Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Besson; 2017)

Even if you don’t immediately recognize the name Luc Besson, you will most certainly recognize at least a few of his movies.  In 1990 the French director brought us La Femme Nikita, not his first film, but the first most moviegoers are likely to recognize, in 1994 he gave us Leon: The Professional,  and 1997 The Fifth Element.  He also wrote the first two films in the Taken series.  That’s a damn good resume for someone who isn’t a household name outside of Europe.  While he has been steadily working in some form in the film industry this entire time, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is his first major cinematic directorial release in some time.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on the French comic book series “Valerian and Laureline” which was initially published in 1967 and has since influenced a lot of modern science fiction including Star Wars and the aforementioned The Fifth Element.   Valerian is very much a space opera as opposed to more real world based science fiction.  There is no explanation of the science behind the events and gadgets used in the story, it’s just enough that they exist and that they evoke a reaction.  Valerian, therefore, really has more in common with classic fantasy like “Lord of the Rings” than it does with harder science fiction like Blade Runner or “Star Trek”.

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Major Valerian is brought to life on screen by Dane DeHaan who appears to be doing his best Keanu Reeves impersonation.  He speaks and intones so much like Keanu for the entire film, I kept waiting for the “Whoa!”  Valerian’s partner and love interest Sergeant Laureline is played by Cara Delevigne whom we last saw as The Enchantress in Academy Award winning mess which was Suicide Squad.  She gives a better performance here than she did in last year’s film, but it still seems like Besson like Snyder last year is more interested in making sure we see what a fantastic body Delevigne has than how well she can portray a character.  As a heterosexual male I can definitely appreciate a good looking woman on screen, especially when she’s portrayed as a strong equal, if not superior, of any given man, alien, or robot around her, but when every scene comes up with an excuse for her to be wearing essentially underwear and even her full body combat suit she wears later is contoured to show off every last bit of her figure, it gets creepy and distracting.  I say this as more of a commentary on Besson as a director, though, and not of Delevigne’s performance, as she shows here she can have a very commanding presence on screen, and in my opinion was the best actor and character in the film.  Of the supporting cast, Rhianna gives the most interesting performance, but her character leaves the film far too quickly in my opinion, only staying around for a couple of scenes, and she is also as much a voice actor as a physical presence due to the very interesting nature of her role which I won’t spoil here.

The writing of the film is a bit of a mess, though a fun mess, trying to include a bit too much and therefore not fleshing out anything as much as it needs to be and leaving far too many frayed and swinging plot threads.  The main story surrounding the mystery regarding the destruction of a paradise planet 30 years before the film’s events is a good anchor for Valerian‘s story, and to the writer’s credit all the subplots branch into and out of this main plot fairly seamlessly and thoughtfully.  The problems come in when those subplots themselves are just left open.  Characters vowing to destroy our heroes are never seen again.  Interesting backstories are brought into play, only to be left by the wayside due to the interests of the main plot, and so on. In addition, certain major beats in the story make little sense or can be downright contradictory when a bit of thought is put into them, making one wonder how they made their way into the story in the first place.

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The spectacle on display in Valerian is absolutely top notch.  If nothing else can be said about the film, it is most certainly a delight for the eyes with its highly creative settings, creatures, gadgets, and situations which involve every environment you can think of including multi-dimensional settings which can have our characters in multiple environments at the same time (this was my favorite part of the film), more alien, truly alien sometimes, beings than you can take in in one viewing, and a near overload of motion and color.  This is a space opera nerds dream come true in many ways, though lovers of more traditional hard science fiction may roll their eyes at much of what is going on, and those who don’t care for science fiction in any form will most likely not understand why anyone would want to see this.

