The Key to Power

In my last time around, I argued that Mary Poppins Returns is not a retread of the original film but a second, rhyming verse. Today I will concede that it is still not as good as the first. Mary Poppins Returns never quite achieves the wit or the heart of its classic forerunner. The pathos of Mary Poppins is deeper and truer even while its tragedies are so much slighter; the film makes more of a father’s distraction than its sequel does of a mother’s death. It is worth examining why.

Paradoxically enough, Mary Poppins achieves its power because, and not in spite of, the fact that it scales its tragedy to the every day. For a mother to die while her children are still small is the tragedy of a lifetime; for a man to forget what is really important is the daily weakness of humanity. The sadness of Mary Poppins is the sadness of forgetting, of misunderstanding and being misunderstood, of suddenly realizing how time flies away. It’s not high tragedy. But it’s near to everyone’s life.

The afflictions of the Banks family in Mary Poppins are more universal than those of the new Banks family in Mary Poppins Returns. But more important than the films’ basic ideas is their development. The writers of the first movie were more skilled and subtle in handling their material. Notice how gradual and inarguable is George Banks’ character progression: comically oblivious at the beginning; unexpectedly sympathetic in the second act, a grown-up with no one to look after him in his cage; and finally, at the climax, he becomes the very heart of the story, in his despair at his shattered ambitions and the courage of his lonely walk through the nighttime streets of London.

Nothing in Mary Poppins Returns entirely equals the power of that walk, or of Bert’s gentle admonition of both father and children. The film is not without its own power. There are moments of real tenderness in it, anchored around the family’s grief. Yet what resolution the story offers is artificial, and as such it neither satisfies nor finds its way into real depths. When the film attempts to create comfort in the wake of death, it simply pulls the standard Hollywood pieties off the shelf.

Now the essence of the Hollywood creed on death – at least when Hollywood wants to be heartwarming – is that the dead are not really gone. This is another way of saying that death is not death. It always feels so false. Mary Poppins Returns presents a great tragedy and denies that it’s really as bad as all that. The earlier movie, in its better wisdom, took a lighter grief and told the truth, and through the truth it found power.

Storytellers like to go for the heart-strings. All heart-strings are fair game, even the easy and obvious ones. Just don’t underestimate the potential of small griefs and mundane troubles. And whatever grief you choose, remember that the key to its power lies in telling the truth about it.

Mary Poppins, Second Verse

When Disney released Mary Poppins Returns – a sequel 55 years coming – I had such faith that I waited to see the film until it had been released on DVD. If I had realized how closely and consciously the sequel paralleled the original, my faith would have been even less. It is, then, with some astonishment that I report that the parallelism worked and was, in fact, one of the film’s best aspects.

You should understand that this is contrary to my instincts. Of all the things that make sequels a bore, the tendency to retread the original leads the pack. As for remakes, there is no point to their existence if they retell instead of revise. Yet Mary Poppins Returns built itself by the plumb line of Mary Poppins, and in that decision it succeeded. This unlikely success was, I think, made by two principal factors.

Crucially, Mary Poppins Returns threads the needle of paralleling the original without mirroring it. As you know, parallelism is the art of pleasing correspondence. There can be a fine line between that and repetition, especially in parallelism’s more elaborate forms. Mary Poppins Returns stays on the right side of that line, with much credit due to the fact that it has the flavor of emerging from the same universe as the original Mary Poppins. I don’t know enough of the P.L. Travers books to know whether Cousin Topsy, the leeries, and the adventure “in china” are inspired by them. But they feel as if they might have been. You feel, within the films, that they are similar because they belong to the same world, where London’s cobbled streets twist into nooks where relatives defy physical laws and proper Victorian nurseries contain worlds hidden in plain sight on the mantelpiece.

Emily Blunt’s delightful performance gives significant support to the movie’s cause. Wisely declining to imitate the inimitable Julie Andrews, Blunt offers a different interpretation of Mary Poppins: less sugar, more spice. Yet it is still Mary Poppins, more of the books than of the classic movie. Blunt adds the distinction, retains the similarity. Mary Poppins still glides through – and over – the world with command and self-possession. And if she is sharper now than when we first met her, still that sharpness was present before; if she was more tender then, that tenderness is yet found now.

