Obi-Wan Kenobi: Part I-III Review

Contrary to the previous Star Wars adjunct shows on Disney+, The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, the new series Obi-Wan Kenobi is more directly keyed into the narrative structure of the brand as a whole. It is not a story tagged onto the universe but one integral to its logical progression, one that adds connective tissue to the conflict between Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Darth Vader (Hayden Christensen), about which the prequels portrayed the starting point and Star Wars (1977) established the end. In that way, it is narratively more loaded, as well as less prepared to be what Star Wars has always been at its best – a collection of separate adventures that together add up to an impression of a place and time. The Mandalorian supported this with the structure of a series of short stories loosely bound by one non-restricting thread; unimportance gave it a certain leniency while also spurring its creators to try to convince the audience of its authenticity. Kenobi by contrast, even before talking about the quality of its filmmaking, has strapped itself down to one key arc, making any discussion of it more particular, being more dependent on its implications on the rest of the material. This is not decoration on the house of Star Wars – it’s a jackhammer that tries to squeeze in a new keystone. It seems to hope that just by being an allegedly important piece of the brand, it doesn't have to work that hard.

The show begins at a somewhat baffling place. Obi-Wan is on Tatooine, severed from the force, unaware that Anakin is still alive, ten years after the events of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (though it could be one year or five or seven). The show simultaneously relies on both anticipation for his confrontation with Anakin and on knowledge of the original film, which precludes this meeting from happening. “When I left you, I was but the learner, now I am the master,” is a line that is now out of the continuum, making Obi-Wan a show that relies on knowledge that it contradicts. To a lesser extent, even his relationship with young Leia (Vivien Lyra Blair) doesn’t match up with her aloof demeanor towards him in Star Wars.

These inconsistencies, which already exist in Star Wars, are not significant criticisms, but they are signposts to one. Obi-Wan Kenobi does what the creators “want” it to do, rather than what works within the constraints given to them. The limitations that should have been starting points are being treated as liabilities, as opportunities to shrug off the continuity rather than empower it (and dare the fans to point it out). I don’t want to devote any more time to discussing “consistency” since that has never been the brand’s strong suit, except as a smokescreen in its discourse that covers up more pressing technical issues. After all, Leia should remember Obi-Wan from this show just as much as she should not remember her mother from the prequels, as she described in Return of the Jedi. The contradictions alone are not the issue, but they exist because the show’s creators did not push their drafts as hard as they should have or think creatively outside the first thing they imagined the show could be, which is all the characters with the strongest SEO clanging together like action figures.

If the logic of the premise is rough, it’s nothing compared to the show’s lack of logical consistency in its action. Each scene seems to have a preordained beginning and end point, to which characters are teleported at will even if the spatial reasoning or dramatic thread cannot be shown to the audience. The show treats “out of frame” as “out of mind,” with people jumping through space to get to the next scene, leaving out core information such as how they snuck past each other, how they lost or found their way, or how they got there in time. Any basic film class would demand greater attention to spatial relation and the audience’s attention than this.

There are several examples of this problem. One is in Part II, during a chase on a roof. Obi-Wan is chasing Leia, a gunman sees him, and a firefight ensues. Reva (Moses Ingram) sees the commotion and runs headlong (at times bounding like a predatory cat and leaping like Spider-Man), with the goal of engaging and capturing Obi-Wan. We see how far away she is from the fight, as well as how fast she approaches it. Despite this, a protracted scene ensues where Obi-Wan helps Leia land safely in an alley; the scene snaps its fingers and he’s off the roof in the very next shot (it’s parody-level illogical, as though he has a twin in a magic trick). Then it snaps its fingers again and they are walking secretly towards the docking bay, without showing another shot of Reva to clarify how her point-of-view of the firefight resolves. It's just over now.

