Obi-Wan Kenobi review: A mesmerizing Anakin moment couldn't fix a galaxy of plot holes
Warning: This article contains spoilers for all of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
You know, it was nice to see Hayden Christensen again.
The actor was infamously adrift in a couple Star Wars prequels, and the ramshackle miniseries Obi-Wan Kenobi brought him back submerged. James Earl Jones still gets Darth Vader's best lines. That looming costume offers zero chance at physical expression. Yet there was Anakin smirking in episode 5, dueling his titular mentor (Ewan McGregor) in a Padawan flashback.
Based on the braid, 41-year-old Christensen was playing his post-teen Jedi self. There may have been digital skin-smoothing; the whole series looked like Botox, so many flat CGI settings with all the texture of a Mortal Kombat 2 background. Even so, this Anakin was visibly older than the young man last seen lava-screeching in 2005's Revenge of the Sith. Baggy eyes, brow well furrowed, a trace of jowls: Wonderful instruments for an actor, really, suggesting without fuss the toll of time.
In Episodes II and III, Christensen had to play a cocky, dutiful, vain, sweet messianic vengeful fool for love, aging from naïve youth to battle-hardened traitor. Tough work for a great actor with a good script and a human-focused director — and those movies were greenscreen wax museums built by a billionaire obsessed with pixels and trade routes. I like Revenge of the Sith, though, and respect the moral purpose Christensen's blandness serves. Anakin Skywalker should come off like an embarrassing idiot out of his depth. True believers groove onto his tragedy, and I worry they're missing the prequels' dark comedy. Here's a painfully uncool trollsack, raised with delusions of grandeur, who doesn't notice he's getting puppeted by a charismatic tyrant. Truly, a proud boy. Now Disney trots Vader out for maximum pwnage — neck-snap, Force-toss, saber-stab! — but Lucas was eccentric enough to make his lunchbox baddie a kid-killing wife-choker.
Obi-Wan Kenobi was stunningly pointless, but it (briefly) tapped Vader's self-cannibalizing psychodrama more than any project since Lucas' departure. In their final battle, Obi-Wan slashes Anakin's dark helmet asunder, revealing half a skinless zitface with no apparent eyelids. It's supposed to be the big moment for Kenobi. "I'm sorry, Anakin," says Obi-Wan, "For all of it!" He's has been visibly haunted by past mistakes all season long. And true, you could argue he raised a school shooter slash an Antichrist. But the circumstances were galactically extreme — There was a Clone War! They were soldiers in a cult of techno-magical government monastics! — and McGregor has always played Kenobi as a generous fellow.
So it's bracing how his former apprentice throws the whole self-flagellating conceit into the hero's face. "Anakin's gone," says Vader, "I am what remains." His voice trips between tremulous Christensen and baritone Jones. "I am not your failure, Obi-Wan. You didn't kill Anakin Skywalker. I did." That smile, man: Holy wow. You feel Darth Vader as a persona that killed the person: Tyler Durden, Mr. Robot, a Twitter feed that was once a man. I can't remember a single onscreen moment when this character looked more triumphant — and he's bragging about turning himself into a limbless, friendless mass murderer with engine breath.
That was great. Everything else was awful. Obi-Wan Kenobi became the story of a very boring man and various interesting women sublimating their personal narratives to lightsaber cockfights. Wait, no, that makes the show sound like a failure of thematic intention or plot momentum. Obi-Wan had a larger problem: It was dumb as a rock. Simple rules of spatial logic went out the window. Main characters kept almost killing each other, and then walking away long enough for their wounded opponent could recover. Tough to pick just one egregious moment, so here's three:
- In their first big duel, Darth Vader takes full control of Obi-Wan's body, Force-lifting his his old teacher into a wall of fire. Then Tala (Indira Varma), a Rebel double agent, ignites an oil canister, which re-lights the same wall of fire, maybe with taller flames? No reason to think taller flames would render Vader's Force powers useless, but he watches impotent as a droid slowly picks Obi-Wan up and gradually carries him away.
- Speaking of Darth Vader staring at a very slow escape! In the secret headquarters of the underground fugitive network known as the Path, the Sith Lord arrives at a space-dock right as a ship flies up into the air. He Force-pulls the ship back to the ground — and then watches as an identical escaping ship jets away nearby, apparently forgetting the ship-grabbing powers he literally just used. It's very Roadrunner and Coyote: Darn, I ALMOST had them!
- Third Sister (Moses Ingram) was a one-time Jedi youngling who spent ten years edging into Vader's inner circle. This subterfuge required a murderous commitment to her vengeance; she kind of just became a ferocious Jedi hunter. After all that time and so many sins, she picks an absurd moment to strike: When Vader is alone, in a huge echoing cavern, doing nothing. She sneaks up behind him and turns on her lightsaber — a famously loud weapon — and takes a swing. It goes poorly.