The primary reason that the parallelism succeeds as it does is that it is an eternal part of the idea of Mary Poppins. In the first movie, Mary Poppins archly reminds Michael and Jane of all the children she has said good-bye to. Bert – ever canny in the ways of Mary Poppins – is no more surprised to see her go than he was to see her come, and he closes the movie with his farewell: “Don’t stay away too long.” This is simply what Mary Poppins does, simply who she is: alighting where she pleases, working magic and chaos, and all in the spirit of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children. Bert assures us that what is about to happen in Mary Poppins has all happened before. Mary Poppins Returns shows us it all happening again.

Mary Poppins Returns succeeds in its imitation because it does not repeat the original film; it rhymes with it. In well-executed rhyme, the sameness of structure and certain sounds is a pleasing thing. We understand, moreover, that Mary Poppins doesn’t really end or begin. We have, in these two films, neither beginning nor ending, but two verses in a song that plays mostly outside our hearing.

Favor the Franchise

If you pay attention to Hollywood today, you have probably noticed that western civilization is in the latter stages of spiritual and intellectual degeneration. You will also have noticed, by the by, that most of Hollywood’s output these days consists of (a) franchise movies, (b) movies based on pre-existing cultural artifacts, such as books, comics, other movies, theme park rides, and decades-old Disney cartoons, and (c) franchise movies based on pre-existing cultural artifacts like books, comics, etc. The percentage of such derivative works in Hollywood’s modern oeuvre has been estimated as high as 99 percent, but it might be as low as 96 percent.

So Hollywood is not terribly original these days. But the reliance on franchise is not a phenomenon isolated in Hollywood. The adventuresome reader seeking out a new book by a new author must be careful – careful that he doesn’t end up picking book 3.25 in an eleven-book series, finale coming out next spring. (By the way, decimal books: a thing.) (Decimal movies, too.) It is possible, with sequels and spin-offs and a faithful public, to make an entire career of one story. A standalone book is an increasingly rare bird.

Movie studios favor the franchise for the same reason that book publishers do: money. It must be admitted that this is a sensible reason, particularly in the case of movie studios. When you’re pouring out money in the tens of millions for a single film, you want a sure thing. How do you know people will like your newest project? Well – they liked the last one, didn’t they? It is a well-worn axiom that the sequel is never quite as good, but that does not prevent the sequel from inheriting the audience of its predecessor.

That truth brings us to another significant fact: People do not seem to easily tire of the franchise. Publishers and studios are looking for a profit, and audiences give it to them. Diminishing quality ultimately ends in diminishing financial returns, perhaps even in the death of the franchise – but along that road a great deal of money is given up to mediocre and even poor installments. Franchises depend on the powerful attraction of effective stories. You never want your favorite story to end, and the characters who have inspired more emotion than half of the real people you know – it is hard to let them go. The desire for the story to go on, the curious attachment to non-existent people, sustains the franchise.

And yet maybe it all is a little too much. Beyond the bankruptcy of individual franchises, we have been trained to a certain insouciance regarding the endless sprawl of connected films. Of course they’re making a sequel. There is, too, a downgrading of regard for those who seem too inclined to revisit old ideas; Pixar toppled from the creative heights when it discovered the sequel, and no one counts on Pixar’s annual offering being one of the film highlights of the year anymore. This, then, is what I would like to know: Does the paying public want more standalones and more variety, or are we content with franchises as long as they are well-maintained?

More Is (Not) Better

There is a moment in The Last Jedi that evokes the famous Battle of Hoth: the pursued, outnumbered rebels, in the temporary shelter of their fortress; the gleaming, mechanized army of the New Order; the battle lines drawn across the snow. You recognize the battle about to be commenced, and you can’t help but feel a measure of amazement that not only is the movie still going on, it evidently intends to go on for at least another half hour.

Excessive running times are one of the annoyances of modern movies. They’re a particular hardship in bad movies, of course, where (to paraphrase the great C.S. Lewis) length of minutes is only length of misery. But they dampen good movies, too, stirring up restlessness just when the story is rousing itself to its climax. There is the rare movie that can extend to behemoth lengths without losing power or charm, but the key word in this statement is rare.

