Star Wars Ahsoka Review: A Sly Takedown of J.J. Abrams?

The onslaught of Disney Star Wars content continues with the release of Ahsoka on Disney+. Billed as a sequel to the animated Rebels, the series should delight Star Wars fans both familiar and virginal to the animated canon. Judging by the first two episodes, the show will also ignite debate over a buried, subversive purpose.

Ahsoka picks up not long after Season 3 of The Mandalorian, with Rosario Dawson again donning alien make-up to portray the titular role. Despite capturing the despotic Morgan Elsbeth (Diana Lee Inosanto), Ahsoka remains melancholy over the disappearance of the Jedi-in-training Ezra Bridger (Eman Esfandi) decades before. She clings to hope that somehow her friend is still alive.

A Newer Hope

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Image Credit: Lucasfilm 

Though the New Republic now rules the galaxy in peace, Imperial loyalists abound. Ahsoka fears that Elsbeth has made contact with Grand Admiral Thrawn (Lars Mikkelsen), a brilliant Imperial officer that could reunite the remaining factions of the Empire. The discovery of an ancient, coded map sends Ahsoka to her friends General Hera Syndulla (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Sabine Wren (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) for help. If deciphered, it could lead to Ezra, but in the wrong hands, could allow Thrawn to return and kick off another galactic civil war.

At this point, many readers of this review have one pressing question in mind: can casual Star Wars fans, or at least those unfamiliar with Rebels, follow the story in Ahsoka? In a word, yes. Under the care of Dave Filoni, who penned every episode of the show and directed the debut installment, Ahsoka has a rich sense of history to it, though not an opaque one. As with the original film, mention of Jedi lore, key battles, or character backstories add to the intrigue of the story. It draws viewers in rather than alienating them or sending them to the internet for cliff notes.

Dawson, Winstead, and Bordizzo also channel their animated counterparts without imitating them. The actors make their roles their own—it helps that time has passed and that the characters have grown since Rebels. Some fans may groan that Ahsoka, Hera, Sabine, et al. did not come off so grave in their past incarnations, but that criticism misses the point. War and strife have changed them as people; Ahsoka doesn’t feel like a Rebels sequel so much as a postlude to it. To borrow a literary reference: Rebels is The Hobbit. Ahsoka is The Lord of the Rings.

Dangerous Days

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Image Credit: Lucasfilm.

If The Mandalorian channeled the Westerns of Sergio Leone as a template for the show, Ahsoka leans hard to the work of Akira Kurosawa—in particular, the director’s samurai films. Early on in the show, four battle droids confront Ashoka. The scene begins with an uncanny stillness as she regards her adversaries in silence. When a duel does break out, it has a visceral quality not often seen in Star Wars—we expect to see sweat flying off the Jedi’s brain tails. Other early scenes feature brutal violence, such as when two dark Jedi, Baylan and Shin (Ray Stevenson and Ivanna Sakhno), invade a Republic vessel, slaughtering the crew. We suspect that Dave Filoni wants to telegraph a message to his audience: don’t expect nostalgia and fan service here. Ahsoka has a dangerous story to tell, and anything can happen.

Ahsoka also suggests another veiled agenda on Filoni’s part. Early fan speculation postulated that the writer/producer—and apprentice of George Lucas—would use the show to adapt the Heir to the Empire Trilogy of novels. Penned by author Timothy Zahn, the books served as a de-facto sequel trilogy until the Disney sale, which nullified all “Legends” stories. Zahn’s novels introduced Grand Admiral Thrawn and his plot to restore the Empire, but thus far, in Ahsoka, the similarities end there.

The Force Reawakens?

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Image Credit: Lucasfilm.

Rather, Ahsoka recalls another entry in the Star Wars canon: The Force Awakens. Though a massive financial success on release, opinion on the J.J. Abrams-directed movie has soured over time. That film didn’t have a story of its own to tell, agency for its characters, or any real exploration of how the galaxy had changed since the fall of the Empire. It felt like a photocopy of A New Hope, using the same elements in the exact same configuration without any narrative drive to propel the story forward. Abrams promised cake but delivered only a frosting shell with nothing underneath.

Ahsoka does the opposite, using the same concepts as The Force Awakens: an ancient map, a disgruntled Jedi master, the emergence of new, dark Force warriors, a reluctant Jedi apprentice, a mysterious new Force-wielding villain, and an Imperial threat against the Republic. (Ahsoka’s raiding an ancient temple recalls a scene of Luke Skywalker doing the same in early drafts of the Episode VII script…one Abrams deleted in favor of Starkiller base.) If Abrams reconstructed a superficial exterior in his movie, Filoni knows the recipe for the real thing. Ahsoka has a subtext, a style, and narrative momentum. He doesn’t want viewers to reminisce about the original Star Wars; he wants to give his audience a story to rival it.

Understand, Ahsoka doesn’t feel like a remake of The Force Awakens so much as a rebuttal to it. Whether or not future episodes continue to invite the comparison remains an open question. That reason, if for nothing else, should make Star Wars fans—even those disenchanted with the Disney era—want to watch. Ahsoka may not have Han, Luke, or Leia (though we don’t put it past the show to have them cameo), but it does have the original spirit that made Star Wars so enchanting. With six episodes left to go, we can't declare Ahsoka a classic just yet…

…but we do have a great feeling about this.

Rating: 9/10 SPECS

Ahsoka streams new episodes Tuesdays on Disney+. We’ve got the latest on movies in theaters now.