight episodes. But this is also the rare-so-far “Star Wars” show that doesn’t feel like its first job is to revive a bunch of beloved iconography. Those returns and callbacks can be plenty of fun for the initiated; it’s even more exciting, though, not having much of an idea as to where “The Acolyte” is headed.

“The Acolyte” premieres with its first two episodes on Disney+ on June 4, followed by new episodes weekly.

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