The length of movies is constrained by the inherent nature of movies. Movies, first created exclusively for theaters, are designed to be experienced in one sitting; in the theater it is impossible to stop the show and come back later, and even in the home it tends to spoil the effect. Now, human beings can only stay seated for so long. The time that they want to stay seated is even less. Movies that run on too long will end up competing with various biological impulses pinging in the brain: move, get up, stretch, think about dinner, you’re hungry, you’re thirsty, you know where the bathroom is in this place? This is not a battle that movies easily win.

Permissiveness toward movie lengths creates two negative dynamics, one in the creators and one in the audience. Creators are freed to bigger and more ambitious projects, but they are also freed to self-indulgence and lax workmanship. If you are forced to cut, you cut the worst, and if you are allowed to expand, you expand to the worst. It takes only a little experience of movies to know that audiences get more below-par scenes than we do gems from extended running times. Think of those disappointing trips through the bonus features, where you watched the missing scene and then quietly reflected to yourself, “So that’s why it was cut.”

Long movies create a different dynamic within the audience. They often lower the audience’s tolerance; a two-and-a-half hour movie must work harder to justify itself than a movie that ends well short of two hours. Certain types of missteps, and even disappointments, are magnified. If you found the action sequences repetitive, if the dialogue rambled, if you thought that side-quest to the casino enragingly pointless, and the movie was 40 minutes longer than it was required to be – couldn’t they have cut it?

A popular justification of long movies calls it giving the audience its money’s worth. Yet quality, and not length, makes the show worth the price. It is a well-publicized truth, all childish measurements aside, that more is not always better. And so a request to the creators, if they will have it: When you find yourself able to extend a film well past the two-hour mark, consider carefully: Should you?

A Fatal Flaw

Amid all the sequels Pixar has been rattling off the assembly line, last year’s Coco comes as something of a relief: original and visually brilliant, funny and tender in the good old Pixar way. Disney can’t handle two living parents; Pixar can handle a whole clan, in the capable, work-roughened hands of a fiery matriarch. Despite its strengths and its appeal, Coco is undermined by the vision it presents of the afterlife.

The vision unfolds along with the story. Our first glimpse is a gorgeous cityscape made of color and lights – the Land of the Dead, shimmering beyond the mortal world. The unearthly appearance of the Land of the Dead is quickly juxtaposed by the bureaucratic procedures that surround entering and leaving it. The dead themselves hustle about on humdrum activities – working, traveling, eating and drinking, going to talent shows and arguing with customer service. They do much what they did in life, only they do it without skin. On some level, this is a pleasing incongruity; on another, it is a letdown. Why go to all the trouble to die if life just goes on the same?

It is revealed that death resembles life in still another way: You are going to die, this time the final death. All these skeletons will die of being forgotten. As they and their stories pass out of the memories of the living, they will be afflicted with spasms of weakness and pain before they finally collapse into dust. Some people will be kept alive in the Land of the Dead for years upon years, as long as their stories are still told among the living. Others must have a very short stay. Here we begin to sight the marrow-deep injustice of the vision, but it comes clear only later.

The villain in the Land of the Dead lives in luxury – gratis, we are told, of his admirers, who heap him with gifts on the Day of the Dead. And we see the old murderer in his celebrity and wealth, and think of the poor forgotten skeleton shivering into the final death, and we know …

There is no justice in the end. None at all. Your career, bred in the abuse of others, may be halted in life, but you will just resume it in death. Sell your soul to get this world and the next will be thrown in, too. Meanwhile, the unwanted, the unloved, the outcast and the forgotten – they are forever the losers. All the inequities of this life are transferred into the next. Indeed, new inequities are created by the fact that the dead can visit the living only through the possession and display of a material object. This opens, too, avenues of revenge, ways that the living can spite the dead and be sure they will know it.

Think of it: Even after you die, they can still get you.

All of this would be bearable if we could imagine that the Land of the Dead was only a stopping-place on the way to some other destination. The movie throws a bone in this direction, one skeleton shrugging that no one knows what happens after the final death. But the fact that they call it final hints at what they think. The story’s happy ending – Now you get to live as a skeleton in the Land of the Dead indefinitely! Pop the champagne! – makes it clear that no one has a better end in mind.

