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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To Boldly Go…

There is a moment in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Nicholas Meyer, 1991) when the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon toasts “The undiscovered country—the future.” Captain kirk later repeats the chancellor’s words, firstly to Gorkon’s daughter—“Your father called the future the undiscovered country”—and then in the film’s closing voiceover:

    This is the final cruise of the Starship Enterprise under my command. This ship and her history will shortly become the care of another crew. To them and their posterity will we commit our future. They will continue the voyages we have begun and journey to all the undiscovered countries, boldly going where no man—where no one—has gone before.

While Spock notes that Gorkon has quoted Hamlet he does not note that he has misinterpreted the line.

I’d never really thought of writing about the Star Trek franchise — there’s too much it to get on top of, but I did write about the first film in Solar Flares.

But Simon Bacon invited me to write for his collection, To Boldly Go: Essays on Gender and Identity in the Star Trek Universe, co-edited with Nadine Farghaly, and the ghears began grinding.

I remember shouting at the screen for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country that the Hamlet was being mangled, and that the undiscovered country was death rather than the future.

When I read Emmanuel Levinas, during the PhD, I’d read and stored his ideas on patriarchy, filiality, the future and death, and this returned to mind. I’d also been reading Robin Wood and Andrew Britton on 1980s sf movies — for two other projects — and this joined the dots.

How does the avidly liberal and feminist Star Trek represented fatherhood in the future — and how does that relate to death?

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.