REVIEW: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

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Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Luc Besson, Based on the comic book Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières
Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, Rutger Hauer

Luc Besson is probably one of the most risk-taking filmmakers out there today, although that declaration should come with a qualifier; his risks aren’t in innovation or narrative, style, or visual effects techniques, but in the simple fact that he always sets out to please his own violence-loving tendencies. A glance through his filmography reveals an almost Hong Kong filmmaking-esque fetishizing of martial arts, gunfights, and balls-to-the-wall action is evident, and when coupled with his unique French perspective on the camera lens it makes for at least a good time, if not always a breathtaking time. Valerian is somewhere towards the bottom part of his middle ground, breathtaking to the eyes but not so much the head and heart, but is that really a bad thing?

In the 28th century, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are a team of special operatives charged with maintaining order throughout the human territories. Under assignment from the Minister of Defense (Herbie Hancock), the two embark on a mission to the astonishing city of Alpha: an ever-expanding metropolis where species from all over the universe have converged over centuries to share knowledge, intelligence and cultures with each other. There is a mystery at the center of Alpha, a dark force which threatens the peaceful existence of the City of a Thousand Planets, and Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe. 

Based on the popular Franco-Belgian comic book Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, Besson’s film is a very obvious labor of love by the French auteur, having grown up reading the comic since it’s beginning in the yesteryear of 1967. Financed with a combination of crowd-sourcing and his own pocket, totaling 210 million dollars, Valerian is now the most expensive independent film ever made. Not that it matters much now that the film is tanking in the box office, but I suspect Valerian will have longer legs on home video and in the streaming market, where its spiritual predecessor The Fifth Element carved out a cult following.

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Valerian begins with what is now among my top-ten opening sequences of the past decade: the progression of the Alpha Space Station over two centuries, presenting all sorts of human and alien peoples joining hands with a succession of welcoming captains in mutual cooperation–and it’s set to David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Solid start. Continuing onto probably the best full-out visual effects sequence since anything seen in Avatar, we are introduced to the Pearls, a race of peaceful, nature-oriented aliens who fish magical, energy-giving pearls from the oceans, using small creatures called converters, that can replicate a hundred-fold anything they consume, to replenish the planet’s supply. But, just as quickly as we come to admire them, the Pearls’ paradise is shattered by the falling wrecks of a space fleet, and they seem to be obliterated by a war that they had no part in.

Without having actually read Valerian, I can’t say for certain that this is an accurate assessment, but from what I do know, this opening is an excellent demonstration of Christin’s humanist and liberal leanings in his writing, which comes more and more to the forefront through Cara Delevingne’s Laureline, as independent and humanist as they come, compared to her partner and superior, Major Valerian, who’s womanizing ways and adherence to protocol and law do more than infuriate his partner and the object of his desires throughout the story.

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Unfortunately, with their introduction is where I start to tune out. While Delevingne’s performance is a bit wooden in places, this is all a part of the package, as a glance through the comics reveals their Golden Age Space Opera origins, ’30s dialogue and all. In fact, in many scenes, I found her to be the breath of fresh air compared to Dane DeHaan, who in this critic’s opinion, should never have been allowed near the role of Valerian. His cheap imitation at a manly comic strip hero’s voice betrays how shrimpy he looks in the role, as if he were a ten-year-old boy playing astronaut dress-up. He has absolutely no chemistry with Delevingne, and his stunted delivery during some of the most pivotal and emotional moments destroys the drama almost as much as Besson’s barely passable writing.

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Oh yeah, the script. Honestly, past the mentioned opening, I’m not too impressed with the story. The comic was a space opera with heavy time travel elements, with Laureline literally having been an 11th Century French villager before being recruited into the Spatio-Temporal Service. The film makes little-to-no mention of time travel at all, presumably to streamline things for a wider audience, but that is no excuse for robbing Valerian of what could have been another major selling point besides the amazing visuals. Even worse is Besson’s handling of the romantic subplot and Commander Filitt’s (Clive Owen) motivations; while Filitt’s endgame is needlessly drawn out over ten minutes of precious climactic screentime, Valerian is established as already wanting to get into Laureline’s pants, and after only 20 minutes, is to the point of proposing to her. May I remind you this film is almost 140 minutes long?