Coco presents an appalling vision of the afterlife. It would be easier to take if the movie knew it was appalling, but it doesn’t. Coco’s dreary afterlife drags down the whole story with a faint sense of depression, a subtle distaste. It’s well enough to imagine that the Land of the Dead is, but to imagine that it is all there is – that is the fatal flaw.

A Simple Line

Now that Amazon has acquired film rights to Lord of the Rings, and Netflix has licensed all seven Chronicles of Narnia, it is time to stop and ask ourselves: How much do bad adaptations of our favorite books really bother us? I am not saying, mind you, that the adaptations will be bad. But the possibility is strong enough that we should be thinking about it.

I am not going to attempt to analyze the profound emotional investment humans pour into stories that don’t happen and people who do not exist. We all know how real fiction can be, and how stories can accompany us through life, following us through changes that leave old times and old friends behind. Depending upon the time and manner of their entrance into our lives, stories acquire associations with larger things – a carefree summer, a person we knew then, old haunts, even (a thousand Star Wars jokes don’t change the truth) a gone childhood. To touch the story is to touch hidden chords.

Narnia and Middle-earth possess an uncommon power and resonance. Their potency is all the greater because they come to so many people in childhood and remain, among all the fantasy movies and books that follow, a kind of first love. Christians often associate these books with their faith and see Jesus in – or, perhaps, through – Aslan. Both for what they are and for what they represent, Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia evoke a considerable degree of passion that does not wish to be disappointed.

The new adaptations further labor under the burden of previous adaptations. The animated versions of both works exist mainly as curiosities, arousing little antipathy or attachment. The live-action versions are weightier creations and well-known to the Tolkien and Lewis fandoms. Peter Jackson’s trilogy is iconic, binding its images to the books, and for countless people it was their initiation into Middle-earth. Many fans don’t only worry that the Amazon series won’t live up to Tolkien’s Middle-earth; they worry that it won’t live up to Jackson’s Middle-earth. There is even talk of bringing back the actors from Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps some people feel about Walden’s Narnia films the way others feels about Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Perhaps, but I doubt it. The Walden films were not bad, but they fell far short of their source material. They failed to capture the spirit of Narnia, always seeming to be made by people tone-deaf to the meaning of Lewis’ works – people who replaced Caspian’s thirst to see Aslan’s country with boilerplate daddy issues because they just didn’t understand. Netflix has, in many ways, an easier task than Amazon, and strange as it may seem, it helps them that they are trying to do something no one has done: bring Narnia’s magic to the silver screen.

For myself, I am glad that Amazon and Netflix are producing their adaptations. I take a simple line: If the adaptations are good, I will enjoy them, and if they are bad, I will ignore them, and in either event I will be an interested viewer. But other people will take other lines. What is yours?

Do You Want to Go?

The Greatest Showman (now in theaters!) opens with an exuberant musical number titled – this follows logically – “The Greatest Show”. It’s on YouTube, of course, though merely listening pales against viewing it and, even more, viewing it in theaters. Part of the brilliance of this song is that it captures what made the greatest show and it was, above anything else, the greatest showman.

And what made the greatest showman? The song spins out an answer to that, too: his peerless ability to draw his audience into a world of his own construction. Call it persuasion or illusion, call it seduction or a con, but it is what he does. The song is an invitation and a promise. Here, beneath the colored lights, is the answer to the ache in your bones and the end of your search in the dark; this is what you’ve been waiting for. This is where you want to be, the greatest showman tells you, and this is what you want to have. “Tell me,” he asks, “do you want to go?”

Do you want to go? This is the question P.T. Barnum put to the crowds that flocked to his circus. The greatest showman was not without a touch of the conman, and he knew the great secret of the con: The “mark” participates in his own deception. A true conman doesn’t outwit his victims; he sells them what they want, and their own desires override their judgment. A true showman is also in the business of selling people what they want, and if they forget it isn’t real, it’s only because they want to. Barnum never had any pretension of hoodwinking people who didn’t take it as a pleasure.

