Ewan McGregor had a defining film role a couple decades ago that helped to cement who he is as an actor in the eyes of a generation. Recently, he returned to that role in a followup long hinted-at, and that followup blew everyone’s expectations out of the water. Not only did it prove a worthwhile addition to the original; it actually interrogated and developed upon its ideas, offering a mature portrait of a character, an emotionally affecting story, and a blinding piece of entertainment that refused to merely tug on the choke-chain of our nostalgia, but forced us to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about it as well.
That was T2: Trainspotting. Fantastic movie.
Obi-Wan Kenobi had a difficult journey to screens, starting life as a movie, before being turned into a TV show, then rewritten again in the wake of The Mandalorian. It’s not clear how much of the original idea translated into the finished product, but what is clear is that it lost a lot in translation from the big to small screen. The Kenobi series arrives with the best of intentions, but gets lost in slavishness to fans, adherence to a cynical streaming-driven structure, and most surprisingly of all, a weird sort of ineptitude on a scene-to-scene level.
A Promising Start
The overall intent of Kenobi is a strong one. It’s ultimately a story of Obi-Wan coming to terms with his trauma, confronting his greatest failure, and regaining a faint sense of hope. That’s an important step for the character, and while I would’ve questioned the necessity of having him face Darth Vader again (and again), that relationship is treated exceptionally well. The simple choice to make Obi-Wan unaware Anakin survived, until informed of as much by new villain Reva, results in one of the most powerfully, emotionally horrifying beats in the series. The show’s marketing fake-out, pivoting from a young Luke to a young Leia, was a canny and delightful move, and there was certainly potential, realised briefly via a couple lines of dialogue, in making Obi-Wan grapple with his former apprentice’s descent while also protecting his offspring.
There’s a lot of wonderful stuff dotted throughout Obi-Wan Kenobi. McGregor absolutely smashes it, imbuing his character with soul-deep sadness and regret that fully captures the trauma an event like Order 66 would cause. He’s even more jaded than Old Luke in this situation, facing both personal guilt and an utterly devastating, galaxy-scale loss, and McGregor nails both that depression and the journey out of it. Natalie Holt, fresh off her terrific score for Loki, does a great job adapting John Williams’ themes old and new, carrying a lot of the emotional weight as the scores to these things always do. And there are plenty of grace notes between the major setpieces – Obi-Wan reaching out to his old master and hearing only silence; Kumail Nanjiani’s fake-Jedi con artist; Rupert Friend’s preening Grand Inquisitor; the cheerful fascist-collaborator trucker; Obi-Wan’s cowardice upon first facing Vader; the cut to Vader after Obi-Wan realises he’s still alive; the moments of actual communication between the two. Even Vivien Lyra Blair, while struggling to make her dialogue sound unrecited, has some wonderful emotive moments as the young Leia Organa.
The Algorithm Decides
Sadly, Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Disney+ TV show, and that carries with it some unfortunate side effects. Primarily, the show functions as proof that the “splitting a movie into parts” model is truly unsatisfying next to a structure that acknowledges episodes as individual pieces. Had subscriber churn prevention not been part of its remit, this story could have been condensed from a six-part, four-hour series into a two-and-a-half-hour movie. The character of Reva – despite super-charismatic work by Moses Ingram – is hamstrung by a need to artificially parcel out reveals episode to episode. Her “big twist” – that she’s out for revenge against Darth Vader – is delivered far too late to surprise or be capitalised upon in any interesting way, leading her final reversal to come mostly out of nowhere, with a flashback montage carrying immense narrative weight on its shoulders. Imagine a version of the show that was open about its characters’ motivations, and that saw Reva, Vader, and Kenobi playing each other off one another over a period longer than a few minutes. She’s clearly being set up for a spinoff of her own (another Disney+ hallmark, shared by other characters in the show), but her character isn’t given the chance to have enough of an internal life for us to want to follow her there.
