Rogue One + La La Land: Out of the Past

If there’s one thing we learned from the debacle of 2016, it’s that you should never underestimate the staying power of nostalgia. A “Trump presidency” is no longer an oxymoron after Mr. Trump successfully spoke to the desire of so many Americans for simpler times. Yet the two movies that dominated the Christmas season – one at the box office, the other in Oscar chatter – both show that such longing for the past didn’t confine itself to politics. In a reflection of Hollywood’s continued attachment to its own history, each of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and La La Land tries to use its own brand of nostalgia to win over moviegoers.

With Rogue One, “nostalgia” might not be the first word to come to mind. After all, it may have “Star Wars” in the subtitle, but in many places, this movie takes real pains to seem independent of previous installments. Instead of being treated to the traditional opening crawl, for one, we’re thrust straight into a scene where the Empire coerces an unwilling scientist named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) into designing the Death Star. The protagonist, Galen’s feisty, fearlessly independent daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones), is the first main character in this universe who’s free of any connection to the Skywalkers or the Jedi. And the four people she teams up with to steal the Death Star’s plans are equal unknowns: a captain in the Rebel Alliance (Diego Luna), a defector pilot (Riz Ahmed), a blind martial-arts warrior (Donnie Yen), and a guy who’s really good at using a machine gun (Jiang Wen).

Given all this apparent potential to chart new territory, it’s a true shame just how generic Rogue One ends up being. Sure, it briefly delves into grim, heretofore largely unexplored themes about the unglamorous nature of true heroism and the impotency of greater establishments vis a vis the individual: Jyn goes after the Death Star plans without the support of the larger Rebel Alliance, and her spaceship often flies against the backdrop of an intimidatingly gigantic planet or citadel. Yet for the most part, Rogue spends its energy hastily running from one banal action sequence to another, as if the screenwriters believe the constant sound of gunfire is a prerequisite to your being entertained. Indeed, it’s all so banal that at times you feel like you’re watching a video game, a fact that undercuts whatever darker messages the movie initially wanted to convey about war and heroism. (Not to mention it all also frequently depends on liberal applications of deus ex machina.) And the acting, a place where such unimpressive action could potentially find redemption, largely disappoints: Ben Mendelsohn overdoes his role as the main villain, you can tell Jones is trying to make faces for the camera during a crucial breakdown scene, and the others are all but stick figures.

In the end, Rogue One’s “original” story is so weak that it’s ironically forced to rely on the very past it appears to step away from. Unable to come up with anything more substantial to woo the audience with, the screenwriters litter the movie with references to previous installments; diehard fans will have a more precise tally, but by my count, at least six familiar characters (Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin, Princess Leia, Bail Organa, C-3PO, R2-D2) pop up at some point. (Plus, the movie’s resident robot, a droid named K-2SO, is a rip-off of C-3PO.) True, none of these old-timers has a particularly meaningful role. Yet the simple fact that Rogue resorts to resurrecting Peter Cushing from the dead, aside from demonstrating why CGI is dangerous when applied in excess, shows what this movie really is beneath the cosmetic newness: a legacy child banking on leftover goodwill to squeeze by. It’s all too telling that the whole plot ends up being just a setup to A New Hope – the episode that, forty long years ago, gave us the story Hollywood still can’t stop exploiting in the name of a good financial profit.

La La Land, on the other hand, makes no secret of its reliance on the past. While most recent movie musicals – think Chicago, Sweeney Todd, Les Miserables – were adapted from fairly modern Broadway shows, this one is an entirely new production that seeks to recall the sweet, innocent joy of classics like Singin’ in the Rain. So it is that in the extravagant opening number, a group of people sing about “another day of sun” while prancing on the tops of their vehicles. Later, the two main characters, an aspiring actress named Mia (Emma Stone) and a wannabe jazz pianist named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), convey the gradual deepening of their romance by spontaneously bursting into dance on hilltops, “floating” through space, and sharing a kiss that’s followed by an old-school iris wipe. The film eventually concludes with an elaborate “dream ballet” and a final frame where “The End” shoots across the screen in large, luscious cursive. Go back 60 or so years, and every good movie musical incorporated some or all of these elements.

There’s no denying that this brainchild of Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle is enjoyable. The dreamlike lighting is gorgeous, and the songs are wonderfully spirited; the haunting “City of Stars” is a particular stand out. Yet there are a few issues, some small, one big, that keep this movie from being completely satisfying. The small: some of the transitions between the dialogue and song are a little abrupt, while the singing itself is occasionally engulfed by the background music. And the big: like 2011’s The Artist, this movie lavishly emulates the style and atmosphere of classics without contributing anything original. At one point in the movie, Sebastian’s former classmate (John Legend) scolds him for sticking to traditional jazz by asking, “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You’re holding on to the past.” In context, Chazelle is using Legend’s character as a way of mocking those artists who throw away history just for the sake of being “different.” But he ought to take what the line says to heart: as fine as tradition is, simply imitating the greats is not gonna make you great as well. Had Chazelle made something like this back in the 50s, I doubt it would have held up quite as well without the aid of our modern-day nostalgia.

Given all this, it shouldn’t be surprising that the best parts of the movie come when it avoids churning out historical allusions and just sticks to following the twists and turns in the course of Mia and Sebastian’s relationship. Their tale is heartfelt and touching but never sappy; it accounts for firings, failed auditions, unpaid bills, and fights but still finds a way to remain upbeat and life-affirming. Gosling and Stone together have such good chemistry that they’re bound to become a brand a la Leo and Kate. And Stone in particular will command your attention with the way she effortlessly radiates optimism and resilience. Chazelle overshot the mark; his actors’ honest portrayal of the bittersweet joys of pursuing dreams is all the movie needs to work.

On the surface, the shameless action of Rogue One couldn’t be more different from the light romance of La La Land. Yet whether they acknowledge it or not, they both speak to what they presume is the viewer’s longing for an older era of moviemaking. This isn’t bad per se; movies wouldn’t be much if they didn’t recognize and pay tribute to the legacy of their predecessors. (Insert that overused George Santayana quote about remembering the past here.) Yet when it comes down to it, such fascination with the past prevents cinema from moving forward. Woody Allen captured this perfectly five years ago in Midnight in Paris: as Owen Wilson’s scatterbrained protagonist eventually discovers, we forsake the wealth of potential in the present and future by clinging to the ideals of a distant “Golden Age.” For their respective audiences, Rogue One and La La Land will provide plenty of kicks (if only painfully superficial ones in the former). But at the end of the day, it’ll be original films like Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea that take cinema to new, truly memorable creative heights.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

La La Land

Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk

Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
Running Time: 133 minutes 128 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 PG-13
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Sheamur, Simon Emanuel Gary Gilbert, Marc E. Platt, Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz
Written by: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy Damien Chazelle
Directed by: Gareth Edwards Damien Chazelle