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.

Ghost in the Shell has nothing interesting to say

The remake of the beloved 1995 anime classic is as forgettable as they come and about twice as long

Remakes are a huge part of Hollywood cinema, they have cemented their place as one of the largest contributors to the box office. Along with this they have also bought themselves a reputation for being notoriously shameless loose adaptations of stories previously held dear. Easy to write and even easier to market, the remake is a large-scale shortcut for film distributors. They have a pre-built target audience and recognisable imagery and characters that needn’t be cultivated in production. A teaser poster here, a leaked photo of a costume there and the internet hype machine will market the film for you. Nostalgia is the most important tool in this time of auto playing, subtitled videos on news feeds. People must be convinced that something is worth their time before they even click the link. What better way to provide this than by inserting into it something of which they are already a fan of. Yet it is possible that you could have the next Mad Max Fury Road on your hand, rather than the next Dark Shadows.
Ghost in the Shell is a phenomenally interesting marketing case study. One of the most successful anime films of all time that garnered a cult following due to its look, style and world building. 22 years on Paramount Pictures decided on a live action remake, piggybacking off the name of the original to create a film with only remnants of its look, style and world building. Far from an anime purest myself, I was not the biggest fan of the original, but Ghost in the Shell (2017) was nothing short of miraculous in how it allowed me to appreciate the 1995 version’s uniqueness. The remake demonstrates just how cookie cutter and homogenised an interesting story can become when given the committee treatment of Hollywood. The film retains most of the surface level factors of the original while removing any of the more ‘out there’ ideas put forward by the original.

The film stars Scarlett Johansson in the role as ‘the biggest star that would answer our calls’ playing Major, a cybernetic body hosting the consciousness of a woman. Using this chassis she fights crime along with a plethora of cybernetically enhanced police officers in a futuristic caricature of what can only be implied to be Japan.

There has been much controversy over the choice to cast the white American Johansson in the role of a Japanese law enforcing robot, many people see it as whitewashing of the mainstream media but that is another debate for another time. In terms of the film experience the biggest issue with the casting is that there is no geographical clarity, the film seems to attempt to sidestep the idea that Johansson is out of place by surrounding her with as many different nationalities as possible. While it is possible that this is an attempt to comment on multicultural society in a future world it is far more obvious that is a transparent attempt to cover up the flaw that it would look stupid if Johansson was the only non Asian in the cast. Like trying to correct mistakes with a pen, the heavy-set ink marks don’t hide the mistake, they just make it stand out more.

It all speaks to the consistent thread that runs through Ghost in the Shell like a poisonous gas, and that is incongruousness. Nothing in the film matches with anything else. It is a disjointed film on every level, from its screenplay to its mise-en-scene to its cast. It makes for a confusing, tonally impotent film experience that had me wishing it would hurry up and end fifteen minutes in. The original portrayed a detailed futuristic city filled with neon lights, dirty slums and holographic advertisements. The remake took this concept and ran with it, making every frame of the film so dense with world building visuals that there is absolutely no room for air. There is always so much on screen that the eye is drawn all about the place. Never having a single point of focus makes each scene a headache causer, it all merges into a blurry neon haze of disinterest. There are some interesting visuals in the film but they are lost in a sea of windowdressing. When it comes to visual world building sometimes less can be more.

Narratively the film is also all over the place, it begins with a scene of expository vomit before jumping right into a convoluted story about bot hacking that is never given any sort of weight. It then goes on to fully abandon the bot hacking storyline in favour of a conspiracy thriller and a journey of self-discovery for Major. That is all before its action climax and subsequent saccharine ending. It abandons the original movies idea of having a psychopathic villain with a eugenicist’s distorted world view in favour of a feebly humanised misunderstood bad guy. It then goes on, like so many unthrilling thrillers, to shift villainhood onto a large faceless corporation, removing any sense of scale to the threat. This would be forgivable on the whole if any of the action in Ghost in the Shell was exciting or visually interesting but the truth is that it is for the most part pretty basic action, bolstered by often strange looking CGI and infuriating slow-mo.

Recommendation

Ghost in the Shell (1995) is by no means a perfect film, it is too on the nose with its message, it waits too long to reveal its purpose and it is mainly comprised of scenes of expositional dialogue with little actually happening. Yet its flaws are its own, an example of vision overshadowing sense, it is too indulgent in its message because it is too interested in the ideas within, but at least there are ideas.

Ghost in the Shell (2017) is a product of a homogenised vision of what a film should be. It is the ghost of a generic thriller in the shell of a cyberpunk Japanese anime, with all the oddities and differences removed. It is bogged down with story points that have been done a thousand times before and restructures an odd, disjointed story into an odd, disjointed story that will be forgotten about in two months.