Do you want to go? This is the question Hugh Jackman puts to anyone who ventures to his film. No one with a fine sense of balance, to say nothing of humor, could make a movie about P.T. Barnum and not mix in a dose of malarkey. The Greatest Showman lives by this. Happily anachronistic, luxuriating in the idea of 1800s New York without any undue attachment to the facts, making its nineteenth-century subjects reflect a little too clearly the values of its twenty-first century audience – it cannot be the way it was. But you’re willing to forget that for the spectacle and the joy and the thoughtful examination of a dreamer and his dreams.

Do you want to go? This is the question that every book and show and movie asks. A great deal has been said and written about how that movie strains human credulity or this book breaks the facts clean in half. Dramatic courtroom revelations aren’t really a thing, a punch to the face is enough to end any fight, love at first sight could get you into a car with a serial killer, it’s ridiculous that anyone – even with superpowers – would choose to save the world wearing a cape but no pants. There are more solemn warnings of more pernicious falsehoods, reminders that we can’t really believe in the heroes and the happy endings, the perfect love stories and the last-minute rescues.

Yet I wonder – how often are we really fooled? Are these constructed worlds really so persuasive? But we want to go.

Movie Review: Small One

You’ve all heard of a boy and his dog. This is the story of a boy and his donkey. It’s an old, mangy donkey, tattered ears and scruffy fur, but in his eyes it’s good enough for a king’s stable. He loves it, you see.

But his father tells him they must sell it, because it’s too old to earn its keep and they can’t afford an animal that doesn’t. So the boy takes his donkey to the city, trying to find a good man who will buy it.

A good man is hard to find. “Small One, Small One, Small One for sale,” the boy sings. “One piece of silver – Small One for sale.”

Comes the answer: “No, no, little boy, I will not buy!” And those are the nice people.

Small One, one of the movies of my childhood, is a simple and sweet film. That it never got on the networks’ annual run of Christmas specials, but Frosty the Snowman did, is part of what’s wrong with the world. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Frosty! I liked it when I was six.) Small One‘s run-time is 26 minutes, and the only character who has a name is the donkey. This does not feel like a lack (though it can make review-writing a bit awkward). The story does not need names. It’s too directly human, engaging the heart in broad plainness.

The animation is old-fashioned and charming. There are lovely touches – moonlight falling into the stable, golden clouds in a pale blue sky, the illustrations that formed the background of the credits. There are clever touches – the forbidding atmosphere of the tanner’s shop, silhouettes seen through colored tent curtains, the soldier who seems, as the boy looks up at him, to be seven feet tall.

So with the music. From the tender song in the credits, to the plaintive chorus, “Small One for sale,” there is a great deal of loveliness here. There is also a good dose of cleverness in the bankers’ song. “Clink clink, clank clank, give your money to the bank, telling little stories you can trust” – as they shift their eyes so slyly.

Small One is a children’s story artfully told. That’s why its maturity surprised me. The father tells his boy that Small One must be sold. There’s no rebellion, no escape. The happy ending that the film seeks is that the boy will be able to sell his donkey to a kind man. We never doubt how much he loves Small One; that love drives him to the end of the story – in trying to find a good home for Small One, not in trying to keep him.

The end is beautiful. Softly, lightly, it steps into the radiance of Christmas. We see the stranger who buys Small One … a glimpse of travelers on the road … the stable and the Star of Bethlehem, its long rays a shining Cross between heaven and earth.

And you begin to feel that everything is more than all right in the end; it is right. As they sing in the credits, and again as the Cross stands in the sky: “There’s a place for each small one – God planned it that way.”

Review: Beauty and the Beast (the Other One)

(Yes, I know: I’m six months late to this party. But that is how long it took them to put the movie on Netflix.)

In 1991, Disney released a magnificent version of the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast”. Then they released another version.

Disney’s decision to remake Beauty and the Beast as a live-action film was always questionable for two reasons. One, the story is intrinsically suited to animation, and two, the original film is so close to perfection that it leaves little room for remaking. But all things are possible, and these hurdles might have been jumped.

