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REVIEW – ‘The Acolyte’ Represents a New Era of ‘Star Wars’ Story and story-telling

PDX 058458 R min

In an era of peace and prosperity, how do the Jedi become flawed? This was a question posed by Leslye Headland, the creator of the upcoming Star Wars series, The Acolyte, back at Star Wars Celebration London in 2023. During a featured event at the convention, Headland said, “How do you reconcile the Jedi at the height of their power, the galaxy at the height of this age of enlightenment and peace, and who George [Lucas] says they become at the top of The Phantom Menace?” This quote has stuck with me for years, and there is truly no better way to describe the premise of The Acolyte than that. 

In the latest tale from a “Galaxy Far Far Away,” The Acolyte is set before the Skywalker Saga. One hundred years before Darth Maul, well before the Empire, and long before Kylo Ren, the newest Disney+ series takes Star Wars fans to an era previously unseen on screen – The High Republic.

The Acolyte premieres with two episodes June 4th on Disney+. This review covers the first four of eight episodes of the series. Light spoilers below.

The Acolyte Key Art
The Acolyte Key Art

REVIEW – A Story and Cast that Stand on Their Own

The High Republic era was first depicted in book form starting in 2021, as the beginning of a multimedia storytelling initiative set when the Jedi and Republic are at the height of their powers. The Acolyte is set at the end of that time period, taking us closer to the prequel trilogy that began with The Phantom Menace. However, The Acolyte is accessible without having read any of The High Republic books or having any pre-existing knowledge of that era of Star Wars. The series is also so far removed from the previous films, that it can potentially be enjoyed without having seen any Star Wars films or shows. The Acolyte stands on its own, with an intriguing story and an exceptional cast.

In that same interview at Star Wars Celebration, Leslye Headland explained that she wanted to examine the consequences of Jedi behavior when they were in power. “If those bad guys are outnumbered at this point, then that means you get this opportunity to see how the Jedi very suddenly go from who they were in The High Republic and The Old Republic, and who they became by the time you’re watching episodes I [The Phantom Menace], II [Attack of the Clones] and III [Revenge of the Sith],” Headland said. 

Headland, who also wrote and and directed some of the episodes of The Acolyte, and serves as showrunner and executive producer, isn’t interested in just telling a story with the Force and flashy lightsabers. Instead, she examines the trauma that can come from a system of power, and who is allowed to wield it. Of course, there is plenty of astounding action, and the martial arts fight choreography matches that of any previous live-action Star Wars, but the depth and nuance of the series is something few other creators have brought to the Jedi. The Acolyte can be an entry point for viewers with zero knowledge of Star Wars, while also a thematic and visual feast for diehard fans. 

(L-R): Mae (Amandla Stenberg) and Jedi Master Indara (Carrie-Anne Moss) in Lucasfilm's THE ACOLYTE, exclusively on Disney+. ©2024 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.
(L-R): Mae (Amandla Stenberg) and Jedi Master Indara (Carrie-Anne Moss) in Lucasfilm’s THE ACOLYTE, exclusively on Disney+. ©2024 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

The Acolyte features an exceptional cast, led by Amandla Stenberg, who starred in The Hate U Give, and Emmy award winner Lee Jung-jae, best known to western audiences for his performance in Squid Game.

Lee plays Master Sol, who trained Stenberg’s character and has a long, complicated history with her. Their almost father-daughter like relationship is central to the series, and is reminiscent of a healthier version of Anakin and Ahsoka. The acting duo is incredible in the series, and Stenberg is particularly impressive in that she actually plays two characters. The performance is so strong, that one might easily wonder if two separate actors are portraying Stenberg’s dual roles. Without getting into spoilers, the pair form the emotional heart of the story, as well as the central focus of the plot.

