Valium and the Plant of a Thousand Pretties

Valerian and the Planet of a Thousand Cities (Luc Besson, 2017)

Back in the 1980s, there was this thing called cinéma du look, French in original, and films that perhaps aspired to the thriller but were interested in putting disaffected yoofs in attractively shot locations. Stuff like Subway and Diva, huge cults at the time, but more or less invisible today. It was the early days of pomo, and style would triumph over substance.

And Besson was in that group, Subway most obviously, and he’s continued in that vein. Twenty years ago we had his The Fifth Element, which stuck Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman and (unwatchably) Chris Tucker in an sf caper that involved chasing Mila Jonavich around. It was pretty, it was vacant, it was fun, it was portentous. And prententious.

And now they’ve given him lots of money to make Valerian and the Planet of a Thousand Cities, an adaptation of a French comic book I confess meant nothing to me. At the heart of this is Valerian and Laureline (I had to look her name up), agents sent on a mission to retrieve the last specimen of a particular species whose background is associated with a planet which was caught up in some kind of war. And that war is associated with a soldier colleague, played by the reliably wooden Clive Owen who here is giving a performance for once too nuanced for the surrounding movie.

So here it is pretty — like Jupiter Ascending pretty — but vacant — like Jupiter Ascending vacant. If you like a film where you can see half a dozen examples of an CGI alien for thirty seconds, you’ll fill your boots. Repeatedly. The opening five minute montage of docking spaceships and docking spaceships and space stations, with increasingly diverse humans and then aliens, choreographed to “Space Oddity” (for cheap gravitas), is a case in point. It’s a point where you might fall in love with the movie; the quick tour of the space station several centuries later may confirm this. But the thrill is cheap.

The backstory involves a society of pearl fishers, who repay their planet by feeding one of the pearls to an alien cutie who poops pearls in a bigger on the inside ridiculousity not since Doctor Who portrayed the moon as a hatching egg. The alien pooper seems to feed on uranium, something we don’t get to see in the beachly CGI paradise that resembles an early draft for Avatar. The uncanny valley means that actually it would have been more convincing if they’d used animation (or puppets) rather than mocapping. If Avatar was reminiscent of Roger Dean, the. This is a mass uo of Chris Foss, Peter Goodfellow and Tim White.

So as Valerian and Laureline chase and escape, we are treated to a series of set pieces, each pretty in themselves, and with the virtue of the sense that if one sequence is dull, the next one might be better. So the best two things in the film after the opening are Ethan Hawke as a pimp and Rihanna as an entertainer (I gather she is a popular beat combo). Valerian crashes his way through walls, with ne’er a health n safety sign in site. Nod and you’ll miss Rutger Hauer.

A lot of reviewers have said that there is no chemistry between the leads — this is true but I suspect misses the point. On the one hand, Dane DeHaan as Valerian is pretty to look at, although I suspect they’ve CGIed him over Keanu Reeves outtakes from Bill and Ted’s Big Adventure and The Matrix. I could stand more watching, although the character is frankly an arse. Cara Delevingne as Laureline has a pissed off look on her face throughout, reflecting her truthful response to the nonsense to has to say and do, which evidently includes the heterosexual reward narrative and being paired off.

I was quite tired when I saw this, and I was in danger of nodding off — the spectacle having the side effect off lolling me to sleep. The surface is astounding and that’s what you get in cinéma du Luc, but the lack of backstory aside from surplus to requirement flashbacks is frustrating. We know little more about the characters after two and nearly a half hours, but you pays your money for the pretty.

