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.

Life (Espinosa; 2017)

I’ve been talking quite a bit lately in my reviews how horror is going through something of a mini-Renaissance of late.  It seems the writers, directors, and producers of these films have at long last figured out that audiences are tired of and want more than jump scares, story arcs that work only because of idiotic decisions, and cheap camera tricks meant to mislead the viewer but ultimately just very temporarily conceal the plot holes riddled throughout the story.  Life is the first science fiction horror film which is a part of this trend, and it continues it admirably for the most part, but it unfortunately does fall prey to a few cliches and traps at times.

Life is the story of six astronauts from around the world living and working on the International Space Station.  A sample collected by a probe on Mars leads Earth scientists to believe that there could once have been extraterrestrial life on our neighbor, and it is up to these six to grab the sample and then study what it contains.  A dormant, but definitely living, single celled organism is found amongst the Martian sample and humanity now knows for certain that we are not alone in the universe.  As to what happens next, I did mention this is a horror movie.

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Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the writers of Life, are most definitely at least acquainted with biological science, as the life form they discover is based on what we know of evolutionary and biological sciences today.  As they study it and discover its nature we see a creature that is completely different from anything living on Earth, but still follows the laws of Natural Selection.  I am far from a scientist myself, and biology was absolutely my worst subject when I was still in school, but I could tell that the writers were very concerned with creating a truly alien being, but also a truly realistic one.  It was so well done, in fact, that at a point in its growth when the alien develops something approximating a face, I was a little disappointed that those involved in making the film, whether it be the writers, the director, or someone else, didn’t completely commit to giving us this truly alien thing.

The human characters in the film are a bit of a mixed bag.  All are realistic, perhaps too much so, and fleshed about as well as can be expected for six people you get barely an hour with before Life does what horror movies do.  We understand quickly and naturally their working and emotional relationships to one another, who is the boss, who are friends, who are attracted to each other, and so on, but we are never given enough time to learn who any of them truly are.  The Japanese member of the crew works on the stations mechanical parts and his wife gives birth to a daughter early in the movie, and that’s about all we know of him, and that’s more than a few of the other members of the crew.  I like that none of the characters are stereotypes, and that the actors, and thus the fictional crew, have good chemistry with one another, but only two of the actors, Ryan Reynolds and Ariyon Bakare managed to give performances strong enough that I actually cared about them as individuals, something pretty necessary in a horror flick.

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The conceit of the movie taking place entirely on the International Space Station also works wonderfully for the most part.  The opening scene in the film gives us an excellent idea of what it would be like to live in space as it shoots our characters in close ups with no anchor to give the camera a focus.  It will weave around, switching directions slowly, and even gradually turning upside down giving us the idea of what being weightless inside a technologically advanced tin can would feel like.  After establishing this feeling, the weightless camera does go away, probably for the better, but we are still given a very claustrophobic but now somehow familiar environment for our characters to be hunted down in.  I was reminded a lot of Alien while watching Life, it’s very obviously the biggest influence on the creators of this film, but unlike the Nostromo in that movie, the International Space Station has rooms so small that two people inside any one of them would become very cramped, making for an even more frightening setting once the festivities get underway.  But, much like the alien life form itself, someone in the making of the film could not completely commit to their ultra realistic and incredibly cramped setting and had to give us in the finale a plot device that entirely ruins that spell cast on us which made us believe that this really could happen.

The camerawork and the special effects in the film also fit the bill of the rest of the film.  Very unobtrusive and realistic for the most part.  The alien life form itself does have a few problems with the realism of its CGI in places, but due to its design, these are easily forgiven and many may not even notice them.  The camerawork is workmanlike and never relents on giving us the feeling of claustrophobia so necessary for the movie to work and shows us what we need to see without pulling cheap tricks…  until the finale.  This is another element of the film done so well until once again the film’s creators broke with the style of the rest of the film and rely entirely on a cheap camera trick for the film’s climax.  I won’t say more than that, I feel badly about saying that much, but that cheap camera trick in the end was the most disappointing of this flawed, but overall really well done horror film, and I would be remiss in not mentioning it.

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Final recommendation:  If you are a science fiction or horror fanatic (or both), then this is a movie that will definitely please, even if it will never be listed among the classics of the genre.  It’s a movie that tries hard to emulate Alien while still being its own entity, and in that it certainly succeeds.  However, it’s a film that at times is too realistic for its own good when it shouldn’t be and can’t commit to its own tone in the end when it’s most important.  Most everything about this film is really well done, and it’s worth seeing just for the alien life form they give us, but unless you are the type who must see everything possible on the large screen for the theater experience, then this is one you can wait for and rent eventually, or maybe see at a matinee so you can pay less and still get the full “we’re in outer space” experience.