The Acolyte review: Atrociously creaky dialogue holds back a refreshing take on Star Wars

Dark side doppelganger:  Amandla Stenberg double roles in the series as Osha and her rogue twin Mae  (Disney)
Dark side doppelganger: Amandla Stenberg double roles in the series as Osha and her rogue twin Mae (Disney)

As the latest Star Wars spin-off, The Acolyte, arrives on Disney+, it’s worth considering if we have all been too harsh towards the entertainment giant’s stewardship of the franchise from a galaxy, far, far away. Yes, some of Disney’s contributions to the saga have been ricketier than the Millennium Falcon halfway through The Empire Strikes Back. But it wasn’t as if Star Wars creator George Lucas was without blemish. He gave us psychopathic teddy bears the Ewoks, the apocalyptically irritating Jar Jar Binks and, in Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen, the on-screen couple with the worst chemistry in cinema history. Star Wars had been misfiring on all cylinders long before the Mouse House caught the saga in its tractor beam.

It should be acknowledged that, at its best, Disney Star Wars has been the equal of anything that went before. Rosario Dawson’s Ahsoka and Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi might have been resounding damp squibs, but The Mandalorian years one and two were a lark. Prequel movie Rogue One is meanwhile generally agreed to be the third best Star Wars film after the original and Empire. And Tony Gilroy’s Andor is one of the most outstanding TV shows of the past five years. It’s easy to hate on the Magic Kingdom (it’s also obviously great fun). Amid the schadenfreude, though, perhaps there is space to recognise the Disney Wars era hasn’t been an unmitigated flop.

Refreshingly, The Acolyte attempts to remove itself from Disney discourse entirely, by rewinding to the glory days of the Old Republic and the pre-Darth Vader Jedi – aeons before the events chronicled in the hacky, hamfisted JJ Abrams/Rian Johnson sequel trilogy of Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver etc. It also tries to expand the Star Wars universe by introducing the new concept of “Force-Fu” – the use of the mystical Force as a martial art. Sadly – and despite the best intentions of all involved – it doesn’t quite work. One issue is that it suffers from atrociously creaky dialogue (“We have unfinished business, attack me with all your strength”). Another is that the plot, while clearly fancying itself as deep and mysterious, falls into the now-familiar Star Wars pitfall of zipping exhaustingly from planet to planet, to the point where it all becomes a blur.

There are also moments of (presumably) unintentional hilarity. A ceremony involving a renegade coven that taps into the Force appears to have been intended as a comment on how feminine power is controlled by the patriarchy (the Jedi, male and female, are horrified by the idea of these women using their Force as they see fit). But the depiction of the “witches” is far too hokey. It falls somewhere between a Bat for Lashes video, the Hellblade video games and a parody of Ari Aster’s Midsommar.

The martial arts element is introduced right at the top in a bracing scene, in which rogue Force user Mae (Amandla Stenberg) tangles with Jedi master Indara (Carrie-Anne Moss). Showrunner Leslye Headland has been upfront about Indara being a tribute to Trinity, Moss’s high-kicking cyberpunk hero from The Matrix. The Acolyte isn’t shy about the reference – a sequence in which Indara bends in slow motion to avoid a killing blow could have come straight from the Wachowski blockbuster.

Headland has also described The Acolyte as a mix of Frozen and Kill Bill – a comparison that just about holds water. As with Frozen, the series is, at its heart, about two sisters who don’t get along. Stenberg plays both: the seemingly villainous Mae and her twin Osha, a former trainee Jedi who flunked out of Force school.

Mae and Osha haven’t seen each other for more than a decade, after Mae committed a terrible act that changed her sister’s life forever. Osha had assumed Mae was dead. But no, she’s alive and now – as “an acolyte” with illicit Force training – is hunting down Jedi Knights, starting with Indara (much as Uma Thurman’s Bride took her revenge in Kill Bill).

You can see why the showrunner would cite Frozen and Kill Bill, each having a major cultural footprint. However, a more accurate comparison might be the Netflix animated binge-watch Arcane, in which two estranged sisters are on opposite sides of a conflict between good and evil.

Initially, the audience’s sympathies are supposed to lie with Osha. She is introduced as a tomboy-ish grease monkey trying to put her Jedi past behind her while making a living repairing starships. Stenberg does well playing both characters – fleshing out Osha’s trauma and Mae’s justified (in her eyes) resentment against the Jedi. She is joined by a solid support cast. They include Lee Jung-jae as Osha’s old Jedi mentor, Dafne Keen (Lyra in the BBC’s His Dark Materials) as his sarcastic student, The Good Place’s Manny Jacinto as an idiot smuggler and Jodie Turner-Smith as a mystical figure from Mae and Osha’s past.

Praise must also go to Headland – a co-creator of Netflix’s quirky time-travel drama Russian Doll – for trying to do something different with Star Wars, with the concept of a community of female dissidents accessing a forbidden side of the Force. Yet despite a reported $25m per episode budget, the series suffers from the same flat, “cheap” look that was an issue with Obi-Wan Kenobi, while the pacy action scenes never compensate for the clunking dialogue. It’s a spirited effort, but in the continuum of Disney’s Star Wars hits and misses, The Acolyte lands bang in the middle.