Falling to Earth Again

Every so often, a contribution gets spiked or falls into limbo, and the text hangs around not being read on the harddrive. I ended up writing about The Man Who Fell to Earth in Solar Flares, “Unimportant Failures: The Fall and Rise of The Man Who Fell to Earth”, Science Fiction Across Media: Adaptation/Novelisation and “The Man Who Fell To Earth: The Messiah and the Amphicatastrophe”, Heroes, Monsters and Values: Science Fiction Films of the 1970s. I discuss the more famous, 1976, version here.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (David Gerber Productions/MGM Television, 1987)
Adapted from Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963)

(Dir. Bobby Roth; Sc. Richard Kitter; Pr. Christopher Chulack; Cin. Frederick Moore; P.D. John Mansbridge; SFX. Charles E. Dolan; starring Lewis Smith (John Dory); James Laurenson (Felix Hawthorne); Robert Picardo (Agent Richard Morse); Bruce McGill (Vernon Gage); Wil Wheaton (Billy Milton); Beverly D’Angelo (Eva Milton))

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The Falling Man

Every so often, a contribution gets spiked or falls into limbo, and the text hangs around not being read on the harddrive. I ended up writing about The Man Who Fell to Earth in Solar Flares, “Unimportant Failures: The Fall and Rise of The Man Who Fell to Earth”, Science Fiction Across Media: Adaptation/Novelisation and “The Man Who Fell To Earth: The Messiah and the Amphicatastrophe”, Heroes, Monsters and Values: Science Fiction Films of the 1970s. I review the 1987 TV movie remake here [You’ll have to wait a few hours].

The Man Who Fell To Earth (British Lion, 1976)
Adapted from Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963)

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The Ape with No Name

War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2017)

The original Planet of the Apes franchise is a good example of the way in which sf film moved from radical to conservative between the late 1960s and late 1970s. Whilst the original Pierre Boulle novel presumably needs to be read in terms of French political history and colonialism, or in terms of class, the films seemed to offer an allegory for America in the civil rights era, with the apes standing in for whites, African Americans and Jews. Certainly we have the spectacle of Charlton Heston, old Moses and Ben Hur, and fellow white astronauts being subjected to the slave experience. As a sequel gave way to prequels, the films seemed to become more anxious about the politics (and there is something frankly racist about the allegory).

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Peter Parker’s Day Off

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017)

I can remember standing in a queue for the Spider-Man reboot, worried that it would be rebooted again before I got to see it. And here we are, a new Spider-Man, now part of the Marvel Comics Universe, after what I assume is a cameo in a Captain America movie.

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Kissing Cousins

My Cousin Rachel (Roger Michell, 2017)

What is not clear here, of course, is how reliable the self-serving Philip is. Is it really wise to want to marry a cousin with a dodgy back story? Is it good taste to marry one’s uncle’s widow? Or is Rachel perhaps just poor at handling money and the victim of an infantile young man brought up in a homosocial environment?

We’ve all been gaslighted at some point — I know I have and I can tell you the name of the man who did it and does it to others. Typically, of course, it’s something a man does to a woman rather than vice versa, although I suspect if you reverse the power dynamic we get into not-a-proper-man territory.

I can live with that.

Daphne du Maurier is probably best known for Rebecca, in which the nameless narrator has a less than frank new husband and housekeeper. Somewhere along the line it ends up back at Bluebeard.

But here, in this film adaptation of another of her novels, we have Young Philip, orphaned, brought up by Ambrose in an all-male household, aside from the dogs and the plainish daughter, Louis Kendall, of a family friend and Godfather, Nick Kendall. Ill Ambrose goes to Florence to take the air and falls in love with a cousin, presumably younger than him, Rachel. They marry in haste, but Philip learns first that his uncle is dying and that Ambrose thinks Rachel is to blame.

We have a structural problem. Key to the narrative is the psychodrama between Philip and Rachel — is he mad? Is she a bunny boiler? Is he naive? Is she misunderstood? We can’t have her, until she comes to the Cornish estate he inherits, and thus we have to told about what she has done rather than seeing it — we cannot see if she loved Ambrose. We are stuck with truncated flashbacks and awkward voiceovers, and even when she has arrived, the shot of her is delayed as long as possible. Was it half an hour in? It all feels a little laboured.

The film has to convince us that Philip can switch between someone who hates and wants revenge on “the bitch” and someone madly in love, wrapped round her finger. Philip here is a bit wet and sulky and arrested adolescent — and you have to lay that at the door of Ambrose, who has excluded all women from the household save the dogs. And the dogs want to sleep with the bitch.

