Based on the French sci-fi comic book Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) follows two interstellar agents on a quest to uncover the cause of a mysterious radiation bubble in Alpha, a massive space station home to over a thousand species from across the galaxy.
Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are reluctant heroes. Valerian seems more concerned with convincing Laureline to marry him and Laureline in keeping Valerian out of trouble. Overall, the film is visually stunning, creative, rich with color and spectacle, and epic in scale. Cara Delevingne is beautiful and charming. Just enough to make it good but not great.
Valerian is largely a victim of poor timing. Valérian and Laureline came out in 1967 and though not well known in the U.S., had a huge influence on sci-fi films, including The Fifth Element (for which artist Jean-Claude Mézières created concept art). Unfortunately, by 2017 the movie feels like a copy of all the things its source material inspired.
I found myself constantly recognizing characters and settings I’ve seen before, including from The Fifth Element but also films like Avatar (2009). You can’t help comparing the Mülians to Pandorans. They’re virtually identical both in appearance and what they represent.
The only element that “feels original” is the concept of inter-dimensional travel, which was brilliantly executed in a scene in which Valerian and Laureline travel to a market to retrieve a rare creature. In our dimension, the setting is an open desert and a walled enclosure, but by putting on special equipment, shoppers are able to enter another dimension to a bustling, multi-story shopper’s paradise.
I haven’t watched a movie in a theater in a while, so I decided to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets this weekend over the other two on my wish list: Baby Driver and Dunkirk. I picked Valerian because it has mixed reviews and I wanted to judge for myself. Here are my first impressions after seeing the film:
- It was good! It was visually stunning, imaginative, and reminded me of The Fifth Element (1997). I like the idea of inter-dimensional travel and traveling to a parallel dimension to shop, which you know humans would do.
- The aliens were really cool, though I’m not sure why amphibian humanoids would have breasts. Are they also mammals?
- Dane DeHaan, who played Major Valerian, basically reprised his role in A Cure for Wellness (2016), which doesn’t bode well for his acting range. He lacked a personality in both films.
- Cara Delevingne (Sergeant Laureline) is a British actress who hides her accent well. She played Margo in Paper Towns (2015), which I loved. I take back calling her a discount Emma Watson.
- Clive Owen is wasted in this film as Commander Arun Filitt. Anyone could have played this generic bad guy.
- Maybe things will change in the future, but if Major Valerian were in today’s military, he would be court-martialed for seeping with his subordinates and keeping their photos as trophies.
- Major Valerian is introduced as a daring ladies man and Sergeant Laureline as uptight and studious, yet Valerian is an officer and she’s an NCO. By the end of the film, their roles are reversed: she damns the rules and he’s suddenly reluctant to break them.
- If the film needs to recap the entire plot at the end for the audience to understand it, like an episode of Scooby-Doo, there’s a huge problem.
I’ll post a complete review later this week!
Alien: Covenant (2017) stars Katherine Waterston as a colony ship scientist named Daniels, and Michael Fassbender, who plays dual roles as two androids named David and Walter, in a sci-fi horror film and the latest installment in the Alien franchise. It was directed by Ridley Scott and written by John Logan and Dante Harper. John Logan is an accomplished screen writer, but this was Dante Harper’s first screenplay. Michael Green (of Sex and the City and Green Lantern) and Jack Paglen are credited with writing the story.
So many different writers is probably why Alien: Covenant felt like so many different films. It was supposed to be a sequel to Prometheus (2012), but often felt like a reboot of Alien (1979). Minus the events on the planet’s surface, Alien: Covenant was basically an updated version of the original. It flirted with its roots as a horror film, but lacked tension and suspense.
Alien: Covenant begins in a sterile room with Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his synthetic creation, David. They muse on the nature of creation before the film shifts to the colonization ship Covenant, which is heading toward a remote planet, Origae-6. A neutrino burst damages the ship as it is recharging, killing some colonists as well as the ship’s captain, Jacob Branson (James Franco). The crew wakes up and Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) takes command. While making repairs, pilot Tennessee Faris (Danny McBride) hears a strange signal. The crew tracks the signal to a nearby planet and decides to investigate.
Quest for Fire (1981), or La guerre du feu, is a French film depicting primitive man’s struggle to attain fire in Middle Paleolithic Europe. This movie fascinated me as a kid, but I haven’t seen it for nearly two decades. I recently decided to watch it again, to see if adulthood would ruin the magic. After 35 years, it still holds up as a cinematic achievement. Written by Gérard Brach, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, and based on a Belgian novel of the same name by J.H. Rosny, it stars Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, Nicholas Kadi, and Rae Dawn Chong. This was Ron Perlman’s first film. Jean-Jacques Annaud also directed The Name of the Rose (1986), Seven Years in Tibet (1997), and Enemy at the Gates (2001).
