Valerian and the movie of a thousand problems

Luc Besson’s crowd funded blockbuster tries too much and fails at pretty much all of it

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It’s hard to keep a level head when reviewing films intended for children or families, or indeed any film that is targeted toward an audience of which I am no part. Yet despite being neither a child or a family I sat through the entirety of Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets, a sprawling Sci-Fi epic from visionary director of Leon, The Fifth Element. The film follows the story of Valerian, yes that’s his first name, who is a nondescript Agent for some sort of Human Galactic agency. Valerian wears its influences on its sleeve, unfortunately the Star Wars movie it seemed to be replicating was The Phantom Menace.

Now it can be common to forgive a film for children for not being a perfect piece of cinema, but there were simply too many glaring faults in Valerian to pass off as unimportant. The film opens by vomiting exposition into your face and far from snappy dialogue that is heavy handed and obvious whilst still somehow remaining vague and confusing.

I have talked at length in my review of Kubo and the Two Strings about the importance of a real danger in kids films. It is my opinion that fantastical heroes must be genuinely threatened in order to have any sort of impetus. Valerian is thrown straight into the thick of it from the film’s start, by the end of the first action scene our protagonist has already fell down twenty stories, been chased by mobsters and security agents and jumped from an armour plated magic school bus to a spaceship and came out completely unharmed. The hero of our story is constantly being thrown into what could be the climax of another movie and coming out unscathed. It’s as if the filmmakers are so afraid that you’d get bored watching so they have to throw in another action set piece conceit. It is an overload of half baked heroic schemes and pay off without any of the set up. When your entire movie is a climax, none of it is.

The humour found in the film is massively low effort, if ever there was a movie to demonstrate that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit it is this. Laureline has one weapon in her arsenal and it is a brutally unfunny one two punch of an eye roll and a muttered “oh great!” Meanwhile Valerian has managed to weaponise smugness in such a way that it killed my enthusiasm for what I was hoping to be a fun film within five minutes of the movie starting. He has a collection of niche-gadgets that would make Adam West’s Batman blush, including a saliva activated spider bot designed to break people out of cocoons (not kidding) but the film fails to make light of these things. It’s goofy fun that takes itself seriously, it is the antithesis of Kingsmen, the James Bond Jr of cinema, it is Spy Kids for people who thought Spy Kids was too interesting and funny. The only actor who seems to realise what tone the film should be going for is Ethan Hawke who plays a sleazy pimp (in a film aimed at kids). The man overacts and cherishes his lines like he’s Oldman in The Fifth Element, adding the self aware campiness that the film is sorely lacking throughout, unfortunately he is only on screen for one scene, overshadowed by the introduction of the “surprisingly-okay-in-this” Rihanna’s character.

Being based off of a comic book series it is possible that the story of the film is a number of smaller comic adventures stitched together through a single narrative, explaining the disjointed feeling of the film and the endlessness of the adventure. This could work if the narrative connecting the separate parts of the film wasn’t just Avatar.

It is clear that there was a lot of heart put into this movie, there are incredibly detailed set pieces and worlds that are designed, and the camera holds on to plenty of shots that I’m sure are filled with easter eggs for comic readers but there is simply too much of it. Much like Ghost in the Shell the film makes too much of an effort to make each shot some sort of interesting that it fails to grasp the possibility that less could be more in some instances.

I try to avoid talking about gender issues in these reviews, but films that are aimed at children and teens should be under harsher scrutiny to produce more socially progressive messages due to the impressionable nature of their audience. The way in which Laureline’s character is used as a lazy golden chalice for our protagonist is insultingly outdated. In short, Valerian has to prove himself by saving the world in order to get Laureline to marry him, despite their non-existent chemistry, his arrogance in her presence, his inability to look at her as an equal despite her saving his life multiple times and her apparent indifference to him as a person. Laureline had the potential to be a headstrong character with her own motivations but instead simply became an extension of Valerian’s and a tool used to propel the story. However this could simply be traced back to poor acting. It is also worth noting that movie is based off the comic ‘Valerian and Laureline.’

The 3D effects were unnoticeable despite numerous space battle scenes and asteroid belts, it added no depth to an already shallow film. This is one of those rare movies that could have actually benefited from 3D but seemed to forget that it had the option to use it. It appears to me that this might signal the end of 3D cinema releases until cinema falls into another crisis in ten years time.