Other standouts in the cast include Charlie Barnett’s Yord Fandar, who is emblematic of the Jedi in this time period. Yord is a stickler for the rules, and is similar to Obi-Wan Kenobi n the prequel films in the sense that he is very diplomatic. Barnett plays Yord with a cool, but slightly arrogant, energy to the character that makes him so great to watch. Rebecca Henderson plays Vernestra Rwoh, who is actually a character who appears in The High Republic books. Vernestra, who is over one hundred years old at the time of the series, is a revered Jedi in the order. She was a child prodigy in the novels, modifying her lightsaber into a lightwhip, which will be seen in this series

(L-R): Yord Fandar (Charlie Barnett) and Master Sol (Lee Jung-jae) in Lucasfilm's THE ACOLYTE, exclusively on Disney+. ©2024 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.
(L-R): Yord Fandar (Charlie Barnett) and Master Sol (Lee Jung-jae) in Lucasfilm’s THE ACOLYTE, exclusively on Disney+. ©2024 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

In my interview with Lee Jung-jae, he explained that Headland crafts a web of characters, which is an appropriate way to describe the writing of this series. The world feels brand new, but also fully lived in, just like the original Star Wars movies. The cast is so large, but every character feels distinct and nuanced. The show does not sugar coat the Jedi and does not shy away from exploring their faults. The Acolyte is committed to showing many perspectives within the galaxy, which makes for a richer experience for the audience.

From the first four episodes, I would have wanted just a bit of a longer runtime, as two of the episodes are just under, and the other two are just over, the forty-minute mark. The story is concise enough that it doesn’t feel like more time is necessary, but the production and writing quality are so good that audiences will want more. The first episode has a lot of groundwork to lay, with this brand new cast of characters, and situating viewers in a new timeline of Star Wars, but it does a good job of telling a gripping story while doing so.

In addition to the compelling story-telling and jaw-dropping choreography, it’s incredible to have a show that is so incredibly diverse. From starring a Black nonbinary person, to the Asian, Black actors and other diverse actors in the main ensemble cast, this is easily one, if not the, most diverse Star Wars projects yet. The diversity isn’t just for show, with these characters in the background or used as fodder to die early in a fight. Instead, several characters have depth and add to the complexity of the show. The ensemble work very well together and make the era feel rich and alive. The characters view their roles differently, have different ideas, and even have varying views of the Force.

Particularly intriguing is the introduction of a coven of witches, led by Jodie Turner-Smith’s character, who have a unique perspective on the Force. It’s amazing to see a group of women who use the Force in ways previously unseen in the Star Wars live-action universe.

(L-R): Amandla Stenberg , set PA Taylor Young, director Leslye Headland and director of photography Chris Teague on the set of Lucasfilm's THE ACOLYTE, exclusively on Disney+. ©2024 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.
(L-R): Amandla Stenberg , set PA Taylor Young, director Leslye Headland and director of photography Chris Teague on the set of Lucasfilm’s THE ACOLYTE, exclusively on Disney+. ©2024 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

Behind the camera, the series is scored by Black composer Michael Abels. Abels’ epic score is worthy of the big screen, and particularly in the first fight, makes the scene feel as grand as a Star Wars feature film. Definitely watch The Acolyte on the best screen, with the best sound, possible.  

It’s incredible that so many people will be represented in so many ways through this show from the actors, composer, and the creator of the series herself. To have this series released during Pride Month, created, executive-produced, written, and directed by the very same queer woman (Leslye Headland) is ground-breaking. Headland’s wife, Rebecca Henderson (Vernestra) is a part of the cast, and Charlie Barnett, who is also queer, plays one of my very favorite Jedi. The series highlights diversity in a variety of ways, but the queer talent in front of, and behind, the camera of The Acolyte is so inspiring to see as someone who has grown up adoring Star Wars my whole life while not necessarily feeling seen by the franchise on screen. That is why Barnett’s Yord Fandar specifically means so much to me, and why this series has the chance to make a special impact on audiences around the world.

RATING – 4.5/5 Pocky

Pocky Rating 4.5
Jorgie Profile min scaled

Jorgie is a Senior Writer at POC Culture and a passionate pop culture fan. Jorgie loves learning about visual effects, production, film, and art, and how they all come together to make films like Star Wars.

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