Valerian and the movie of a thousand problems

Luc Besson’s crowd funded blockbuster tries to 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.

Life wasn’t what I expected, but I still got a kick out of it

Life is tough: one moment you’re hanging round with Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal, the next thing you know you’re being constricted by a tentacle monster and deprived of oxygen

Trailers are an ever changing thing, they’ve gained a reputation in modern times of giving away too much of the story. They so often follow the same beats set to the same musical cues and can mislead the public into thinking a film is something it isn’t.  This is not the case with Life, a sci-fi survival thriller marketed as a clone of Alien which plays out like a clone of Alien. I saw two trailers for Life in the cinema, one which was made it look like the most generic sci fi movie ever made and another which was simply a clip taken directly from near the beginning of the film. Never before have I seen two trailers for the same film with such a chasm in quality. Having seen the generic trailer first, my expectations for Life were set extremely low.

Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised by the film. The premise behind Life is simple; Astronauts aboard the International Space Station discover microbial alien life, the organism grows until it is big enough to kill people, and then it kills people. It’s a classic horror movie set aboard the ISS, nothing special about the story, it’s how the story is told that makes the difference.

Plot-wise the film is a pretty standard outing, it progresses in a slow pace to begin with, focusing on the science and daily work of the astronauts. It allows for basic character building before going gung-ho on the violent rampage. The characters are likeable enough for you to not want them to die, but not sympathetic enough to not warrant a cheer when they are slaughtered by a tentacle monster.

Visually it is all very bland, the space station is as cookie cutter as sci fi design can get and the cinematography is all very forgettable. The first sequence of the movie is one long shot, reminiscent of Gravity, the camera bobs and weaves in the zero-g, it seems to promise that the film will be trying to have fun with the camera. However, it amounts to nothing other than a few upside-down shots and canted angles.

The overuse of CG is rife in this film, the monster is constantly shown front and centre and in full light, which highlights its seamless skin textures and unrealistic contact with the environment. Its forgivable and not something I take gripe with because the monster is for the most part well designed and creepy. But it’s hard to shake the thought that this film is likely going to look like dated trash in five years.

An issue that Life faces is that there are no real rules to dictate the behaviour of the monster, it is clearly stated in Alien and Aliens that the Xenomorphs are afraid of fire, whereas the monster in this film is pretty much invincible until the plot dictates that it shouldn’t be. But my biggest problem is that there is little to no mystique surrounding the monster, in Alien the Xenomorph stays interesting because it creeps in the shadows, it is shown piece by piece throughout the movie. A claw here, a tail there, just out of frame, this breeds a level of tension and anticipation that Life fails to reach. It doesn’t make you crave the next sighting because you have seen it all before, every inch. You’ve literally seen it under a microscope, the film attempts to keep it interesting by changing the design of the monster as it grows, but it amounts to nothing more than more CGI tendrils and the eventual addition of a pretty laughable face.

The only thing to look forward to in Life is how the next kill is going to happen. Luckily the film manages to pull out some fantastically sadistic monster movie murders. Some well-paced, terrifying ideas are put into practice and realised in memorable ways, it saves the movie even if it does run out of ideas towards the end.

Recommendation

I could keep discussing this film in its minutia but in all honesty, it doesn’t really matter. The film is average Hollywood movie making on almost every level, it’s cinematography is uninteresting but competent, its lighting is balanced, clear and non-dramatic. The soundtrack is an assault of WAAHs and its characters are passable. What the film does offer is a crisp, clean version of the dirty, dingy Alien, chopped and changed enough to still feel new and different. The story takes some exciting turns and ends with an interesting message.

There is enough to take home with you after viewing Life. Within the film are a series of sparse moments that are vividly memorable and cinematic. It has enough interesting ideas to sustain a solid sci fi movie. It is not one of the best movies you will ever see but it is undoubtedly enjoyable.

Midnight Special engages in mysteries in the dark

Midnight Special does a lot with very little

Most recently I took issue with the beginning of Rogue One, a film which took too long to get going. By the time that it had established its motives and threats the film had already lost me due to throwing out too much mediocre exposition. I had quickly lost faith in the film. I found a nice counterpart to this in Midnight Special, a movie about faith. It takes a long time to start delivering answers but enshrouds itself in an aura of mystery and character drama.  Allowing connections to be made to the characters and questions to be asked as of people’s goals. The point that this drove home to me is that if a film’s beginning isn’t exciting then it must grab its viewers’ attention by being at least intriguing or cryptic. Midnight Special is both from the first scene.

The first scene is an incredibly efficient scene of exposition, using that age-old method of TV news we are introduced to a kidnapped child being held in a motel room by two gun wielding men. Immediately we must question how are we going to side with these men if these are our protagonists. But the gentle concern in the voice of Michael Shannon’s Roy tells us that cares for the boy and the ambiguity of the viewer is immediately established.

Adam Driver’s Paul is the most traditional, accessible character in the film as he is educated of the situation at the same time as the viewers. In a more traditional film he would be the protagonist. However, this is not a film about information, this is a film about faith and relationships, an ethos which is given form by the terrific performance of Michael Shannon as Alton’s father.

Whilst the film is overall a moving and emotive one with a heart of mystery the answers at times do not satisfy. It seems as if Midnight Special was made to not have any solid answers, yet the film gives away half-answers in the form of flowery dialogue, sometimes to a fault.

The purpose of the journey seems to become muddy in the middle, with the main driving factor being Alton’s infrequent episodes and panic attacks. The reasons for which are kept vague for all too long and like the team of runaways the film follows, viewers too are kept in the dark a bit too long. This leads to waning interest when the film should be building up to its conclusion.

The film wears its relatively muted budget beginnings on its sleeves, creating tension out unspectacular set pieces, an example being an extremely dramatic scene late in the film set in a traffic jam and a prolonged sequence involving a road block. Moments which would be 30 seconds long in a typical blockbuster are stretched out for five minute chunks that squeeze every last drop of tension out of the situation.

Midnight Special does a lot with very little. This is to its own credit for the most part but it does mean that there are moments that can lack that penetrative quality. Most notably the flashing eyes of Alton are visited repeatedly but fail to ever look any more than an After Effects overlay. Perhaps it looks so far out of place simply because the film is so gritty and modest in its effects that the eyes stand out like a sore thumb.

Recommendation

It is not Spielberg, Midnight Special is not for everyone, the air of mystery sometimes gives way to the entertainment value and can at times be frustratingly vague

Sci-fi fans will be disappointed by the lack of fantastical elements and thriller fans may be underwhelmed by the few set pieces. The film boasts great acting on all fronts and a nervy contemplative atmosphere that will engage fans of films that do things differently.