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Television

Obi-Wan Kenobi
(2022)

 

So, in the space of a scant nine years, Obi-Wan Kenobi turns from a hopelessly guilt-wracked, emoting-all-over-the-place, not-really-all-that Jedi into Guinness’ zen master, having done zero work on himself during the prior Tatooine-based decade? And that’s probably the least nonsensical thing in Obi-Wan Kenobi. I resisted dipping into this, partly because The Book of Boba Fett was so atrocious. Partly because, while I didn’t mind Ewan McGregor’s performance – as these things went – the prospect of Disney compounding the extravagant deficiencies of the prequel trilogy with their woked-up formula held little allure.

I’d been steeled for Moses Ingram’s underwhelming performance as Reva Sevander – if you take issue with her, it goes without saying that you’re automatically racist, which conveniently for Disney makes a good defence against any naysaying of their limited series – and her being revealed as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s central character in all but series title. Clearly, Disney is in a place where they can only nominally make a series – or movie: see Lightyear – with a (straight) white male lead protagonist, as they are compelled by the power of woke to balance out the agenda with a black female antagonist (but not really the latter bit).

The saga’s relationship with race generally is worth recognising, mind, what with its original identification of and criticism for being a very white universe, a charge that led to George Lucas to introduce Lando Calrissian. On that level, the Disney organisation as a whole might simply being regarded – entirely gracelessly and for reasons entirely absent of genuine progressive intent, regardless of however many accept their virtue signalling at face value – as continuing his tradition by saying “No, really, look at us. We have strong female characters, persons of colour, a female director etc etc. Even our (white, and straight) male protagonist is vaguely toxic”.

The idea of the prior Star Wars universe having a certain style and tone, from which Obi-Wan Kenobi diverges, is also pretty suspect. At least since that revised Sy Snootles routine in the Return of the Jedi Special Edition, all bets at verisimilitude on any level were off (actually, probably since Chewie’s Tarzan yell in the original release). There followed an abundance of silly and/or naff effects. In the prequels, because he’s such a dweeb, Lucas was unable to man up and tell Sam Jackson to forget that purple-headed lightsabre nonsense. He also okayed the least Jedi line every (“Party’s over”). What’s the argument there? Black Jedi don’t need to behave like Jedi (Jackson delivering his every line as if he’s about to nut someone)? Less so than that Lucas’ control of tone was perilously scant by this point. That’s why you get a wheezing robot Sith, 3P0 with the head of battle droid, and a whirling dervish Yoda.

The point being, in the absence of great writing (absent since The Empire Strikes Back, largely) and a certain rigor of aesthetic, it’s left to performance to take up the Star Wars slack. Ingram’s patently unable to, essaying a tiresomely one-note rage machine, something the twist in her motivation only serves to underline. It’s clear there’s a problem when the show’s resident munchkin (Vivien Lyra Blair’s Leia, who looks about six but is apparently about ten) is out-acting you. With these things, and for reasons outlined, it often isn’t entirely fair to blame the actor; the character, as is nigh-on every character here, is the core problem. That Obi-Wan Kenobi is largely matched against someone identified by pervading petulance was never really going to land, regardless of who was cast. We’re supposed to believe Reva was going to kill Luke as revenge on Anakin? The motivation is so broken, it barely computes. Probably because the entire sequence works backwards from his abduction eliciting her getting fully in touch with her true feelings.

Reva might just be the most easily identifiable issue with Obi-Wan Kenobi, not wholly unlike Hayden Christensen and sand getting everywhere in the prequels. Because so little about the show satisfies. Even where it manages to muster a degree of engagement, it’s continually rubbing your nose in its greater incoherence. You can’t have a story focussing on little Leia being kidnapped as a means to bring Obi-Wan out of hiding and expect it to stand up to scrutiny. As noted, Blair’s performance is fine (certainly on a scale of Jake Lloyd), but everything about the character and the manoeuvred circumstances surrounding her is exhausting. At least young Luke only has a “Oh yeah, I’ve seen a lightsabre before, when that mad Inquisitor woman chased me across the Dune Sea” to contend with now, when he meets Ben in A New Hope. The most compelling question here is, knowing that using Leia brought Ben out of hiding once, why doesn’t Vader just do it again? Annually, until the Death Star is fully operational. It only makes sense.

We also have the writers continually forcing precocious insights and abilities on kid Organa, because remember, she’ll turn into Super Leia one day. Perhaps not until Rian Johnson gets to the franchise, and only then when she’s blown into space, and after that only in an abysmally rendered Rey training sequence in Rise of the Skywalker, but she’ll get there. Send her into vents. Have her “outrun” mercenaries (hilarious stuff, that). Make sure she stretches the thinnest of plots through escape/kidnap/escape (not necessarily the worst structural peg, but certainly irksome when it’s this unfinessed). We can only be relieved she didn’t shout “I’m Leia Organa and I’m a person” at any point (she’s evidently big on transhumanist rights, so she probably casts her definitions broadly anyway).

