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very few Hollywood films get me going to the theatre anymore, chiefly because the cinema now more than ever is an outdated institution of public life, and I’m surprised that the Internet hasn’t killed it off yet.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

Ladyhawke (1985)

Ladyhawke_ver1In terms of fantasy fare, Ladyhawke is an inoffensive and fairly standard film, not much when compared to some of the higher standards set by other fantasy films of the era like The Neverending Story or Conan the Barbarian, but what it does have is a certain kind of arrestingly likeable charm that makes this medieval fairy tale worth watching, especially for those who appreciate fantasy films.

The premise is intriguing to say the least. A young thief escapes from the dungeons beneath a bishop’s castle, and after being saved from capture by a former captain of the guard, he stumbles on a mysterious woman, and a tale of romance and jealousy. The driving force behind the plot is a former captain of the guard named Etienne Navarre, and his lover Isabeau d’Anjou. The latter is cursed to turn into a hawk when the sun rises, and the former is turned into a wolf when the sun sets. Apparently the Bishop of Aquila was so jealous of their love that he made a pact with Satan in order to curse them.

The writers seem to have used this curse in order to illustrate the idea of being always together and yet eternally apart. The story itself is pretty simple, yet it’s strangely compelling because of how well it’s told. The film’s avoidance of a fully serious tone works to good advantage, because with its kind of story, Ladyhawke would be very boring if it tried to be an overly serious film.

The characters seem to be rather hit or miss, at least in terms of the way they perform. Matthew Broderick’s performance seems to suit his character, but he’s pretty weak as an actor, which is why I found it odd that he got the lead role. Rutger Hauer fares much better as the true hero of the film, despite his often frosty personality, and Michelle Pfeiffer performed well as Isabeau, the role that she was an ideal fit for. Okay, the casting wasn’t particularly solid. They have the low-budget equivalent of Jeremy Irons playing the main villain, but on the whole I’d say the acting was very good.

Like many fantasy films of the 1980’s, Ladyhawke can easily boast fine visuals, sometimes to the point of scenery porn. Seriously, the film looks fantastic, except for those cheap-looking special effects. When you see close-up shots of Rutger and Michelle transforming, it looks as though they seriously cut corners in the SFX department. One notable aspect of the film is its famously synth-laden soundtrack. Sometimes it can be cheesy, but I actually like it. Then again, I have a major soft spot for synthesizers, even if the synths are sometimes misplaced.

At the very least the film has a good balance of romance, story, and swordplay (which there is a lot more of towards the end of the film). As a fantasy film, it isn’t as ambitious as it could have been, but on the other hand, it clearly benefits from not having too many ideas above its station. Even though it’s not as good as it could be, all the elements that are there seem to be in harmony with each other, and it’s generally a good film all-round.

  • Score: 72%
  • Grade: C