Past these immense problems, the film starts to present some redemption. Everyone else in front of the camera does a pretty good job with their material, even when their roles amount to little more than extended cameo’s like Ethan Hawke and the great Rutger Hauer. And for once, Rihanna was actually one of the better parts of a movie.

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However, the real star of Valerian is the immense and immersive world created on screen through some of the best CGI work in a long time. Created by a unified team of ILM and Weta Digital artists, everything from the massive world of Alpha to the myriad species of alien beings are created lovingly and in textures that appear incredibly lifelike in Besson’s neon-lit style employed in this picture.

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So, what is my final verdict? While the casting of Valerian himself and Besson’s writing are huge flaws that pull the film down from the potential it could have had, ultimately, it isn’t a complete waste of time. In fact, the immersive world on display and the thrilling alien action are enough to convince me to give this film another go around when it hits blu-ray. Until then, I’d say proceed with caution on a matinee or discount night at your local cinema. Wait until a more worthy independent project comes along to pay full price.

REVIEW: Blade Runner (1982)

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Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, Based on the Novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick
Starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, Darryl Hannah, M. Emmet Walsh, William Sanderson, Brion James, Joe Turkel, Joanna Cassidy

Ok, I’m actually scared to review this film. And the reason why is that it is my favorite. Of all time. With a special place in my heart that big, I realize how hard it is going to be to stay objective and fair, but I will try my best. But seriously, this is my favorite movie.

In the futuristic year of 2019, Los Angeles has become a dark and depressing metropolis, filled with urban decay. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an ex-cop, is a “Blade Runner,” assigned to assassinate replicants–androids that look like real human beings. When four replicants commit a bloody mutiny on an Off-World colony, Deckard is called out of retirement to track them down. As he eliminates them one by one, he soon comes across another replicant, Rachael (Sean Young), who believes herself to be human. As Deckard closes in on the leader of the replicant group (Rutger Hauer), his misgivings toward artificial intelligence makes him question his own identity in this future world, including what’s human and what’s not.

To follow up Alien, Ridley was always going to have to tackle something big. Something bold. Surprisingly, that project was supposed to be Dune. After Jodorowsky’s failed attempt, the project was held in a state of limbo until Ridley became attached. He went through three drafts on the script before leaving the project, both due to a lack of confidence and the death of his brother. The project he then settled into was the long-gestating adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which even then was considered a classic of science fiction. It was here that he, and indeed, everyone else involved, accomplished something special.

The script to Blade Runner was an ordeal to craft. Hampton Fancher had originated the project, and undeniably, one can say the film is his baby in the same way that Alien is Dan O’Bannon’s. Even in its earliest drafts, taking the form of a claustrophobic, low-budget detective thriller, the main elements of the typical film noir are present: cynical plain-clothes cop, seductive femme fatale, overbearing urban decay. But the subsequent drafts, and ultimately the final shooting script, bring to the fray the first recognizable hallmarks of cyberpunk, and a more cinematic illustration of Dick’s themes regarding dehumanization and the importance of empathy.

The Tyrell Corporation’s gigantic pyramids, stretching over the cluttered, polluted city streets below, are a testament to the absolute power they hold over the world’s citizens. Tyrell builds their own slaves, genetically-engineered replicants, thereby literally controlling the process of creating life. This god-like command over a facet of reality, used for such blatantly capitalistic ends, is the signature of the prototypical cyberpunk company, the evil business that knows and sees all.

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Translating this disturbing vision of our future from the page was a selection of the greatest filmic minds in production and visual effects. Douglas Trumbull’s miniature work is still breathtaking, and even stands the test of time against CGI. The opening shot of the ‘Hades’ landscape is just one incredible example among many of just how convincing Blade Runner still looks. Everything feels big and heavy, the exact words you want to describe a piece of plastic and wood only a few feet tall on set. The production design under Laurence Paull and David Snyder is just as beautiful, capturing perfectly the detailed artwork of Syd Mead and really pushing the idea that this is not a backlot set, but a full world, retrofitted and built over several times as the waste of decades piled over top of it. Ridley Scott has a reputation for getting the maximum amount of detail possible out of a single shot, but he has people like Paull, Snyder, and Trumbull to thank for that.

