Obi-Wan Kenobi review: A gripping, rich return
James R | On 28, May 2022
Warning: This review is based on the first two episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi and contains minor spoilers. New episodes arrive weekly on Wednesdays.
How do you know when you’ve reached rock-bottom? Is it when you’ve tried to mentor someone, only for them to go off the rails? Is it when that former pupil has ended up burnt to a crisp after an intense duel to the death? Is it when your friends and colleagues are being hunted down and you’re left hiding alone in a cave on a remote desert planet? Obi-Wan Kenobi hasn’t exactly had an easy ride in the Star Wars universe, and his long-awaited solo outing on Disney+ serves as a gritty reminder of that fact. Sandwiched between Episodes III and IV, it’s the kind of pre-sequel spin-off that could easily lose any sense of stakes because we know where our hero will end up. But Obi-Wan Kenobi turns that knowledge into a strength, rooting its drama in his emotional journey – he’s a hero, yes, but this six-part drama digs into the tragedy of his heroics with skilful precision.
The series picks up with Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) going by the name “Ben” and living on the outskirts of Tatooine, a place where we’ll find him years later in A New Hope. A decade has passed since Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) turned to the Dark Side, but a savvy flashback through the saga to date reminds us of just how dark things got, as we again witness the younglings massacre led by Anakin in Episode III with the immediacy of the nightmares that still haunt the jaded Kenobi. Ben’s now a thin cloak of his former self, working on an assembly line in anonymity, withdrawn from the world and disconnected from the Force.
If this regret-filled portrait of a once-fierce Jedi master is ringing a bell, that’s because Obi-Wan Kenobi taps into the same rich seam of guilt and power that made The Last Jedi such a mournful and thoughtful watch. Having seen what this warrior is capable of, there’s something deeply human about his restraint and reluctance in using that strength, and Ewan McGregor reminds us just how perfectly cast he is as the once and future Alec Guinness. Now bearded and a little frayed around the edges, he cuts a sorry silhouette, with only his eyes giving us a glimpse of the sorrow and contrition simmering under the surface.
And so Obi-Wan Kenobi sets its stall out with surprising depth – even Luke Skywalker’s uncle, Owen (Joel Edgerton, also reprising his role from the prequel trilogy), doesn’t want anything to do with Ben, despite his determination to keep watch over them and train the boy (Grant Feely) when he’s ready. The plot is equally surprising, as we find ourselves focusing less on Luke and more – refreshingly – on his sister, Leia (Vivien Lyra Blair), who we’re reminded is “just as important as he is”. Blair is superb as the princess being raised by Senator Organa (Jimmy Smits) and his wife, Breha (Simone Kessell), on Alderaan, at once plucky and confident – with a Jedi-like knack for seeing through people – but also a fish out of water in a snooty, boring society.
By juxtaposing the eager, outspoken Leia with the quiet, downbeat Ben, Obi-Wan Kenobi takes a leaf or two from The Mandalorian’s playbook, as the vibrant youth and determination on display highlights what the older, weary veteran needs to do. Also borrowed from The Mandalorian is director Deborah Chow, who seamlessly slots this series into the wider Star Wars universe with a gorgeous bit of world-building. A Blade Runner-esque neon dystopia gives a new, sinister edge to the fringes of the galaxy, where bounty hunters run amok and the legends of the Jedi are mostly there to exploit for monetary gains. It also provides a compelling and believable backdrop for the mini-arc of Ben being convinced by others to try using his powers once more – a promising sign of the show’s juggling of micro and macro structures. Linking it all together is Nathalie Holt’s superb soundtrack, which playfully toys with Star Wars signatures (and John William’s new theme for Obi-Wan), while also introducing hunting horns and fascinating rhythms to keep us on our toes.
Chow knows how to stage a set piece and the opening couple of episodes balance day-to-day drudgery and loneliness with slick, thrilling chases and shootouts. It helps that the people doing the shooting are some genuinely intimidating villains, with Rupert Friend a chilling Grand Inquisitor leading the hunt for Jedi fugitives. Moses Ingram, meanwhile, steals the whole show as the Third Sister of the Inquisitors, who is hellbent on finding Ben and is prepared to go to violent lengths to achieve that goal.
The helmeted elephant in the room, though, is the Big Bad of them all: Darth Vader, and we start to get a glimpse of how Hayden Christensen and the writers will be approaching the return of the Sith Lord. There’s no doubt that the confrontation between the two will be the climactic pay-off, but what hooks us from the off is what this looming face-off means for Ben. How do you know when you’ve reached rock bottom? When you find out that former pupil is still alive. Obi-Wan’s facial expression alone is worth tuning in for. Based on the first two episodes, the Force is strong with this one.