Where she ends up, why she didn’t catch up to them, where the gunmen went these are all omitted details, frozen in the time outside of what's directly in the frame at any moment. How that scene de-escalated and moved from “there” to “here” is completely unacknowledged by Deborah Chow's direction, so Reva’s consciousness is stretched like taffy across the connecting scenes in defiance of what the audience knows about where everyone is in relation to each other. We do not see her lose them; we resume her arc at a point where she has to react in the next scene like she’s “looking for them,” even though they were right there. The show simply resumes a normal mood, with no contiguous dramatic momentum between those scenes at all, as though they are both deleted scenes on a bonus features reel.

Part III does it again with the Vader confrontation. Obi-Wan teleports out of town, with no apparent way of escaping and no desire to show it; Vader teleports ahead of him to meet him there, apparently running at a full sprint the second the camera panned away like Ferris Bueller making it home in time to fool his biggest fans. This is only so he can "appear" before their battle like a horror icon stalking a victim. After limply confronting each other, visual language implies that a fire blocks Vader's path from getting to Obi-Wan, even though a wide shot would have revealed that it doesn’t. A cutaway shows Obi-Wan on the ground with nothing else in-frame he could be five feet or five miles from Vader, depending on the director's and writer's desire. The camera obscures the contingency to put it out of mind, but it gives the scene a feeling of lacking basic logic, which could have been assuaged as simply as stormtroopers attempting to cross the fire, which they clearly can, and Vader waving them off in a frame that shows Obi-Wan on the ground within his view.

Instead, everything is blocked into its own reality for convenience, no matter the effect that it has on comprehension (I watched this show with my mom and the first thing she asked when it ended was why Vader couldn't cross the fire; I told her he let Obi-Wan go, not because it was clear that happened or why, but because that's all it could be). Then in the next scene, one of the inquisitors laments, "Now we'll never find them," even though they didn't disappear and couldn't have gone far; the line just has the basic tone they were "going for" in the scene. Even in a situation as simple as little Leia running away from her captors, the adult actors can be clearly seen giving her the space she needs to stay ahead of them, with the camera never able to convincingly make it seem like she "should" be getting away. In another scene, Obi-Wan struggles to deactivate a laser barricade even though a wide shot clearly shows that they could just walk around it. It’s passed off as excitement but its nonchalance towards basic reasoning betrays it constantly.

One action scene so far is a counterexample to this lack of attention to space and the audience’s perception of it. The opening scene is logical and engaging. It’s a recreation of the assault on the temple by the clones during which the Jedi students were extinguished in Episode III. It feels like a completely different crew made this scene, as the camera weaves energetically through the fight with coherent emotional stakes and promising editing, with a gut-punch finale that constantly makes spatial sense and has visual power. Most importantly, it doesn't lose any time or teleport anyone to the next beat. Nothing in the subsequent episodes so far has had anywhere near that attention to physical detail, as though it's not even the same show.

Unfortunately, the action is not the only dead-space. The dialogue has a similar issue with logical connections, often setting up dead-ends that it speaks with dreary certainty, with no reaction or overlapping emotional responses. This show feels like a world where people rarely have the ability to interrupt each other because they just don't have that much to say. When there's subtext, it's spoken as though it is subtext, with forced relevance. The problem is most felt in Reva’s lines and in the conversations with the inquisitors, scenes where people tell each other “what” to feel and “how” in ineptly underacted lines. (“Maybe you're too reckless." "Maybe you're not reckless enough.”) Yet even Obi-Wan himself seems to speak in chopped stanzas, despite the actor’s clear attention to what little detail he was given. McGregor and Joel Edgerton (he’s playing Owen Lars, Luke’s uncle) have a scene together and two actors that would be incredible in something else could be anyone in that moment with so little to work with.

Thankfully, Blair is a little fireplug as Leia, insincere at times but in the way that precocious kids can be. When it counts, she has the right spark (she says “I’m sorry” at one point with tear-inducing helplessness) and sneaking around a steamy city in a puffy red parka shouldn’t fail to get a warm chuckle out of anyone. By the standards of child acting set by Star Wars, lower than the rear-end of a Sarlac, Blair is a tiny triumph. Jimmy Smits is also a soul-warming presence as Senator Organa, one of the highlights of Revenge of the Sith due to his ability to coherently read lines with some believable personal ethos, a strength that is ironically just as valued in this show as it was in that film, being in similarly short supply.

