Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Nowadays very few Hollywood films get me going to the theatre anymore, chiefly because the cinema now more than ever is an outdated institution of public life, and I’m surprised that the Internet hasn’t killed it off yet. Last week, however, offered something different. From the director of The Fifth Element came the promise of an exciting new sci-fi adventure that I think was hoping to rival Star Wars in terms of scope and success. But nothing is perfect I suppose. While the film certainly has its flaws, however, I think it’s a good film with decent ideas, and if nothing else is good summer entertainment. But let’s get right down to it.

The plot of the film is set in the 28th century, largely in the Alpha space station, the film’s eponymous city of a thousand planets, where people of different species from different planets live together. The protagonists are two government agents – Valerian and Laureline – who are given the task of investigating a mysterious force lurking within part of the space station, from which people have never returned, leading the government to assume it is toxic. But all is not as it seems, and when the two agents venture further towards the area, they realise that something else is going on.

The first half of the story showed perhaps the most promise. Aside from the prologue, you had Valerian going on this wild dimension hopping mission where anything can happen and it was fun. In fact, the fast-paced action oriented parts of the film are the best part. The second half of the film, however, is rather formulaic in terms of its writing, and when you get to the big reveal (which is almost a given nowadays), it sort of dawns on me that the big twist reads like something written by Noam Chomsky. It’s not terrible, but aren’t we sick of the bad guys always being some repetitive comment on Western foreign policy? I know Hollywood is full of Marxists but give me a break.

Valerian himself was a decent protagonist. Sure, he acted a bit like a high school jock, but when it counts, he acts like a real hero. For his faults (and those of the writers) he’s a good example of what a male protagonist should look like. Laureline isn’t too bad a character, but my main problem is that the producers and writers tried too hard to make her into such a badass action heroine that she might outshine Valerian for no reason other than to appease pretentious “culture critics”. The rest of the cast gave some good performances, particularly Clive Owen’s character.

For me the worst character is Rihanna’s shapeshifting character Bubble. It seemed like a gimmicky way of getting Rihanna into the film for cheap promotion, never mind that the generation of kids who thought Rihanna was cool probably pirated her music when she was big. Even worse is that it’s another attempt to politicise the film by writing Rihanna’s character as an illegal immigrant. In times such as these it makes to come to the conclusion that it’s a naked attempt at dogwhistling open borders politics in a market that again, is oversaturated with leftist politics.

If nothing else, the film looks amazing. Valerian sports some of the finest production values I’ve seen in a contemporary film. I know it’s common for sci-fi films to have a big special effects budget, but this film just takes this to incredible heights. I think that’s what made the film so ridiculously expensive to make though. The film costed €190 million to make, and thus far it has yet to turn a profit, which unfortunately means that this ambitious sci-fi flick could end its run as a box office flop.

On the whole, however, Valerian is a good film that in the end is hindered by Luc Besson and the producers’ desperate attempts to make it hip. It obviously didn’t work, which I guess is sad because it’s a good film with good ideas, but in this day and age what tends to happen with good films is that they get crushed under the weight of the producers’ overextravagant tendency. Vanity thy name is Luc Besson.

  • Score: 72%
  • Grade: C

Sin City (2005)

SincitypostercastFor long time, I’ve held a certain interest in the idea of the anthology film. The idea of a film showing several stories tied together by a single premise is a concept I’ve favoured ever since seeing the classic animated sci-fi/fantasy anthology Heavy Metal. Done right, the anthology film can tell stronger stories than a film with a traditionally linear story, and this film definitely nailed it. With the film’s dark, unpretentiously gritty tone and the hard-hitting performance of its characters, the world of Frank Miller’s own comics is viscerally brought to life in a way that hadn’t quite been seen before on screen, or ever will again.

The film is set in Basin City, a fictional city in the American West, where crime, depravity and murder are apparently rampant, but not as much as corruption, which lies at the heart of all three of the film’s main segments (“That Yellow Bastard”, “The Hard Goodbye” and “The Big Fat Kill” respectively). Basin City is apparently run by the corrupt Roark family, who run the city with a tight grip and cover up any criminal activities that indict them in any way.

The film is split into four stories, although two of them are split into two parts across the start and end of the film, making for a total of six segments, the first of which is a proof of concept segment that was made to persuade the writer of the comics to get behind the project. It certainly made for a good way to introduce the film, and one hell of a promotion. The other stories are simply impressive. They evoke a sense of dreary decadence and raw dread in a compelling neo-noir narrative, and one of the tightest of the kind.

Of course, what makes Sin City a great film is its characters – it’s gritty, ugly, mostly amoral characters. The main protagonists – played by Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and Clive Owen respectively – narrate their own stories, and in a way, they tell you more about the world they live in than anyone else, and they give powerful performances. Bruce Willis’ character is a white knight in a cesspool striving to do the right thing even if it costed his life, Mickey Rourke’s character is a crass street tough who kills his way to avenging the murder of a prostitute he loved, and Clive Owen’s character is an ordinary man caught up in a war between prostitutes and the mob. These characters are the kind that tell their own tale, and it’s hard not to get drawn into their world. The other characters perform their roles brilliantly as well, some less so than others, but I digress.

The film is also famous for its unique style. It looks like a film noir with a distinct graphic novel style, with only occasional use of colour to draw attention to certain characters. The most common colours you’ll find are black, white and grey, and much of the visual effect comes from stark backgrounds and high contrasts. The visuals are very striking indeed, even though the special effects sometimes suffer because of the film’s style. The film is clearly intended to be a graphic novel on screen, almost like a literal transition from page to film, and for a film to pull this off successfully is amazing. It presented a whole new artistic avenue for film as a medium, at least for its time anyway. There would be other films that tried to imitate the style, but none were as successful in its implementation.

Sin City isn’t for the faint-hearted. It can be unsettling for some, but its unique storytelling is more than worth it. It’s one of the few comic book adaptations that successfully balances style with substances. It was striking, it was dark, it was hard-hitting, it was sometimes disturbing, but above all, it was fun.

  • Score: 94%
  • Grade: A