What I think the film sneakily does — more so than I recall from the novel — is to make us side with the wrong character. Rachel is, it appears, a character who loves sex. I’m guessing this is set in Regency times (it isn’t clear — neither trains nor telegrams seem to have made it to Cornwall; I don’t think the letters are sent by the penny post). Lydia in Jane Austen may well be the right era, and her desire is the cause of all manner of shenanigans that delay Elizabeth and Darcy exploring the double beds in the west wing of his stately erection. Narratively, she probably has to be punished, but I’m not sure du Maurier really wants to.

So we have a young man, starved of affection and sex, who finally gets an opportunity and loses a sense of proportion — showering her with gifts and trying to buy her, pretty well paying her for sex. Given the opportunity, she even tries to give it back.

There is the question of her overspending — is she being blackmailed by the Italian Rinaldi? He knows about her past and perhaps the confirmed bachelor Ambrose has secrets too. Or perhaps the house repairs are just bloody expensive.

I ended a little underwhelmed — not because Rachel Weisz didn’t put in a fine performance, because she did, and Sam Ciafin is suitably emo. Holliday Grainger makes the most of an under written role as a smart role. Cornwall is pretty if a little … narrow. (Florence, I’m afraid, shouts CGI.) But somehow the pace is off — we’re given an interesting ending rather than a satisfying one, and for a film that seems to reach for ambiguity, Michell — unlike Hitchcock, who learned his trade in silent — just keeps telling.

Blood is Thicker than Water (and as Thick as Two Short Planks)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (James Gunn, 2017)

I confess I had a sneaking liking for Guardians of the Galaxy, in part because I went in with no baggage and low expectations — although clearly that’s a contradiction. I quite liked the ironising, which under cut the macho posturing, but I was left with the sense of the displacement of ethnicity onto different coloured aliens and a near absence of women (a green heroine and her blue sister, who apparently was Amy Pond).

Vol. 2 comes with the baggage of the original and the risk of a joke being dragged too thin. It begins mid-caper, with the Guardians protecting batteries for a alien species called the Sovereigns in return for the return of Amy Pond who had previously tried to steal them. Unfortunately Rocket Racoon steals some himself, and they are chased across the galaxy by the Sovereigns, who seem rather weaponised for people who employ mercenaries. The Sovereigns then employ Yondu Udonta, who brought Peter Quill up, to go after them. Quill, meanwhile, is rescued by his father Ego, who turns out to be somewhat of a God and who has created a paradise. Perhaps.

By now, the pattern is established — witty banter between the central heroes punctuated by fights and capers, synchronised to a seventies soundtrack. We reach the diminishing returns pretty early on with the fights, but be reassured that no one will really die that you care for. There is the Unspoken Sexual Tension between Peter and Gamora, and Drax gets a few more lines, and Groot is cute, as baby Groot. A new character is brought in — Mantis, an empath with feelers, oddly Sino-French, but apparently German-Vietnamese in the original comic appearance — and adds a little to the cringe factor.

The casting of as Kurt Russell as Ego is genius — bringing with him the baggage of cult director John Carpenter such as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York and Escape from L.A., The Thing from Another World and Big Trouble in Little China, heroic but seedy, not entirely trustworthy. If you can’t afford Jeff Bridges, Russell’s your man. I could totally believe in him as love ’em and leave ’em immortal, but I definitely didn’t buy the plot gimmick as to why he needed his son. Ah well.

But it is, to some extent, a film about family and the coming together of estranged families, whether or not there is a blood tie. Yondu and Amy, recurring villains from the first film, are, after all, family, and family is family. They can be forgiven remarkably quickly and given a shot of redemption. Perhaps that’s what makes it comedy.

Meanwhile, as the Marvel Universe expands, the cameos and the injokes expand, with seemingly never ending closing credits, more Howard the Duck, too much Stan Lee — who has hardly improved as an actor since Mallrats — and Easter Eggs for future movies.

I can see how if you like this kind of thing you’d love it. I’d even go back for a third dose, but Ego is not the only thing to be indulged.