I wish the visual technicians were working as hard as some of the actors seem to be, to at least give the ineptly directed action the deniability of looking good. Yet after the standard set by Grieg Fraser and Baz Iodine in The Mandalorian, Obi-Wan is a visually flimsy creation. The shots do not move compellingly or block the frame in a way that creates drama, or even wonderment. Instead of healing problems with its action, lazy framing contributes to the issues by frequently losing the visual threads of where people are and when. Infrequent switches to handheld cameras are never motivated. Even the colors and shadows have not made any purposeful contribution to the feel of Star Wars, which a well-placed sunset or hard-shadowed doorway did from the first episode of The Mandalorian. This show looks like a stroll through a backlot, before the clothes have been dirtied up and the lighting has been worked out. It was something I criticized The Book of Boba Fett for, but the problem has worsened here.

This show came into the world privileged with pre-packaged audience enthusiasm but starving for inspiration. I don’t envy the task of trying to generate new ideas within so many cluttered prerequisites, using two actors whose relationship has now become part of our collective cultural storybook but whose conflict has no room for the typical beats, in this timeframe. The fact that they decided to do those typical beats anyway is why the show feels more like an OVA than true canon. I kept waiting for Darth Vader to be in Obi-Wan’s head the whole time.

But continuity is not a problem by which a show with action and drama lives or dies. The lack of spatial logic throughout the show is really a result of misguidedly trying to reverse action from a desired endpoint, and that's what makes the problem at the heart of the continuity issues poison its ability to be anything but basically watchable. The creators’ most significant task was in making the show not feel reverse-engineered, yet in even the most basic action scene they demonstrate less logical acuity than a film student trying to keep two gazes straight on their first short film. If they would start treating limitations, both spatial and narrative, as opportunities for creativity rather than as liabilities to be ignored, then they might start banking on the audience’s attentiveness rather than their lack of it. This is the only way the show will start generating any real tension or emotion other than by the sheer fact of its existence, which will always be enough for some viewers but which cannot sustain a show's allure forever.

I don’t know where the show is going from here. I just know that these first three episodes were propelled by the promise of a conflict that was then executed without reason or in the context of even one logical transition. It even ends on a diabolical jump in logic where Reva teleports to the end of a tunnel to avoid killing a character the show is clearly saving for later; anyone would scratch their head at this "twist" and question why it happened that way, yet the writers avoided the feeling. This is why Obi-Wan Kenobi is currently floating in negative space between Parts III and IV, where the creators could place the starting pieces anywhere they pleased for the next episode. Any location would be just as likely since people do not move in real-time behind the frame in this show – they jump to wherever they are needed between edits, to cover one deficiency after another and hope the audience can outbid the lack of tension with a surplus of anticipation. This gives the show its overwhelmingly amateurish feel, despite its high effort acting and reasonable attempts at world-building (I like the stormtroopers in this). But even when I think I can grab onto it and be excited, it flies apart in my hand.

Buster Keaton had a saying: “Either we get this in one shot, or we throw out the gag." What he meant by that was that an audience cannot believe action if they can’t see it logically connect in space on the screen. An edit straight from a stunt to the result would prevent the viewer from laughing or feeling tense because they would not believe in it. The same applies to any action scene, even non-comic ones. When Reva gets lost out of frame, frozen ambiguously off-camera while Obi-Wan saves Leia with the force, the audience is jarred out of believing in the physical logic. When Obi-Wan escapes town off-camera and Vader escapes ahead of him, also off-camera, it's so easy to get distracted by the "how" that the moment has no dramatic power. It asserts power purely on the basis that the characters are significant enough by themselves. But relying on that alone is why this key confrontation 17 years in the making felt like nothing more important than a villain of the week, not having been built with any more attention to detail than that. Buster believed that if the camera covers up logic rather than accentuates it, nothing will ever be believable enough to be exciting. I hope Obi-Wan realizes he was right (and soon).

Image is a screenshot from the show: ©Disney

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