One of the special powers of animation is that it can make things whimsical or agreeable that, realistically, are not. Beauty and the Beast needs this power, both for the Beast and his servants. The living household objects, rendered realistic in the new version, are all exquisite. They also have about an ounce of the charm and vibrancy of their animated counterparts. Worse, they make you think that it would be kind of creepy if your coffee cup had eyes and your dresser liked to pick out your outfits.

The change from animation to live-action would not matter so much – if more significant changes had deflected comparison. And here we come to the second pitfall, which the new Beauty and the Beast plunges right into: Why remake a movie that was already nearly perfect? To make it different – not necessarily better but different in a true and interesting way. That is the successful way to remake a great film. There are two ways to fail – make it too much the same and make it different in a bad way. Disney manages both.

Beauty and the Beast reproduces its predecessor’s plot, its songs, and its most iconic shots and scenes. To its credit, the film does innovate in smaller matters. To its discredit, it innovates badly. It reshuffles events and characterization in ways that are often puzzling and invariably damaging. Its original ideas are slight and usually poor.

The Beast is a much reduced figure in this second outing. He is less of a beast, for one: physically smaller, more tame in temperament, more human in appearance, lacking the mouth full of fangs and the animalistic power and agility of the old Beast. The first Beast literally roared; the second huffs and puffs. The first Beast had a violent, mercurial temper; the second is mostly just dyspeptic. The first Beast had sudden shifts into realization and regret; the second … no.

Gaston receives a kinder, gentler, and ultimately scrambled characterization. His buffoonery and presumption are sanded down significantly, and his worst moments in the first half of the film are excised. Then, as if suddenly in the throes of some psychotic break, he resorts to murder. After that, Gaston loses all initiative. His maneuver to clap Maurice into the insane asylum is no longer a sinister scheme to blackmail Belle into marriage; neither does he incite the mob against the Beast out of jealousy and offended pride. Both acts are merely defensive and desperate attempts to hide his crime.

The servants-turned-household-objects fare worst of all. Their warm (even enthusiastic!) welcome of Maurice is eliminated, and it matters because their welcome of Belle is so suspect. They adopt the peculiar habit of declaring selfish motivations for acts of apparent kindness. (Why does Lumiere – it’s not the Beast in this version – get Belle out of the dungeon? So he can kiss the maid again!) They sing “Be Our Guest” not because Belle wanders into the kitchen saying she’s hungry but because they realize she’s planning an escape. When Belle flees, doors slam and lock, the dog rears up and barks at her – it looks like a jail break, and they’re the prison guards. Incompetent ones, but still.

As for new ideas, Disney did decide to give Belle a shamelessly maudlin back story. The Beast has a sob story, too, and he and Belle bond over shared childhood trauma, and it’s all very dreary. Disney also anchors the story to a particular time and place, shifting it away from fairy tale and into history. Then it fumbles the history, and drops it, and steps on it. Disney clearly sends out the message, “This is eighteenth-century France! Btw, we have no idea what eighteen-century France was like, and we don’t care, either.”

The movie has its good points. The technical skill is obvious, and the film treats us to some beautiful vistas. The re-imagining of Maurice and Gaston has merit, whatever the flaws in execution. There is talent in the cast. But the new Beauty and the Beast is inevitably heir to the old one, and it neither breaks from its legacy nor upholds it. Fans of the movie say that there are many versions of Beauty and the Beast, and that’s true. But the precise trouble is that this movie is not a version of Beauty and the Beast, the fairy tale; it’s a version of Beauty and the Beast (1991) – and a worse one. Beauty and the Beast (2017) is so notably like Beauty and the Beast (1991), and yet so notably inferior, that there is hardly even a point.

Review: Rogue One

Rogue One needs no introduction, so I won’t make one. This review, however, requires an emphatic spoiler warning. So:

spoilers

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILER ZONE. ABANDON HOPE, ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.

Now to the review.

Rogue rogue oneOne is Disney’s first half-step beyond the traditional Star Wars trilogies. It’s a Star Wars story rather than an episode and officially outside the main arc, but it’s so closely bound to A New Hope it’s practically the prologue. If the praise is not too faint, Rogue One is the most epic prologue ever made.

