'Obi-Wan Kenobi' Review: This Star Wars Series Is a Force to Be Reckoned With
Ewan McGregor and Vivien Lyra Blair are a forceful double act in the fast-moving Disney Plus adventure.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
It's a question that's vexed Star Wars fans for decades: How did Darth Vader and the bad guys not find Luke Skywalker when he was literally hiding in his father's old home? New Disney Plus miniseries Obi-Wan Kenobi, streaming now, will reveal the answer. But the real question is, can a minor continuity error actually be stretched out to create an entire TV series worth your time?
And is there really a compelling story to be told when you already know how it turns out?
Thankfully, on the strength of the first few episodes -- available to stream on Disney Plus, with each new episode dropping each Wednesday -- the answer appears to be yes. Obi-Wan Kenobi (the show) is an assured, pacy and exciting new series with a great cast, from creators who know how to use familiar elements -- and, crucially, how to hold some back -- in a story that is, most importantly, character-driven.
This series could have gone either way, let's face it. It features Proper Movie Star Ewan McGregor wielding both a beard and a lightsaber, and focuses on one of the most engaging characters in the whole Star Wars saga. But more than any recent Star Wars shows, it's built from Star Wars at its best (the original film) and Star Wars at its worst (the overblown, computer-effects-blighted prequel trilogy). And it follows the stodgy Book of Boba Fett, another tale of a familiar Star Wars mainstay which undid some of the goodwill around streaming hit The Mandalorian.
But the series is safe in the hands of writers Hossein Amini (who wrote Drive, McMafia and more), regular Pixar writer Andrew Stanton, Pirates of the Caribbean writer Stuart Beattie, Hannah Friedman (who's also working on Willow for Disney) and showrunner Joby Harold, with director Deborah Chow. Between them, the creators of this series find the gripping human drama at the heart of this story.
Yes, it's a fantasy theme park of laser swords and rocket ships. But Obi-Wan -- now simply "Ben" -- is a broken war veteran who not only lost a surrogate son but also saw his whole civilization fall to darkness. He's a defeated man, and all he has left is a child he can never even speak to. This makes him a hugely compelling character. The story cleverly strips this beloved character back to a shell, and in the hands of an actor as good as Ewan McGregor it's a moving journey to watch. Watching Obi-Wan agonize over not just a call to adventure in episode 1 but also a horrifying personal revelation in episode 2, I suspect this series will see McGregor finally leave behind comparison with Alec Guinness (who originally played Obi-Wan in A New Hope). Guinness, the Oscar-winning star of The Bridge on the River Kwai, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, will always be a titan of cinema. But his brief in 1977 was to play a spritely and slightly batty space wizard. By contrast, McGregor gets to play the anguish and conflict etched into this devastated man's soul.
The creators' other cunning move is making the villains much more than cardboard cutout baddies. The black-clad Inquisitors are an order of fascist fanatics, but they're not above a bit of office politics. The divisions between Rupert Friend's moon-faced Grand Inquisitor and his impatient underling Reva mirror the Padawan relationship between Jedi master and apprentice. And even though she's a ruthless functionary of an evil regime, chillingly played by Moses Ingram, the troubled and ambitious Reva ends up being just relatable enough to be engaging. Even Darth Vader is twisted with pathos.
For a space shoot-'em-up, the series also touches on some timely themes. Star Wars continues to provide a metaphor for the insidiousness of evil, with an oily ambassador chuckling that "the Empire is finally lining some pockets" as he laughs off slavery and munches canapés. Children thoughtlessly repeat their parents' bigotry, while Obi-Wan himself grapples with his responsibility to the next generation.
The interplay between McGregor and feisty Vivien Lyra Blair are a lot of fun as the opening episodes set up the show along similar lines to The Mandalorian, in which our tough hero took Baby Yoda under his wing. Where that borrowed from samurai classic Lone Wolf and Cub, the Obi-Wan series recalls Luc Besson's 1994 hitman classic Leon: The Professional. Which is surely deliberate, given that Leon starred Natalie Portman just a few years before she became the key character in the Star Wars prequels. Like mother, like daughter.
Prequel, sequel, or sequel to a prequel?
So what exactly is this series, anyway? Taking place between the end of Revenge of the Sith and the beginning of A New Hope, it's both a prequel and a sequel to a prequel. Let's call it an in-between-quel. That illustrates one of the quirks of Star Wars in 2022: Without movies on the horizon to carry the saga forward, the franchise continually chases its own tail in ever smaller gaps between previous adventures. From Rogue One and Solo to The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett to forthcoming Andor, Ahsoka and Skeleton Crew, Disney's Star Wars stewards seem determined to cram every new series into the same few decades of galactic history we've seen many times before. This repetition and familiarity particularly effects Obi-Wan's story, as Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope already dovetail neatly into one another.
Fortunately, Obi-Wan's creators also know this, and while we start with "Ben" working as a meat-packer on Tatooine they waste no time setting off for pastures new. The desert planet was the setting for The Mandalorian and the The Book of Boba Fett, and frankly the latter show really suffered for being stuck in the same place. Instead, the Obi-Wan show pulls a neat switcheroo, sending our hero on a mission not to protect Luke, as you might expect, but something else that opens up the scope for a satisfying galaxy-spanning adventure.
Admittedly, while the series benefits from leaving the over-familiar Tatooine, the new setting it jumps to also looks kind of familiar. Specifically, episode 2 looks like one of those Marvel TV shows like Daredevil where everybody kicks the crap out of each other on rooftops at night and you can't see a thing. Still, the series wrings out more tension than you'd expect from a situation where you already know who can die and who can't.
With blaster battles and bounty hunter droids and sneering Imperials, it's all satisfyingly Star Wars, with some nifty worldbuilding like battered drug dealers and a poignant cameo that stops Obi-Wan in his tracks. On top of that are fun new characters -- look out for Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, plus Kumail Nanjiani clearly having the time of his life -- combined with compelling conflicts for the characters we know.
It turns out even when you think he's a beaten man, Obi-Wan Kenobi still has a few tricks up his sleeve. And while we're yet to see how the full series unfolds, this latest series shows there's life in Star Wars yet.
The rest of the series drops each Wednesday, starting with episode 3 on June 1 -- check out the full Obi-Wan Kenobi episode release schedule here. In the meantime, geek out with our in-depth recaps and deep dive into each episode's easter eggs, character arcs and cameos.