I would be remiss not to mention the equally-vital contribution made by cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who was already revered in the industry as a cinematic savant, a true artist with light and photography. One just needs to look at Deckard’s apartment at night, awash with the xenon spotlights of a passing ad blimp, or the surreal photography of Tyrell’s office, to truly get a sense of the mastery Cronenweth brought to the project.

But it’s not just the sights, it’s the sounds. I recently was able to catch a viewing of Blade Runner on a big screen in Cleveland, and what struck me the most was how incredible the mix still is. City scenes are a cacophony of chaos, with multiple overlapping street signs, car engines, wall advertisements, and the choking masses of humanity assaulting your ears in the best way possible. All that was missing was an ozone and sewer smell, and I would have been totally convinced I was actually there. And then you add Vangelis’ unique and penetrating score, and you have a sonic experience that I don’t think will ever be satisfactorily matched.

Image result for roy battyAs much as the visual and aural aspect of Blade Runner is praised, one has to acknowledge what many critics and viewers have seen as shortcomings, mainly the characters themselves. While Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty and Sean Young’s Rachael are praised, Ford’s performance is usually singled out. He manages to inject his rugged charm as best as he can into the role, but one could get the sense that he is emotionally closed-off, that he is but an observer to a string of terrific luck in his mission to ‘retire’ the replicants. This is a legitimate argument, but I find myself coming to his defense. Deckard was never meant to be the dashing rogue like Han Solo or Indiana Jones, and any creepy overtones to his relationship with Rachael are there for a reason. I’m afraid I can’t say too much if you haven’t seen the film, but I will just say that Deckard isn’t all
that he seems either…

And this usually leads to detractors of Ridley Scott himself, and the direction he took the film with regards to the nature of the replicants and Deckard himself. Without giving away too much, I will say that Ridley’s treatment and view of the replicants is diametrically opposed to Dick’s. While Dick portrays the androids of his novel as being undeniably less-than-human creatures whose own survival instinct trumps all other concerns, to the point that there is no empathy or care shown for any other beings, Ridley Scott quipped to Dick’s face that they were “supermen who couldn’t fly.” The replicants are stronger, faster, and most importantly in Batty’s case, smarter than even Image result for rick deckardthe humans who designed them. It isn’t their fault that they are murderous once sentient; after all, they only had four years to live and grow mentally. What 4-year-old wouldn’t end up using an adult body and genius knowledge-base to commit acts we would find as heinous? This allows the film to engender sympathy for the replicants as well as the human players, and it opens the door for the surprising climax, and Rutger Hauer’s finest moment as an actor: the famous “tears in rain” soliloquy.

When it comes to alternative versions of films, Blade Runner probably takes the award in sheer numbers. No less than 6 versions were theatrically released, five of which are readily available on video disc. The American and International theatrical versions are almost identical, save for a few more seconds of extreme violence in the International
cut. Both contain a heavily-reviled voice-over narration by Ford and a tacked-on “happy
Image result for blade runner 5 discending,” depicting a lush, forested region outside of Los Angeles that flies in the face of the entire setting of the film. The narration, while adding to the noir-ish tone of the story, has little real value, merely stating in words what is shown onscreen, done in a lazy drone by Ford. Some, including filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, have defended this version, but I wouldn’t recommend it as the first viewing.

I would give that honor to either the Director’s Cut or the Final Cut, both similar in their own right in removing the narration and the happy ending. The Final Cut is a more polished and popping transfer, however, and has a few more little editorial changes that are for the better. The Final Cut, I would say, is the way to go. The fifth version is a workprint of the film, and while a fascinating watch, it is incomplete, missing the final third of Vangelis’ score and a sense of good pacing. View this version only as an interesting “what-if.”

I honestly could go on and on about Blade Runner; hell, I actually plan to delve deeper into the film with multiple posts closer to the release of Blade Runner 2049. It is the film that first turned me on to the filmmaking process, it expanded my idea of sci-fi past Star Wars and Star Trek, and really was the first piece of art that made me question existence, both outside and my own. Consciously, one could say I came into this world watching Roy Batty yearn to achieve a more human life, and for that I am forever grateful to everyone involved in this remarkable picture. Does it have flaws? Sure, I could find a few, some could find more, but that’s the point of your favorite thing: it isn’t perfect, but you love it because of that. It’s like marriage, and so far, I’m happily married to Blade Runner.