Star Wars revenge story feels fresh

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Like all good universes, Star Wars is expanding in both directions at once. Where Andor, Ahsoka, The Mandalorian and most of the upcoming films and shows in the franchise continue to fill in as many mid-saga blanks as possible, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Rise Of Skywalker sequel is picking up the next generation just as James Mangold’s origin movie is taking things back to the beginning. Before that, though, now sits The Acolyte – the youngest Star Wars story in more ways than one.

Set 100 years before Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Disney’s latest chapter is also its freshest. Cut free of the franchise rules by the fact that no one else we’ve ever met has even been born yet, The Acolyte feels like a welcome reset. There’s no pop-up cameos to google. No hidden easter eggs to miss. The planets are untrodden. The creatures look new. At least until the next one comes along, this is now officially the best place to start.

Created by Russian Doll’s Leslye Headland, The Acolyte was pitched as “Frozen meets Kill Bill”, which makes absolutely no sense at all. Yeah, it’s a revenge story about sisters, but the rest is a bit of a stretch… and a weird flex considering the show’s originality is its biggest strength. Amandla Stenberg (The Hate U Give, Bodies Bodies Bodies) plays both Osha and Mae – raised by a coven of witches (led by the incomparable Jodie Turner-Smith) and separated by tragedy to push them both down very different paths. Osha trained as a Jedi before lapsing, while Mae turned to the dark side – now working for a shadowy master and on the run for a string of murders.

The Acolyte
‘The Acolyte’ follows the Jedi as they police the galaxy. CREDIT: Disney/Lucasfilm

Being a time of peace – long before Anakin Skywalker and Darth Maul and all the Sith stuff – the Jedi operate here more like annoying new-age cops. This is a renaissance period where the bad guys are now the rebels; in hiding and outnumbered while Osha and the other Jedis (including Squid Game’s Lee Jung-jae, The Matrix’s Carrie-Anne Moss and one lightsaber-wielding Wookie, in a franchise first) over-parent the galaxy with a lot of chin-strap beard-stroking.

Cutting through the Patchouli funk from both sides, Stenberg is The Acolyte’s biggest weapon – playing both sisters at once and giving us one of Star Wars’ most conflicted family sagas in two winning dual performances. For once, here we have a hero (and a villain) who isn’t pushing middle-age, as well as a nice through-line to some of the weightiest themes across the expanded universe in one star-making twofer turn.

As with everything in Star Wars, balance is everything – but it feels like Headland has managed to walk a finer line than most with The Acolyte. It’s new, without feeling unconnected. Pristine, but not too shiny. Fun, but still substantial. It feels like a place to grow from, as well as a worthy stand-alone story in its own right.

Was this what George Lucas had in mind when he made The Phantom Menace; wanting to prologue his own original trilogy with richer, younger, cleaner stories? Probably not, but as retconned first chapters go, it’s hard not to think that this one is going to age better.

‘The Acolyte’ is streaming on Disney+ from June 4

 

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