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The Acolyte review: a refreshing change of pace

Multiple Jedi wield their ignited lightsabers together in The Acolyte.
The Acolyte
“With its memorable cast of characters and mercifully standalone story, The Acolyte feels like a breath of fresh air for the Star Wars universe.”
Pros
  • Lee Jung-jae and Amandla Stenberg's commanding lead performances
  • A brisk pace maintained across its episodes
  • A narrative and visual fearlessness that is both refreshing and rejuvenating
Cons
  • A few questionable logic jumps and plot holes
  • Several tonally uneven moments (particularly in its third episode)

The Acolyte is lighter on its feet than you might think. The series, created by Russian Doll co-creator Leslye Headland, is the latest entry in Disney+‘s increasingly long line of live-action Star Wars shows. The Acolyte nonetheless has an identity all of its own — one that allows it to exist both alongside and completely separate from every other Star Wars TV show and film that has come before it.

Set around 100 years before the events of 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, it’s unburdened by the same unnecessary connections, Easter eggs, and timeline constraints that have dragged down so many of its fellow Disney+ shows, including Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ahsoka, and the most recent season of The Mandalorian. This makes watching the new series a refreshingly easy and — most importantly of all — genuinely fun experience.

Despite dealing with darker material than The Mandalorian and Ahsoka (i.e., the potential reemergence of the Sith at the end of the High Republic era), The Acolyte balances its heaviest and lightest moments with relative ease and develops its characters so efficiently that becoming invested in its story and key relationships takes little to no effort on the viewer’s part. The economy of storytelling on display and earnest performances given by its cast make it even easier to look past The Acolyte‘s few flaws.

Mae holds a dagger in The Acolyte.
Lucasfilm

The first thing that stands out about The Acolyte is its pace. The series wastes little to no time. Its first episode, written and directed by Headland, throws you headfirst into its story with a thrillingly staged fight sequence that not only serves as a dramatic starting point for its story but also concisely alludes to important past events that The Acolyte begins to fill in throughout its subsequent episodes. The show makes a forgivable blunder early in its season when it pauses its momentum in order to dedicate an entire installment to a prolonged flashback that’s necessary to understand the full scope of its story but could — and likely should — have been cut down or interspersed with more present-day scenes.

For the most part, though, The Acolyte keeps itself and its story moving at a healthy clip by rooting its central mystery firmly in the relationships between its leads. Tasked with investigating the murder of a fellow member of the Jedi Order, the series follows Sol (Squid Game star Lee Jung-jae), a respective and contemplative Jedi Master, as he tracks down one of his former students and his case’s No. 1 suspect, Osha (Bodies Bodies Bodies star Amandla Stenberg). Before long, Sol discovers that the crime he’s investigating is connected to a larger conspiracy involving a vengeful Force user and at least one masked individual wielding a red lightsaber.

As Sol begins looking into the dark forces now surrounding the Jedi Order, he takes the chance to reflect not only on the fallout of his and Osha’s relationship but also the tragedies that brought them together in the first place. Their story, one of deep regrets, miscommunications of the utmost importance, and shared guilt, is immediately reminiscent of past Star Wars relationships — namely, those shared by Obi-Wan and Anakin, Anakin and Ahsoka, and Ahsoka and Sabine. Together, Lee and Stenberg breathe new life into Sol and Osha’s bond, though, communicating deep emotions even in the most succinctly written of scenes.

Lee, in particular, shines as a Jedi Master grappling with the stoicism demanded by his occupation and the emotional intensity of his own personal connections, while Stenberg turns in a double-sided performance that only seems to grow more impressive the longer one spends with it.

Master Sol crouches while holding his blue lightsaber in The Acolyte.
Christian Black / Lucasfilm

Across The Acolyte‘s first four episodes, which were the only installments provided early to critics, Headland and her fellow writers surround Sol and Osha with a suitably ragtag group of memorable heroes and villains. Dafne Keen makes a memorable impression as Jecki Lon, Sol’s smart and inquisitive young Padawan, while Jodie Turner-Smith brings considerable warmth and power to her performance as Mother Aniseya, a witch with a mysterious connection to Stenberg’s Osha.

Of the show’s other noteworthy faces, Carrie-Anne Moss strikes an impressive figure as a Jedi Master named Indara and Manny Jacinto similarly stands out as Qimir, a rogue whose dislike for the Jedi seems to go further than he lets on. The Acolyte doesn’t always succeed at casting its oddest characters, including Aniseya and her fellow witches, in the most convincing light, but its actors and consistently brisk pace always prevent it from losing complete control of its tone and sprawling narrative.

Visually, The Acolyte‘s reliance on warm, golden hues and vibrant purples, yellows, and reds helps it stand apart from its fellow Star Wars shows. The washed-out exterior scenes of The Mandalorian and the steely blues and grays of Andor are nowhere to be seen here. The series’ use of steady pans and static shots throughout its hand-to-hand fight scenes similarly make its debt to martial arts-inspired genre films like The Matrix explicitly clear and also give The Acolyte‘s action sequences a refined edge that both elevates it and further reinforces the polished nature of its High Republic setting. The show, notably, succeeds at simultaneously communicating the Jedi Order’s power at the time of The Acolyte and hinting through key details and procedural rules how the organization will go on to change for the worse in the intervening years between its story and the events of The Phantom Menace.

Master Indara points her green lightsaber at Mae in The Acolyte.
Christian Black / Lucasfilm

In addition to the flashback-driven miscalculation it makes early in its season, The Acolyte stumbles over a few gaps in logic that are all but guaranteed to pull you out of it at different points — if only momentarily. The series lacks Andor‘s sharp wit and constant thrum of tension and, therefore, falls short of that show’s high standards. It is, however, more focused than The Mandalorian, more original than The Book of Boba Fett, better paced and performed than Ahsoka, and freer to actually do what it wants than Obi-Wan Kenobi ever was. Whether it will ultimately stick the landing remains to be seen, but it does enough right in its first four episodes to inspire confidence in this writer that it will. The series reminds you how vast and inviting the Star Wars universe once felt before it was rendered stale by so many uninspired movies and TV shows. That in and of itself is an achievement.

The first two episodes of The Acolyte premiere Tuesday, June 4, on Disney+. New episodes release weekly on Tuesdays. Digital Trends was given early access to its first four installments.

Editors' Recommendations

Alex Welch
Alex is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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