I know these are Comic Book Guy complaints about a universe where vibe-telepaths battle laser moons. And the show's big notion was less logical than canonical: Meet Leia (Vivien Lyra Blair) as a 10-year-old! Obi-Wan Logan-ing with the Princess is half an idea, but the busy plot left them no room to affect each other. Obi-Wan re-became the pleasant hero he ever has been, while McGregor moped towards a smile in his sexy-professor hair. Leia started out as a bold freethinker with ultra-supportive parents, and ended the same with a cool holster. Two other characters had more potential. Tala was a complicated nobody, an Imperial officer who grew a conscience post-massacre. Third Sister, born Reva, exuded deeper disillusionment. The show opened on the night her entire Jedi generation got brutally murdered. She incinerated her conscience, working towards dish-served-cold Vader vengeance. Ingram was the breakout presence, but Reva's lack of an actual plan reduced the character. You kept waiting for her to do something truly shocking. In the finale, she attacks Aunt Beru (Bonnie Piesse), Uncle Owen (Joel Edgerton), and young Luke Skywalker (Grant Feely), three characters who were never going to die.
You may note we've come a long way from 1977's Star Wars. Upon rewatch, the defining Empire-Rebel rift reads a bit vague: black-uniformed white guys versus orange-uniformed white guys. We could be in the Balkans or Northern Ireland, some deepseated ethnic animosity that outsiders only recognize as a family squabble. Later lore amended the dynamic, filling out the Alliance with aliens, Mon Mothma, and Lando while the Empire remained ethnically Kensington. It's a clear schism — monolithic uniformity vs. the omniculture — but Obi-Wan Kenobi sorta tried to interrogate franchise history. "You are all the future!" says Obi-Wan to a ship full of refugees, played by a notably diverse cast: Maya Erskine, O'Shea Jackson Jr., and Kumail Nanjiani. Maybe you caught some implied self-criticism in the premiere, when Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) press Obi-Wan into leaving his Luke guardianship to rescue Leia.
"She's as important as he is." True! But from our perch in the future, the interesting thing about the original trilogy is how Leia isn't treated with Luke's importance. Alec Guinness' Obi-Wan spends his life and death teaching Anakin's son the ways of the Force — and never seems to notice if women exist. A lot to grapple with there, and I worry that all the corporate oversight guided Obi-Wan to a rigid focus on icon worship. The same old characters got promoted to new positions of prominence. Obi-Wan tells all his Rebel colleagues they are the future — and then they disappear so he can battle Darth Vader (again) before flying off to watch over Luke Skywalker (again). Meanwhile, a fake Jedi is a swell idea for a character, but Nanjiani's poser spent more time talking about being a swindler than actually doing any faking. You sensed heavy rewriting in the jampacked story-by credits, and director Deborah Chow had to fit everyone onto Disney's damned digital backlots, every magnificent wall fuzzy with CGI.
There's an uncomfortable kneel-at-the-altar quality in the recent sagas, which complicates and even defeats the strides in representation. After Daisy Ridley's Rey, Third Sister is the second strong female Jedi to self-realize at Luke Skywalker's house — as if the only route to heroism is through the original Chosen One's door. And I choose to be haunted by Obi-Wan's delirious misuse of Maya Erskine. The multi-hyphenate just finished PEN15, an astounding TV masterwork which she co-created and co-starred in. Now she was standing around the old Rebel hologram table, patiently following Obi-Wan's lead, moaning "No, we need you!" when he offers to sacrifice himself heroically. Remember when Han Solo blithely kept calling Ben an "old man," with Harrison Ford firing this-crazy-coot thought bullets in the Jedi sage's direction? The deference Obi-Wan expected from its own supporting cast was asphyxiating.
Obi-Wan Kenobi ended with a much-teased appearance by Liam Neeson, beamed in with all the grandeur of a Zoom session. Strange note to end on: A character who died in 1977 and a character who died in 1999, toddling toward nowhere in a desert. Is this Star Wars? Or is it only what remains? C-
Listen to interviews with Obi-Wan Kenobi stars Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Moses Ingram, Kumail Nanjiani, Rupert Friend, and more on EW's new Star Wars podcast, Dagobah Dispatch.
Sign up for Entertainment Weekly's free daily newsletter to get breaking TV news, exclusive first looks, recaps, reviews, interviews with your favorite stars, and more.
Ewan McGregor returns to Tatooine to fill in the gaps of what happened to the Jedi Master between the events of Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope.