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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The Magnificent Seven

Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sansmeier, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Writers: Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk


In making this film Fuqua has given himself not one, but two cinematic legacies to live up to. First is Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Seven Samurai, arguably the greatest and most influential picture ever made by the great Japanese director. The second is John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, the lesser Hollywood remake that nevertheless brought its own style and charm to the story. The former is a groundbreaking epic of masterful artistry and immense depth. The latter is a classic American western made enormously watchable by its terrific production and all-star cast. Neither of the shadows cast by these films can be ignored. Although this film takes the name of the Sturges’ film, it still cites the Kurosawa epic as its source material. Thus, whether the film wants to be an entertaining escapist spectacle or an innovative work of art (or, dare I say, both), the standard is high on both fronts.

The mining town of Rose Creek is attacked by a troop of bandits led by the corrupt entrepreneur Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who imposes his will by slaughtering many of the locals. Thus Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and Teddy Q (Luke Grimes) set out on a mission in search of help. They find it in the warrant officer Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) who accepts the contract upon learning of Bogue’s involvement. He sets out to recruit a team to help him with this endeavour, starting with the gambler John Faraday (Chris Pratt). The two are later joined by the sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-wielding comrade Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun), the crazed but capable tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), the disreputable Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and the Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeir). The seven of them together come to Rose Creek where they put into motion a plan to defend the town and its people from Bogue’s forces.

One of the strong points shared by both the Kurosawa and the Sturges films is the simplicity of their stories. Seven diverse warriors band together to combat a single threat. It is this simplicity that allowed both stories to be strongly driven by character and action. Fuqua’s film has this same simple setup; the problem is that he offers little of substance in its execution. Despite having a terrific cast at his disposal, there are few moments when they are truly able to come together and bring some life to the story. This is largely because the characters are defined more by star power than they are by their personalities. This can work on occasion. Chris Pratt, for example, does well in what is very much a ‘Chris Pratt’ role: a cocky but charming scoundrel. Denzel Washington however is cast as a strong, silent type and is thus allowed few opportunities to display his formidable on-screen presence and charisma. The chemistry between the actors is sometimes there, as in one scene where Washington and Hawke revive some of the energy that made them a great duo in Training Day, but little of it adds either drive or weight to the narrative.

There was certainly potential for a great movie here. The greatest realisation of that potential is the criminally underused Sarsgaard as the overtly evil Bogue. The cast is easily this film’s strongest asset and it’s a shame that Fuqua was unable to take full advantage of it. Still, for some viewers at least, the assemblage of these actors in this setting will be enough. I did like that the film took strides to include greater diversity in its ensemble, incorporating men of different ethnicities who showcase singular styles of fighting. This pays off in the third act when the final battle takes place. What we get here is more than simple horse riding and gunfire. During this climax Billy Rocks brings his knives into the gunfight, the ox-like Jack Thorne bull rushes his foes into submission and Red Harvest looses arrows left, right and centre. The build up towards this fight may have been lacklustre and the major character deaths that follow may not resonate in any meaningful way but, in terms of pure spectacle, it’s still a pretty great climax.

While there isn’t anything substantially wrong with this film, as far as remakes go, there is nothing that allows The Magnificent Seven to stand on its own two feet. Compared to the Sturges’ classic it is a lesser imitation. To even bother comparing it to Kurosawa’s masterpiece would be almost like comparing a finger painting to the ‘Mona Lisa’. It is a sometimes entertaining but ultimately hollow film that feels more like a star vehicle than it does a western. It seemed to me that the film was more interested in cashing in on the ensemble blockbuster trend started by The Avengers than it was in telling a great story. The western setting felt artificial and the movie’s discussion on the themes of honour, justice and sacrifice felt insincere. This film could have been something special, if only it had half of the emotion and depth of the films that influenced it. Instead The Magnificent Seven stands as a picture of unrealised possibility and unfulfilled promise.

★★