A Murmuration of Stalins

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, 2017)

I’ve been watching Armando Iannucci’s comedy for decades now. He was there behind On the Hour and The Friday Night Armistice, not to mention The Thick of It and In the Loop. Much of his work this century has been exploring the back stabbing shenanigans at the heart of politics, even as reality outstripped him.
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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.