Monday, 11 September 2017

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets (2017) - Movie Review

Outside of Luc Besson being an idiosyncratic director (shorthand for “he has his own style that I am unable to put into words”), I don’t have anything new to say about the guy that I haven’t already said in reviews past. As such, I’ll forgo my usual introduction and just get right into this thing because I am legit excited to be talking about this movie.

The plot: On the sprawling space-city of Alpha, formerly the International Space Station, unseen forces are at work trying to undermine everything the intercultural metropolis has fought to achieve. Military officers Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are tasked by Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) to investigate the matter. However, as their investigation continues, they uncover a conspiracy that could spell the end of Alpha and the thousands of species that call it home.

Given Besson’s track record of re-envisioning sidelined actors into action legends, I honestly hope this isn’t a break from that pattern because DeHaan and Delevingne more than make their case. DeHaan wears cocky inventiveness very nicely, almost as well as the inexplicable Hawaiian shirt he has on for most of the first act, and Delevingne’s no-nonsense type of military officer is very fun and very efficient. Owen as their commander works well, even if we end up getting all of his character build-up right at the end, Herbie Hancock (you know, this guy) is good as the Defence Minister, Kris Wu’s largely background role still manages to leave a definite impression, Rutger Hauer gives a solid start to the film with a speech that ends up encapsulating a lot of what the film is going for right out of the gate, and Ethan Hawke… first, what are you doing here, and second, can I thank the person responsible for it? Even in a minor role, the guy is having ALL the fun on-screen.
Then there’s Rihanna, whose presence in the plot as a Deus Ex Shapeshifting Poledancer might be a bit suspect but I’m too busy being invested in her character to really mind that. It’s seriously strange where you have a host of actors that are doing this well, including John Goodman as a very Jabba The Hutt space gangster and Elizabeth Debicki as an incredibly dignified alien monarch, and it’s Rihanna who got me the most worked up emotionally over the course of the film.

In case that last sentence didn’t clue you in, this is a weird-ass movie. What’s more, it’s a weird-ass movie in that very Luc Besson way that you honestly couldn’t imagine another person making with such panache. Right from the David Bowie-sung introduction, this film doesn’t exactly take its time in just wafting increasingly bizarre and often jarring things in front of your faces, to the point where it’s probably healthier for all concerned to not question it too much. Space soldier going undercover into an extra-dimensional bazaar where only his hand is visible? Don’t question it. Space and time-defying craft that looks like a metallic cruller? Don’t question it. An alien escort that looks like Jessica Rabbit? I’m insanely fighting the urge, but do NOT question it.
Honestly, I probably would just throw my hands in the air and ask “What in the hell am I even looking at?” but, thankfully, the film’s visuals tend to pick up the slack in that regard. Saturated technicolour with a few touches of retro-futurism that we’ve been getting used to damn quickly thanks to Guardians Of The Galaxy, coupled with a vastness that makes the titular City Of A Thousand Planets look like it deserves such a name. The alien landscapes are simply gorgeous, helped by how we’re given plenty of time to just sit back and look at where all the money went (most expensive European film ever made, you’d expect it to look this good), the designs for the different alien races and cultures has a certain familiarity to it while still feeling (for lack of a better term) alien, and in a break from the usual “Every utopia is secretly a dystopia” sci-fi creed, the universe this film exists in looks like a lot of fun. Well, provided you keep your glasses on to see it.

Originally, that last bit was meant as an in-joke for how the extra-dimensional bazaar is accessed (by tourists, in one of the film’s strangest moments because it feels so bloody normal), but now that I think about it, this film has some interesting things to say about the advent of cinema technology. A lot of the vastness in certain scenes, like the beaches of Mül or a large bunker where the climax takes place, can make it feel like we’re just looking at soundstages for a decent chunk of the film… and we definitely are, but the film seems to be completely aware of such things. The alien bazaar that I’ve alluded to enough times already in this review is the key example of this. To regular perception, it’s a stretch of desert with people just wandering around; hardly the best vacation spot. But, with the right tech, it turns into a seemingly-endless market, chock-full of oddities, new faces and several thousand more miles of land that it would seem on the surface. Add to this the fact that the tourists require special glasses to see any of it, and you have a film that is fully aware of its place in the 3-D gimmick film industry.
And yet, there’s nothing cynical to be found here where that’s concerned. Instead, the film presents technology and knowledge in general as a way of expanding our horizons, a way of communicating with and discovering more about the universe around us. Through the use of CGI, the film takes an empty space and fills it with sights and sounds that the average person wouldn’t have even considered possible to exist; such is the magic of movies. This is true of pretty much any film made nowadays, but the fact that Besson is this up-front about it and seemingly wants the audience to be aware of it shows a level of understanding about his own audience that I will never get sick of seeing from directors I have respect for. Hell, it might even be one of the bigger reasons why I respect certain filmmakers to begin with.

So, all the glitz, all the sci-fi grandeur, all the shapeshifting pole-dancing (again, Rihanna’s role in this film is odd but she gives it a surprisingly resonant reason to exist), but for what? I mean, plot has never really been Besson’s strong suit; usually, he does his best to visually distract the audience from even tapping into the plot, lest they find how shallow some of his scripts turn out. Do we get the same here? The answer is a resounding no, which is both good and bad. Bad, because the plot itself is rather basic for an action movie, the characters can be a bit one-note, and the frequent weirdness can make it difficult to keep up with even that much. Good, because this film actually has a purpose to it behind all the sci-fi coating. As we see Alpha take form during the opening credits, we are shown the myriad of civilisations that it comes into contact with and end up becoming part of it. Multiculturalism is very much at the heart of this film, something that I just know certain readers will be groaning about. Can’t say I blame them, as when this film wants to deliver its main point, it not only unveils all of it right at the end but does so in the most Care Bears way possible, carried by a monologue from Delevingne that is incredibly syrupy.
But, take everything I’ve already said into account: The admission of what technology is capable of, the weirdness that regularly comes about through interactions with foreign cultures, the utopian society of Alpha that actually is a utopia; what does this all equal up to? Well, put simply, it’s a vision of the future that might be one of the most optimistic we’re likely to get, considering techno-paranoia is still very much the order of the day. A future where the human race still makes mistakes, and quite catastrophic ones at that, but is still willing to do everything it can to connect people and cultures from across the stars and, through that connection, enrich all sides involved. Have to admit, I like that idea; never too early a time to start laying in the foundations.

All in all, I think I love this movie. I love the acting, the visuals, the incredible finesse put into the animation and settings, the music, the regularly funny dialogue, even the outright batshit insanity at times; I love all of it. I don’t think I’ve had this kind of consistent fun and rapture watching a movie in a very long time, and it might be one of the best things Luc Besson has made to date. Considering this film is currently bombing at the box office, unfortunately, please: Do yourself a favour and see this for yourself; it’s worth the ticket price. Trust me, I live in a country where we get royally overcharged for movie tickets, and I still think I got my money’s worth.

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