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very few Hollywood films get me going to the theatre anymore, chiefly because the cinema now more than ever is an outdated institution of public life, and I’m surprised that the Internet hasn’t killed it off yet.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

The Fifth Element (1997)

Fifth_element_poster_(1997)I’m very certain that everybody’s seen this film at some point, and I guess it sort of earned its popularity, being one of the only sci-fi films of the Independence Day era that wasn’t about mindless killing. By the time this was made, sci-fi was begging for a breath of fresh air, especially after the farcical travesty that was Independence Day, which had basically created the perception that sci-fi was about shooting aliens and big explosions. You could argue that this film had a more creative approach to sci-fi than its peers, but at the same time, I can’t help but think that the film tends to scatter a number of ideas all over the place.

The story is rather glib, with a somewhat stereotypical “good vs. evil” narrative, casting “evil” as a giant planet heading towards Earth. On top of that, it’s one of those films that links evil with death in a fit of philosophical ineptitude. Of course, you shouldn’t expect much exposition from what is essentially pop sc-fi. Perhaps that’s why it’s best not to read too much into this one. It doesn’t always take itself seriously anyway, and that seems to be part of its appeal.

And then of course, there’s the film’s colourful cast of characters. They picked a pretty good cast to play the characters, although some of the characters come across as campy in a very corny sort of way, with Ruby Rhod being the film’s king of all things camp (if his loud, overbearing, funny voice doesn’t cement that, I don’t know what does), while he simultaneously serves as supercharged parody of pop stars, complete with the annoyingly over-the-top showmanship and goofy outfits. As a main character, Bruce Willis makes an ideal protagonist for a film that would suffer if the writers actually decided to take its goofy plot seriously. But, while he adds a sharp-edged counterpoint to the film’s idealistic overtones, it’s Gary Oldman’s performance as the film’s extraordinarily campy villain that steals the show. On top of him being the most ridiculous-looking character in the whole film, he’s the kind of villain that isn’t exactly serious, and he isn’t meant to be, so his performance works in so many ways.

Of course, the film excels in the visual department. A lot of the set pieces and character designs remind me of The Phantom Menace. In fact, I swear they got their art direction from this film. A lot of Jean Paul Gaultier’s costumes for the film look really ridiculous, but I think that suits the tone of the film quite well. It certainly helps the film stand out in front of its more serious contemporaries. The visuals and music are quite effective at complimenting the style of the film, and that’s just one way the film is so good at presenting itself. Perhaps the best scene in the movie is the scene where the intergalactic resort is invaded by the villain’s hired guns, and a mixture of style and action plays out as one of the characters attempts to fight off the invaders to the tune of operatic singing. It’s a rare break from the film’s usual tone, and the action doesn’t disappoint. Overall, while I question the film’s concept and silly narrative, I still enjoy the film because it plays with the silliness of its plot to the point that it’s actually the main selling point, and the result is a charmingly enjoyable sci-fi flick that only occasionally falters.

  • Score: 71%
  • Grade: C