A Sequel To A Prequel
Kenobi also falls prey to the biggest issue facing post-Lucas Star Wars content: its utter obsession with the past. For all its laudable explorations of trauma and guilt, Kenobi ultimately ends up serving as a kind of Rise of Skywalker for prequel fans, showering them with eye-rolling cameos and callbacks while smashing the Vader and Obi-Wan action figures against each other one last (?) time. Hayden Christensen is brought back for maybe a few minutes of identifiable screentime, bless him. In its final hour, the show becomes almost comically single-minded in its pursuit of wringing the most it can out of a few lines of dialogue from A New Hope: Vader straight-up saying that he killed Anakin, Obi-Wan offering nebulous future help to Leia, unnecessary requalification of Vader’s “master/learner” line from Obi-Wan’s final duel. Add to that a convenient pair of NDAs, in the form of Obi-Wan and Leia’s secrecy pact and Palpatine’s savage shutdown of Vader’s quest for vengeance, and you get a show torn between desperately wanting to play with canon toys and just as desperately avoiding making fans grumpy. Not to mention: as emotional (and quietly hilarious) as Obi-Wan and Vader’s confrontations are – the show becomes profoundly uninteresting the moment it transitions into either character being any sort of a “badass”.
At Least The Action Is Weirdly Bad
Which leads me to Obi–Wan Kenobi’s weirdest shortcoming: it’s kind of terribly put together. It all looks and sounds great, of course, with the exception of the final episode taking place mostly in unlit deserts at night. But the show is filled with bizarre lapses in logic, and even more shockingly, action setpieces that are simply embarrassing in how poorly-blocked they are. Plans come together that collapse under the slightest scrutiny. A buried lightsaber is located with an ease that would have saved Kumiko the Treasure Hunter a lot of trouble. Stormtroopers set a new record for inability to hit or even see targets mere feet away from them. Stealth sequences use a video-game AI approach to enemy awareness. Chase sequences play out on a single axis, relying on villain ineptitude for its outgunned (or three-foot-tall) protagonists to even put up a challenge. Duellists twirl their lightsabers at each other with a lack of visual drama belied by wild handheld camerawork flailing for a piece of concrete choreography to latch onto. By the end of the series, the moment-to-moment plotting is so flimsy, and the action staging so clumsy, that Obi-Wan’s much-pilloried concealment of young Leia under a cloak feels like a charming little gag. Star Wars has never been this expensive, nor as cheap.
Perhaps Kenobi’s greatest failing is one that isn’t visible on the surface. In spite of its strenuous attempts to position itself properly in canon, it leaves an enormous emotional hole at the centre of A New Hope. All the line-level justification in the world can’t hide the fact that Leia in the original film has absolutely no visible emotional connection to a man who once not only saved her life but formed a bond with her through some extremely trying situations. This is the man who – in one of the show’s better-written moments – told her a little about her birth parents, something it seems her adoptive parents never did, and now, the fact that (let’s be completely honest here) she does not know Obi-Wan at all in A New Hope makes her seem dreadfully uncaring, or to be more charitable, alarmingly forgetful. Same goes for Obi-Wan’s now straight-up misogynistic comment to Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back that Luke “is our last hope”. Obi-Wan Kenobi is the latest and most laser-focused attempt to provide a backstory to every tiny little moment in Star Wars. In doing so, it does find some humanity, but negates it elsewhere in equal measure. So franchise-minded is Star Wars, it’s on the verge of becoming simply memory and iconography to be exploited; story is a secondary consideration, and if you’re lucky, you get some scraps to chew on.
Disney+ finally took a break from obsessing over Luke Skywalker, only to obsess about a couple other Skywalkers. And then also Luke, for good measure. Taika Waititi is absolutely right: for this franchise to move on, it has to move on. I’d say Andor looked promising, but a Skywalker is still alive in that timeline, so he’ll probably show up. Ditto Ahsoka. Maybe The Acolyte, set 100 years before the prequel trilogy, will deliver something fresh. Or maybe Shmi Skywalker’s great-grandparents will show up. Who knows.
T2: Trainspotting is available to rent on Google Play, Apple TV, and Amazon.