There is an inherent dramatic difficulty in making a movie whose end everyone knows (they get the plans), but the makers acquit themselves well. To some extent, Rogue One is Disney retconning George Lucas. But it’s a creative and convincing retcon, and it brings a level of freshness to the story. The decision to star a new cast of protagonists and a new villain created a wealth of potential because A New Hope doesn’t dictate what happens to them – and the filmmakers mine that potential to its limits.

Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie without a Jedi in sight, and that creates another dramatic challenge. The makers attempt to meet the challenge with the warrior-mystic Chirrut Imwe, who succeeds in sustaining the presence of the Force in the absence of the Jedi. Although evidently not a Jedi, Chirrut exhibits Jedi-like traits – an intriguing idea that goes exactly nowhere, because the movie leaves him unexplored and unexplained. Possibly he belongs to a different Force-order. Possibly he’s a freelancer. Maybe he’s not even Force-sensitive. It’s not in the movie.

If Rogue One fails to take the idea of the Force anywhere new, it does present a whole new view of the Rebel Alliance. The Alliance’s plan to assassinate the Death Star’s intellectual architect raises an intriguing moral dilemma, and if the idea is unsavory, it’s still impossible to regard the intended victim as innocent.

Oddly enough, the Alliance’s assassination plot is more forgivable than its ruthless manipulation of Jyn into aiding the killing of her own father. Indeed, the portrayal of the Alliance is surprisingly dark, with little sense of higher ideals or aspirations to relieve it. Cassian, the principal Rebel character, brutally murders his own informant. The Rebels who ally with Jyn are declared to have done terrible things in their fight against the Empire. The Alliance’s leadership rejects a chance to destroy the Death Star through cowardice and sheer stupidity. The sad truth is that Rogue One goes rogue against the Rebel Alliance.

Rogue One’s primary failing is that it takes too little interest in its own characters. All of them suffer some degree of neglect. Cassian is the most developed of the lot, by virtue of having a cause and experiencing inner conflict, but he’s also a joyless character, consumed by a crusade against the Empire for reasons that are only hinted at. Why the ex-Imperial pilot defected from the Empire is a mystery, as is why he volunteered for the desperate last mission. Similarly, Chirrut and his friend, what’s-his-name – you know who I mean, the one with the fancy gun – intervene once and then just sort of tag along for the rest of the movie.

But no one is more neglected than Jyn, the main protoganist of the film. Rogue One can’t be bothered to invest in her the sort of quiet moments with which other Star Wars movies introduce their heroes – think of Luke playing with his toy ship or looking at the setting suns, or the brief shots of Rey’s handmade pilot doll and wall of marked-off days. It’s not even interested when Jyn makes decisions crucial to the plot. In the first half of the movie, Jyn disavows any interest in fighting the Empire, blames the Rebel cause for her suffering, and likens Cassian to a stormtrooper – indeed, this is the surest sign that she disapproves of the Empire: she compares Rebels to stormtroopers. And then suddenly she’s talking more Rebel than the Rebels and giving rallying speeches against the Empire.

Did she believe those speeches, despite blaming the Rebels for her father’s death so shortly before? Did she believe that the Imperial flag doesn’t bother you if you don’t look up, despite being orphaned by the Imperials? Who knows?

Rogue One is above all an action movie, and as it rushes from one action sequence to another, it seems hardly to care why its characters fight so long as they do. The characters are lost in the parade of explosions and firefights, and I think the meaning is, too.

And then, in the climax, it’s found. It’s ironic that the film waits until the penultimate action sequence to slow down and give the characters their moments, but every second is welcome. The end of Rogue One is fantastic, leading brilliantly into A New Hope and imbuing the fight and the sacrifice with meaning. Tarkin’s final use of the Death Star offends logic, but it also gives the villain’s end a kind of horrifying justice I’ve never seen any other story achieve.

No review of Rogue One would be complete without praising K-2SO and how masterfully he is used for humor, or without noting that every moment of Darth Vader’s presence is pure win. Rogue One’s frenetic pace crowds out too many quiet moments and too much thoughtfulness, and the absence of the Jedi and tarnishing of the Rebellion feel like losses. It doesn’t capture the Star Wars magic, but Rogue One is a skillful sci-fi action movie that possesses its own gleams of greatness.