Quest for Fire follows four Paleolithic humans as they search for a source of fire, the only thing that provides warmth, light, and security in a hostile world. As the film opens, the Wagabu, a savage tribe of ape-like Neanderthals, attacks a tribe of Homo sapiens, the Ulam, as they lounge in their cave. After a fierce battle, the Ulam scatter and find themselves in a marsh, where their pilot light (for lack of a better term) is extinguished. The tribal elder sends three men, Naoh (Everett McGill), Amoukar (Ron Perlman), and Gaw (Nicholas Kadi), to find a new source of fire, since they cannot create it themselves.
Along the way, Naoh, Amoukar, and Gaw rescue Ika (Rae Dawn Chong) from a tribe of red-haired cannibals, the Kzamm. Ika belongs to the Ivaka, an advanced tribe of Homo sapiens. The Ivaka have mastered building shelter, using gourds as cups and bowls, atlatl, and most importantly, the ability to make fire with a hand drill. Together, the four return fire to the Ulam, but not before defeating a rival faction using their newly acquired, advanced weaponry.
After all these years, Quest for Fire holds up so well partially because there were no special effects. Most scenes were shot in a single take, and the dialog consists of grunts, gestures, and a primitive language created by novelist Anthony Burgess. All the animals are played by actual animals, even the mammoths. The mammoths, I admit, look goofy, but I was surprised to learn the filmmakers used circus elephants to portray them. Like The Revenant (2015), Quest for Fire features a bear attack, but unlike The Revenant, the bear in Quest for Fire is 100 percent real, not CGI. There’s something unnerving about watching actual lions prowl beneath a flimsy tree, waiting for the three helpless cavemen to fall, as opposed to fake, CGI monstrosities.
The terms fascist and fascism get thrown around a lot, but rarely with accuracy. The science fiction novel Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein, and the 1997 movie of the same name, are alternatively accused of promoting or lampooning fascism. Starship Troopers isn’t my favorite film, but I think it’s entertaining and original enough to rewatch every now and then. I just watched it last week, when to my surprise, RedLetterMedia featured it over the weekend in an episode of “re:View.” Watch the full episode here.
In their review, Mike and Jay take the position that Starship Troopers is a satire of fascism, and that audiences largely missed the point when the movie was released in 1997. There’s some evidence for this. The director, Paul Verhoeven, definitely interpreted Heinlein’s novel in this way. At one point, characters are wearing uniforms obviously inspired by the Nazi Gestapo. Violence is shown as the only solution, and militarism and war are at the center of this futuristic society. Characters consider the alien arachnids to be ugly, mindless, and inferior to humans. They are confined to a “Quarantine Zone,” like the Nazi ghettos.
Mike and Jay argue Starship Troopers inverts a common character arch in which a character living in an oppressive society comes to rebel against that society. Instead, in Starship Troopers, characters who originally question the social order, or who are at least indifferent to it, end up embracing it. Characters become less human as the film progresses, until, at the end, they cheer when it’s revealed a captured arachnid feels fear, an emotion that typically elicits sympathy.
Verhoeven himself said his movie adaptation is “playing with fascism or fascist imagery to point out certain aspects of American society… of course, the movie is about ‘Let’s all go to war and let’s all die.'” He copied some propaganda scenes directly from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935).
But is the Terran Federation depicted in Starship Troopers a fascist society? Despite the fascist ascetic in the film, it just doesn’t measure up. Benito Mussolini defined fascism as a merger of corporations and the state. Fascism is more generally characterized by a cult of personality, extreme nationalism, veneration of past glory, militarism, racial superiority, and authoritarianism.
Well, Starship Troopers certainly portrays a militaristic society, but that is where the comparison ends.
Released in early September, Morgan (2016) was billed as a promising new sci-fi horror/mystery movie, but quickly falls flat. It stars Kate Mara as Lee Weathers, a “corporate consultant,” Anya Taylor-Joy as Morgan, and Rose Leslie as a behavior specialist. Paul Giamatti makes a notable appearance as the only character with emotional depth. Going into the film, I thought it was going to explore the ethical issue of genetic manipulation and cybernetic enhancement. I thought it would pose an interesting dilemma to the audience about whether research of this nature should be pursued, like Ex Machina (2015) did for artificial intelligence. Boy, was I disappointed.
First, the film was deceptively marketed. It’s not a mystery and it barely passes for horror. Its IMDB summery is, “A corporate risk-management consultant must decide whether or not to terminate an artificially created humanoid being,” but that’s not actually the plot. Spoiler alert: the end of the film reveals that the corporate consultant was actually a genetically-enhanced assassin, and the whole exercise was an excuse to see whether her version could defeat the newer version, Morgan. So, in the end, there’s never a question about whether Morgan should be terminated, and the protagonist never solves a mystery–she knew what Morgan was the whole time. The result was a boilerplate chase/assassin thriller.