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Final verdict:  Valerian is a mess, but it is a beautiful and fun mess.  The plot makes just enough sense to hold the story together and keep our interest, but it falls apart upon any sort of inspection whatsoever.  The acting is all over the place from Dane DeHaan channeling Keanu Reeves to play his role for him to Clive Owen’s cartoonish villainy to Cara Delevigne’s actually nuanced performance marred by the oversexualization of the actress (though, oddly, not the character).  If knowing a film is visually creative with non-stop action and neat takes on science is enough to pique your interest, then you should definitely see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets in the theater, in IMAX and 3-D if possible, where it is really meant to be seen.  If a strong story, character development, and some grounding in reality are necessary for you, though, Valerian is one to avoid, even when it comes out for the small screen in the future as then even its strengths won’t truly be on display as they are meant to be.

Arrival (Villeneuve; 2016)

Not to be confused with any of the films named The Arrival (a whole group of films, none of which are of any particular noteworthiness), Arrival is a new film from the director of last year’s Sicario, Denis Villeneuve, and with a screenplay written by Eric Heisserer who is known mainly for remakes and horror films previous to this, notably the excellent Lights Out earlier this year, and all based upon a story written by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life”.   These names are all important, not just because they are the people primarily responsible for giving us an absolutely fantastic and profound work of art, but also because you will be hearing them again come a few months during movie awards season, most likely.

Arrival stars the nearly always amazing Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics and part time translator for the U.S. Military.  Her class is interrupted one day by the announcement that twelve alien ships have set down over 12 different parts of the globe, then her entire life is interrupted when Colonel Weber, played by Forest Whitaker, shows up at her office to take her to the Montana landing site so she can try to communicate with the aliens.  These two along with scientist (of unknown specialization) Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner, are the focus of the film’s plot which revolves around sorting out why the aliens are here, how they communicate, and why they sent twelve ships to twelve different places.

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And, why they have such stark sensibilities where room decorations are concerned.

There is so much good to say about the movie, let’s start with the bad, or in this case the only okay, because that can be gotten out of the way rather quickly.  While the camera work in this film is very good, and at times downright artistic, the art direction otherwise is quite bland.  There is next to nothing to the alien craft, the army base, the college, nearly every location in this film is bland and uninteresting.  This could be a budgetary concern, or perhaps a choice to focus more on the characters and the plot rather than on what is surrounding them, but whatever the reason it really can be an ugly film to look at.

The second, and only, other real flaw is that Arrival’s pace tends to be a very slow one.  Again, this is probably a conscious choice as this is a very cerebral movie focused on theme, dialogue, and character rather than on action, but if you were looking for pure entertainment or were thinking this would be more of an alien invasion type film then there is a good chance you will be bored, at least until the fantastic story starts dragging you in despite yourself.

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You will see a lot, and I mean a lot, of this.

If neither of those factors are deal breakers for you, though, then you are in for one hell of a treat.  Arrival is a film that had me openly crying within the first five minutes, fascinated me intellectually for nearly the entire running time, and had me utterly flabbergasted in the best way possible once I understood the aliens’, and therefore the film’s, ultimate message.  It was presented perfectly, every bit of the theme was also tied to the major plot points, so that it was revealed to you piece by piece and you actually learn and discover the lesson rather than having it spoon fed to you.  This is not new, a great many of the best movies accomplish this, which would be what makes them the best movies, but what is new is the way the entire lesson is wrapped up with the teaching of linguistics and the difference between learning a language and really understanding how we communicate, which while not the ultimate message of the film isn’t a bad theme at all in its own right.

Arrival is a must see film for all but the most anti-intellectual of us out there, the type who normally wouldn’t read a movie review, so if you are reading this then I say you absolutely must catch this one as soon as possible.    When leaving the theater after Arrival, I honestly felt like a slightly different person than the one who walked in.  I felt I knew more about the world around me, but more importantly was more aware of how much more I needed to learn.  People complain that there are too many remakes, reboots, stupid action films, and mindless entertainment films out there today, so it would be a tragedy to not let Hollywood know that Arrival is exactly the kind of movie we need more of, one that is intellectual, profound, and transformational.

Rating:  8.6 out of 10