Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer

Director: Luc Besson

Writer: Luc Besson


When I go to see a new movie, one of my greatest hopes is that I’ll get to see something new. If I wanted to watch, say, a sci-fi movie that simply copies whatever Star Wars, Blade Runner, or The Matrix did, I would just watch one of those movies instead. There is a lot that I’m willing to forgive in a movie that is able to excite and astound me with something that I’ve never seen before. The Fifth Element is a perfect example. The Fifth Element is a profoundly dumb movie, but its characters are so entertaining and its universe is so remarkable that I ended up not caring in the slightest. In fact, the movie was so bizarre and unique that the silliness and absurdity actually added to its appeal. Valerian is a more extreme version of The Fifth Element, it is a much dumber film with a much more remarkable universe. It isn’t as charming a film, and is weaker for it, but it is still a wildly entertaining movie for all the right and wrong reasons.

Based on the French sci-fi comics Valérian et Laureline, Valerian takes place in the 28th century on the monumental space station Alpha, where millions of alien species live together sharing their knowledge and cultures. It follows Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), two special operatives charged with maintaining peace and order throughout the universe. While on a mission the partners uncover a mystery concerning an alien race of which they can find no record. After securing a Mül Converter, a small creature that can reproduce anything it eats, they return to Alpha and are charged with the protection of Commander Filitt (Clive Owen), who is responsible for the station’s security. Alpha, he says, has been infected by some unknown force and a summit has been called to discuss the crisis. The summit is interrupted by an attack and in the fight that ensues Filitt is kidnapped. Valerian and Laureline must therefore find and rescue their commander and work out what it is these mysterious people want.

Visually this film is on its own level. The attention to detail Bresson brought to Fifth Element is maximised here as we are taken on a mad ride through dozens of stunning settings complete with strange creatures, extravagant costumes, and hundreds of great blink-and-you-miss-it details within each frame. Oftentimes with sci-fi movies you can get the gist of the universe within the first 15 minutes, but the world in Valerian felt like one where there was always more to discover. As with Terry Gilliam’s films, this is one of those movies where I felt like I could barely keep up (in the best way possible) with all that was happening and all that was being shown. Some elements are given a proper spotlight so that they can be fully appreciated like the burlesque dance of the shape-shifter Bubble (Rihanna), the Big Market where the marketplace exists on two different planes of reality, and one of the opening scenes in which we learn about an entire alien race’s world and culture without a single line of dialogue from any earthly language spoken. Then there are some fleeting moments, as in one sequence where Valerian navigates several variable districts of Alpha in his pursuit of his kidnapped commander, which are no less stunning for being brief. I could re-watch this whole movie again on mute and still delight in all that the visuals have to offer.

And yet the movie is still so very dumb. The story is completely incoherent and the characters have no consistency. Valerian is a cocky happy-go-lucky maverick, except when he’s not. Laureline is his no-nonsense, cool and collected partner, except when she’s not. Dehaan delivers an unconvincing performance that comes across less as a brave, resourceful, cheeky but loveable scoundrel and more as a kid pretending to be Star Lord. Delevingne is pretty good half the time and pretty bland the other. The two have chemistry, which helps when it comes to pushing their predictable will they/won’t they love story, but Han and Leia they are not. In their mission together they stumble into side-plot after side-plot which have absolutely nothing to do with the issue pressing them. However entertaining it is to see Valerian fleeing alien gangsters while stuck between an organic and a virtual reality or watching an imprisoned Laureline being offered to the grossly gluttonous chief of a primitive tribe, at these points you just have to ask yourself “how did we get here?”

Still, what separates this movie from something like Jupiter Ascending is that no matter how stupid it got, I was never bored. I wouldn’t really call it a good movie in its own right; I’d say that half of it is good and the other half is so bad it’s good. There’s also a feeling of sincerity to this film. Good or bad, I believe that the director, writers and actors were all genuinely trying to create something unique and enjoyable and that effort does count for a lot. It may not have been a legitimately great film the way The Fifth Element was, but it was a lot of fun to watch and it showed me many things that I can honestly say I’ve never seen before (one highlight being a trio of duck-like aliens who complete each other’s sentences). Let’s put it this way: The Fifth Element was a great but dumb film. Valerian is an entertaining but dumb film. It’s not going to work for everyone and that’s perfectly understandable. But, if you manage your expectations with this film and are prepared not to take it seriously, you might be surprised by how good a time you’ll still end up having.