 

Recommendation

Small children who want some goofy alien designs may enjoy this movie, its action scenes are well shot enough to be clear and it’s not dizzyingly awful on a surface level. However if you notice how stupid the writing is, how bland the characters are, or have any sort of standards whatsoever you will quickly become annoyed by this film.

Valerian tries to be too much, it is the Star Wars/ Spy Kids blend that no one asked for draped over an Avatar chassis. It has heart and ideas but they’re lost in a sea of bad writing, Deus ex-Machina and kiddie friendly fluff.

Split is Shyamalan at his best with traces of him at his worst

McAvoy is a joy to watch in this fascnating B-movie venture

M Night Shyamalan has had a fascinating career. Having found success with the release of The Sixth Sense in 1999, he went on to make a procession of big budget movies with severely diminishing returns. This came to a head with the release of The Last Airbender and After Earth, where his filmmaking ability and reputation crashed into a pit of internet comments and despair and in recent years he has become a punchline. So, what does a filmmaker do when his creditability is destroyed?

Apparently, the answer is to make a horror film about murderous grandparents because it seems as if his foray into cheesy B-movie horror, The Visit has allowed him to embrace his roots. Leading to his latest release, Split, an abduction thriller about a man with 23 distinct personalities. Which embraces its B-movie influences with open arms to great effect. James McAvoy carries the film as Kevin, a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) who kidnaps three young girls. One of the girls, Casey, is troubled, detached and not well liked and she provides the emotional weight of the film while the other two girls are vapid horror movie fodder. Betty Buckley plays Dr Fletcher, Kevin’s psychiatrist who gets wind of what’s happening. The psychological aspect, limited locations and investigatory element all lend the film a Hitchcockian vibe.

The film is not sensitive, reproachful or probing, it is not a look into the mind of a killer, it is not ambiguous, it is an exploitation flick in all the right ways. Subtlety is hit with a sledgehammer and thrown in the lake. The film takes less than ten minutes for the central abduction to occur and starts showing us James McAvoy doing different voices because it knows that is what we are there to see. The film has 3 locations and less than a dozen speaking roles because it doesn’t need any more than that. The premise of a villain with 23 personalities is loaded with the possibility of so much fun that it needn’t divert from that.

Where Split fails is in the dialogue, which suffers when Kevin is not on the screen, the film is a well of pop psychology and over exposition, with characters detailing exactly what is happening and what will happen next a little too often. Shyamalan does well to establish the rules of the universe in the early part of the film yet he insists on constantly adding new rules on top of that and reiterating old ones. It’s a little tiring and eventually your eyes glaze over until McAvoy is back on screen. McAvoy is fantastic in this, Kevin has no distinguishing features, he is a mannequin to play with. His clothes indicate which personality is in control and when that option is not available McAvoy does well to embody different characters within the same body, it’s an admirable, odd and humorous thing to behold.

The film struggles to create empathy for Casey, our emotional ballast, who is silent and miserable even before her abduction. The film settles for multiple close-ups of her eyes and lips as a replacement for characterisation and it falls mostly flat. Yet there is an effort to create drama through a series of massively uninteresting flashbacks to her childhood, which only take away from the film and do nothing to enhance Casey’s character. That is until the last flashback, where we are given information that does not impact the story but rather Casey’s character, the question must be asked that if there was characterisation to be had, why wasn’t it at the beginning when we were establishing who Casey was in our minds?

It leads to a larger problem with Shyamalan’s filmmaking about saving information till the end which I have went into detail about here.

Recommendation

All the ingredients are there for a great little movie, a late night guilty pleasure. Small scale with a great focus, it’s a film that knows itself. Superficially the film looks great, the directing is effective and the ambient soundtrack creates a great uneasy tension.

The film is fun, held together by a multi-faceted but ultimately simple villain. Not by any stretch of the imagination is it a quality film but it is pure enjoyment, cinematic and endlessly interesting. People may be turned off by the final third of the movie and that is understandable but I believe it’s worth a watch. Split is exactly the type of film that Shyamalan should always have been making and I hope he continues embracing the beauty of the schlocky B-movie.