While it was still cool to hate them, I had one bit of praise for the Star Wars prequels (for archaeologists reading this: Those are Star Wars, Episodes I-III, the movies made to fill in the story leading up to the original 1977-1983 trilogy). The prequels, I reiterate, are bad movies from a purely critical standpoint: The direction and editing are boring, most of the performances are not that good, the effects are more focused on looking epic than on telling a story. There is a laundry list of Things That Ruin the Canon, like Padmé dying before Leia could have any memory of her, as she reveals in a tender moment with Luke in Return of the Jedi.
Anyway, my praise: If you wrote out the plot and themes of the prequel in bullet points, they’re actually a great idea. A queen in exile, protected by a pair of mystic warriors, flees invasion and happens upon a precocious slave boy who may also have that mystic power and whose birth is shrouded in mystery. He grows into one of the mightiest and most well-regarded of these mystics and in defiance of his vows, becomes the queen’s lover; but in his obsessive drive for the power to control the world, he comes under the thrall of a vile sorcerer and kills her. His forbidden love affair with the queen is responsible for two children, destined twins: The daughter will lead an army that unmakes the evil order he’s imposed on the cosmos, and the son will offer up his own life for his father’s redemption. In the broad strokes, the prequels are dealing with a lot of the same stuff as The Godfather: meditating on how a vicious drive for power can corrupt even the most noble of intentions, and how a shady organization or charismatic individual can win the total devotion of someone by offering them exactly what they want at their weakest moment.
So it’s too bad the prequels were just really bad at selling the particulars of those plot points (even if plenty of viewers have always thought they were cool movies). What the creators who have worked with the property since have known, however, is that those broad strokes are easy to hang a great story on: You can ask Dave Filoni, who has cranked out series after series of colorful new characters that call back to the most dramatic parts of the prequels and, really, draw out more meaning than creator George Lucas probably even intended when he made them. In the 20 years since those movies, it has seemed as if almost the entirety of Star Wars’ multimedia project has been a psy-op aimed entirely at assuring crusty old millennials like me that no, really, the prequels were not that bad!
They’ve done this by filling in the friendship of Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi that should’ve happened in the movies. They’ve done it by ensuring that the brutal Order 66, one scene in one movie, is now an incident depicted from multiple angles in about a dozen different spinoffs, from videogames to cartoons and, yes, this TV show. They’ve done it by creating a whole other character for Anakin Skywalker to bounce off of and serve as the foil during his journey to becoming Darth Vader, a character who initially was super annoying and now is super Rosario Dawson.
“Sure, fine, whatever,” I and I’m sure a bunch of my age cohort have said as we boot up Jedi: Fallen Order or an episode of The Mandalorian, “but the prequels are still bad.”
As it turns out, this whole project was leading up to Obi-Wan Kenobi, the new series on Disney+ which sees the eponymous exiled Jedi in a time precisely in between his climactic battle with an evil Anakin Skywalker and the day when we know he will surrender his life to Darth Vader in the knowledge that he’s guided Vader’s children on the path to defeating him. I am that annoying guy who believes that filmmakers should at least try not to invalidate good lines from the original trilogy, so I was not looking forward to this show. How could it possibly do anything but mess up a bunch of history that is better left alone, I thought.
I am here in humility and despair as I inform you that Obi-Wan Kenobi blithely messes with canon, trots out specific callbacks to specific scenes in the prequels, further complicates some of the scenes you love about the original trilogy, and that it fucking rules.
Ewan McGregor is often cited as the performer who came out of the prequels smelling like roses. Lucas didn’t give him a whole hell of a lot to do, emotionally, but he managed nonetheless to affect a Kenobi who really did seem like the younger version of Alec Guinness’ old sage. There are moments he comes off as the showboat when it should be Anakin: Why on Earth does he just jump into the midst of General Grievous’ whole platoon of dudes in the last movie?? There are precious few moments of real camaraderie between Kenobi and Anakin that aren’t just the two reminiscing about things we haven’t seen. But McGregor is just incapable of doing a bad job no matter who’s behind the lens, and is also a guy who seems to just really love Star Wars: He repeatedly said he’d love to come back to the character, that he had to put a lid on himself during fight scenes because he involuntarily made lightsaber noises, and that he still occasionally waves his hands at automated doors like he’s using the Force to open them.
The show’s marketing initially made it seem like we were going to see McGregor’s Kenobi mope around on Tatooine and spy on Luke. We get that for about five minutes before the real plot happens: We are not going to spend time with Kiddo Luke, but with Kiddo Leia (Vivien Lyra Blair), that most of the show is not going to happen on Tatooine, and that Kenobi absolutely is going to come face to face with Darth Vader in at least one scene that unquestionably ties the black-clad robo-samurai voiced by James Earl Jones to the portrayal of the man by Hayden Christensen in the prequels. (James Earl Jones returns, by the way, but it’s possible he does so with a little help from AI.)
None of that should work, in the broad strokes. It needlessly complicates things to shoehorn in a whole time in Kenobi’s life when he is conscripted to rescue a kidnapped Leia, all because the overzealous Sith Inquisitor known as Third Sister (Moses Ingram) believes she may be the key to drawing out the fugitive Jedi. It needly complicates things to have Kenobi encounter Vader at any point in between their two fateful duels in Episode III and Episode IV. It really complicates things for Kenobi to draw any sort of attention to himself at all, when his whole mission is to silently safeguard Luke.
But despite how it shouldn’t work in the broad strokes, it absolutely works in the particulars. McGregor’s Kenobi is more soulful and introspective, conveys more in just the first few silent moments of his screen time as a working stiff and in his tired dialogue with his Jawa junk dealer friend than Lucas ever let him in the entire prequel trilogy. Blair’s Leia has the same fire we know she’ll have in ten years when she’s leading a rebellion, has story beats that gently hint at her Force powers, and plays off McGregor perfectly. Leia the character does not understand why this bearded hobo is being so weird and sad around her, but you can tell the actor does. McGregor, meanwhile, sells every choked up scene with her like he’s delivering his lines to someone whose face reminds him of the two most important dead people in his life. It all works great before you even get to the parts where McGregor shoots off one-liners, punches people, and tears through an enemy base like Solid Snake with a lightsaber. Director Deborah Chow, who has already ably shown she knows exactly what a good Star War needs, continues her winning streak with this one.
I’ve written about how one of the most important projects for Star Wars really seems to be making you want to watch more Star Wars, starting with the mile-long back catalog. And, as I’ve mentioned, if we have to resurrect or assist elder actors through the use of dark AI magic, so be it. Obi-Wan Kenobi is fun to watch, smart, and feels like you could turn it on right after Revenge of the Sith without skipping a beat. It just also happens to be proof positive not only that long-running franchises like Star Wars benefit from rehabilitating their less well-received entries, but that it can be done in service of the very worst.
Man, but it is good to see Jimmy Smits back as Bail Organa, isn’t it?
Kenneth Lowe is more machine now than man, twisted and evil. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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