★★★★

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Suicide Squad

Cast: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Karen Fukuhara, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Cara Delevingne

Director: David Ayer

Writer: David Ayer


Watching Suicide Squad has made one thing about the DC cinematic universe clear to me: it isn’t just Zack Snyder. The trouble with this franchise is not the brainchild of a single overseer, it’s happening on an institutional level. It pains to write this because I watched the cartoons growing up, read the comic books as a teenager, and deeply love this universe and its characters.. Nothing would please me more than to sing the praises of the movie franchise that has brought this universe to life. I can’t do that though because for three films now they’ve made the same mistakes again and again. All three movies have been entertaining on a spectacular level, but their stories and characters continue to suffer from an aggravating inability to realise these fundamental flaws. Suicide Squad is an improvement on this front, but at the end of the day it suffers from the same overall problem as the other DC movies. The ultimate problem is that Warner Bros is more interested in making movies with good trailers than it is in making good movies.

Following Superman’s death, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has determined that the Earth needs a new force to protect humanity against inhuman threats. Her proposal is a mercenary team made up of dangerous criminals kept in check by chips implanted in their brains. The villains selected for this team are the skilled assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), the insane Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the incendiary El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) the rugged thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), the genetic deformity Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and the ancient sorceress Enchantress (Cara Delevingne). Leading the team is Waller’s trusted colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), a soldier with little patience for the criminal scum he must work with. When Midway City is besieged by a horde of monsters powered by some mystical weapon, the Suicide Squad is sent on their first mission to combat them. Hot on their trail is the Joker (Jared Leto) who is on his own mission to liberate his beloved Harley Quinn.

The movie’s saving grace is its main cast. Despite some illogical inconsistencies, a feeble villain and a weak second half, the ensemble managed to carry this movie most of the way through and made it more fulfilling to watch than either of DC’s first two offerings. Viola Davis is fantastic as Waller, a ruthless government official who gives orders and combats threats with a cold, business-like attitude. Will Smith succeeds marvellously in playing Deadshot both as an adept assassin and as a concerned father trying to do right by his daughter. Margot Robbie is perfectly cast as Harley Quinn and delivers a crazed and layered performance that was regrettably undermined by the movie’s excessive objectification of her character. I was also a big fan of Jay Hernandez as El Diablo, a fundamentally good man cursed with a destructive power that he cannot entirely control. Leto however, considering the enormous publicity surrounding his performance and the standard set by Nicholson, Hamill, and Ledger, was a let-down. While his portrayal as the Joker was somewhat intriguing, his screen time is minimal and his role is almost entirely immaterial to the main story.

The films starts off promisingly enough as we are introduced to these characters and get to know them a bit. The numerous flashbacks are quite disorienting due to some messy editing and there were also some parts that can only be described as bizarre (The one that stands out is that mindboggling moment featuring Batman and Harley Quinn), but I was still on board when the team was finally assembled and ready to set out on their mission. From this point onwards Suicide Squad becomes the same generic action movie we’ve seen a million times. There’s the bland villain with the vague motivation, the expendable, faceless army sent to combat the main cast, and the same old indefinably destructive portal from movies like Fantastic Four that threatens to destroy the world or something. The characters do help to make the movie’s second half somewhat entertaining, but the threat facing them is bland and forgettable and the amount of tension the film is able to conjure up is almost nil. This made for a movie that was fun to watch, but not particularly engaging or thrilling.

I think that the critical panning this film has received has more to do with the audience’s frustration with the DC franchise than it does with any of the movie’s particular faults. When held to its own merits and demerits as separate from the franchise, I don’t think it deserves the hate it has received. Suicide Squad is an often entertaining movie with many colourful and memorable characters that falls apart in its second half. It doesn’t suffer from the stale tone of Man of Steel or from the severely overblown plot of Batman v. Superman. It is however symptomatic of a misguided franchise that is more interested in making movies that look good than in making movies that actually are good. The gimmick of seeing iconic characters from the comics come to life on the big screen will wear off for most viewers and already has for some. Unless Warner Bros wakes up and starts to offer something more substantive in these movies, the audience’s exasperation will only continue to grow.

★★★