The only sensible way to tell an Obi-Wan Kenobi story would have been to make it low key, rather than pile on the elements that will get fans hating it (through canon-busting fan service). Obi-Wan’s PTSD is basically Luke redux, and all the worse for it. It actually makes McGregor’s (relatively) engaging performance in the prequel trilogy less meritorious in retrospect, as it suggests he was never going to embody anything of asexual Guinness ascetic (you’d never accuse McGregor of asexuality, any more than you’d suggest he carries an air of elegance, even in a habit).

Jawa: You know, you really do stink.

Obi Wan is afflicted with nightmares about leaving his wife and subsuming himself in Hollywood bacchanalia. He spurs Bail’s overtures (Bail is so immensely stupid, he shows up in Ben’s hidey hole and discusses Luke on an open channel; it’s shocking either Luke or Leia reached adulthood, and no wonder Alderaan went tits up). He’s fed dreadful lines (“You don’t know what the Empire can do”: cue O’Shea Jackson telling him yes, he does, actually). And he doesn’t wash.

Essentially, Obi-Wan Kenobi is only a great man for about forty minutes when he’s 67. And when he’s dead, but less so then. It seems he’s spent a decade not twigging Anakin is Darth. But then, he’s turned off the Force so as to be consistent with Luke’s (white male) wretchedness (there’s no nobility to be found here; ensure everything possible is done to put the hero on a par with the wrongdoer, so everyone is ingrained with moral murk).

As for his confrontation(s) with Anakin. Just appalling. The first appears to be staged in a BBC sandpit (if you can call Deborah Chow’s assembly of the filmmaking elements staging) and has Obi-Wan risibly burnt by his former student. You know, the same one who, upon reuniting in A New Hope, said “When I last met you I was but the student, Now I am the master”. How does that tally (and sure, one can cite Lucas nonsense like Leia remembering mum, but there’s making errors while fine tuning one’s backstory and there’s expressly compounding them)?

Even where continuity isn’t being attacked with a wrecking ball, the likes of Joby Harold, Hossein Amini, Stuart Beattie, Hanna Friedman and Andrew Stanton are keen to invite ridicule. Perhaps the precedent is the cartoons’ chopping Darth Maul in half, but it was evidently super-easy to get over being impaled on a lightsabre in those days. It’s also absurd that Sith, or Sith affiliates, should leave Force sensitives alive to fight another day when they’re expressly hunting them down (“We’ll leave you where we found you. in the gutter where you belong”). At least Bond villains leave the room with a fiendishly evil device about to do for the hero.

There’s nothing very noteworthy about Vader here. If it seems like it’s a performance on autopilot, well… I’m amused that, while Christensen “primarily performs Vader, Dimitrious Bistrevsky serves as the in-suit performer for Vader, while Tom O’Connell served as the stunt double. James Earl Jones’… lines… were generated by an AI program”. So Hayden plays Darth… when his helmet gets broken? Seeing him here, youthed up, is reminiscent of otherwise-unemployable Orlando Bloom in The Hobbitses.

The series’ best performance by a long shot is Rupert Friend as the very white (but with red insignia) Grand Inquisitor; this is your classic sci-fi villain performance, probably down to his being your classically trained thespian (the lines are nothing to shout about, but Friend offers a text-book study in cadence, all pregnant pauses and impactful delivery. He rises above this mess with flying colours).

Elsewhere, Benny Safdie is terrible, probably worse than Ingram but benefiting from having only a few minutes’ screen time. Kumail Nanjiani, as ever, plays Kumail Nanjiani. O’Shea Jackson Jr likewise (well, except for when he’s playing his dad). Flea is Flea. Ian McDiarmid presumably demurred the offer of makeup this time (he’s getting on for eighty, after all). Liam Neeson is as boring in two minutes as he usually is across two hours, so at least were somewhat spared. Joel Edgerton adds rasp to Owen. Indira Varma does a creditable job.

The production values are variable, with the theme tune up to the standard of Williams’ sequel trilogy (expecting a ninety-year-old to be bristling with creative juices is possibly unfair, though). Aside from diligently ticking its woke boxes, what’s Obi-Wan Kenobi’s contribution to the saga on a moral and ethical level? Well, as noted, much of it is in the service of classic Disney good-bad line blurring. Which, true, you can argue of George’s galaxy by variance, despite its apparent polarities. But emphasising the moral imperfections and weaknesses of the (male) Jedi is now the modus operandi. At least Reva was doing something, right? At least Darth has an attitude; he’s in pain, after all. Thank goodness for little Leia. She isn’t going to pass out when confronted by an Inquisitor. Not like her useless brother.

I can’t say Obi-Wan Kenobi disappointed, as it was no better or worse than I expected (it did seem to have a little more potential during the first couple of episodes, before it doubled down on inanities). I see Andor has been getting strong reviews, although suggesting it’s really good because it’s nothing like Star Wars isn’t perhaps the best way to sell me on it. It would be ironic, if the positive responses are earned, because Rogue One boasted the blandest characterisation of any saga entry.

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