Monday, November 20, 2017

Valerian review

I think it's fair to say that a lot of science fiction has a great deal in common with traditional sword-and-sorcery style fantasy; the classic story of a collection of brave heroes crusading through fantastical environments to save the world/s works wether they are swinging swords at trolls in stone castles or firing lasers at aliens in glowing spaceships.

I might be wrong about this, but for some reason I feel as if this was a more common genre for films, especially the sci-fi version, a couple of decades ago than it is now. So for me at least, that type of "fantasy sci-fi" movie evokes a certain sense of nostalgia.

Well, at any rate I personally felt a twinge of nostalgia watching Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets; the term "good old-fashioned adventure" comes to mind. The protagonists might be plain ol' humans (and white as it gets btw), but the characters they interact with and environments they travel through are interesting and creative, and occasionally beautiful.

Luckily the film puts a respectable amount of time and effort into organically introducing us to these fantastical worlds... one or two rushed exposition-dumps aside. These aren't just big CG-fests that simply serve as backgrounds to the plot, but well thought-out worlds that tie in to the narrative and in some cases justify fairly creative action sequences.

Speaking of the narrative, I really liked this movie's sense of positivity and optimism. A great deal of sci-fi is inherently xenophobic, centered around terrifying alien entities here to kill us. Basically, "fear of the unknown" is kind of a major theme. This film is different. I'll save the details for the spoiler section, but basically this is a movie about putting aside our differences, forgiving each other, and moving forwards together. I think that's not only a nice change, but just a good message, especially in these times. Honestly, I'm starting to think there's just too much negativity in media these days; I believe we could use more upbeat movies like this.

Sadly the movie does have it's problems. I think my biggest issue was the way the two main characters were written; specifically the truly awful romance subplot that represents the majority of their character development. Again, I'll try to give more details in the spoilers section, but at the end of the day I don't have much more to say than the fact that it was just bad.

One possible contributing factor might be the casting issues. Valerian is played by Dane DeHaan; while I applaud the decision to cast someone who isn't a square-jawed Chris (Hemsworth, Evans, Pratt, Pine, whatever), DeHaan just doesn't fit the role the way it was written. With apologies to Mr. Dane, in this movie Valerian looks like a sleep-deprived teen, but sounds like a seven foot man who's been smoking his whole life, while acting like a cocky little brat who's trying to score at a cheap club. It's... off-putting and did not endear him to me.

To be clear I place the blame for most of these problems on the writing rather than the acting. Cara Delavingne's Laureline isn't as bad, but that's partly because her character is more reactive overall. That's not say she isn't a fairly strong character; yes, she needed to be rescued once, but arguably so did Valerian once or twice, so she doesn't come across as a "damsel in distress" as much as a partner, the two saving each other as needed. But it's Valerian who takes in the initiative in their personal conversations, with Laureline reduced to fending off his advances (or not), leaving her less opportunities to get across her own personality; as a result she comes across a bit flat and uninteresting. Having said all that, I thought Cara Delavingne did a good job with what she had, bringing the character across as strong-willed and grounded, but with a slight mischievous streak.

Commander Filitt was a bit of a cartoony villain in some ways, and Clive Owen played him as such. Personally I would have preferred for Filitt to act a bit less... obvious in his behaviour and actions - there might as well have been a neon "Bad Guy" sign flashing above his head. Despite this I thought his motivations were actually very believable: he chose to do what was best for his race, no matter what the cost to others. I just wish he behaved a bit more... human, I guess. If he'd displayed some empathy, perhaps some doubts or regrets for his actions, while still maintaining that he was in the right... well, I think it would have worked a little better overall.

The rest of the cast was generally solid. Rihanna played a brief but... interesting role. Well, the VFX were interesting anyway; Rihanna herself was fine, but not exactly essential to the role. Ethan Hawke's contribution was brief but colourful. Sam Spruell's General Okto-Bar (I feel like there's a Star Wars joke in there somewhere) was actually my favourite character despite being a smallish part.

While I've praised the whole "adventure in a fantasy land" element of the film, it was unfortunately undermined somewhat by the situation. While the City of a Thousand Planets is a fantastic creation, it somehow came across as being reasonably orderly and organized: perhaps it's the overall level of technology at play, or the way that the authorities were able to track characters through the entire city (complete with detailed 3D maps), but it lacked the sense of danger, of the wild unknown. What's more, the characters themselves were quite familiar with their surroundings, largely moving around without comment; without an audience-surrogate character to bask in wonder of his surroundings, the actual audience doesn't enjoy as strong a feeling of wonder themselves.

Plus, Valerian and Laureline are highly ranked officers of the governing body of the city, with powerful weapons and equipment at their disposal. Even though there's long stretches of time when they are theoretically unable to call for backup, overall there just isn't as much of a sense of danger or adventure as you might expect. What's more, the easy access to fast transport and compressed time frames made some of the busy work, the "side quests" if you will, feel a little out of place; they seemed to break the flow more than similar things would in a traditional fantasy story.

A small note about viewing this movie in 3D: I've seen films that I thought were subtly improved by being viewed in 3D, and some that I thought were made slightly worse. It depends on the nature of the film and the quality of the 3D effect. In this case, I was completely indifferent to it, despite my gut feeling that this kind of film can benefit from being in 3D.

Despite my criticism I did enjoy the movie, so I'm giving it a 7/10: a flawed yet fun and up-beat sci-fi adventure.


According to IMDB, Rutger Hauer plays "the President of the World State Federation"? How did I miss that? Was he wearing alien make-up? I love Rutger Hauer ever since I saw first saw Blade Runner (which was decades ago), but I somehow didn't realise he was in this, and I can't even find a photo of him from the movie online. I'm halfway tempted to get the blu-ray just so I can find a shot of him.

As mentioned, I enjoyed the positivity of this film. It's about different races getting along despite their differences. There are no inherently evil species, even if some have values that don't jive with our own. The villain does what he believes is best for his race, even if it means destroying an inhabited planet and wiping out an entire sentient species, because he believes in putting his own people first. Meanwhile the heroes fight for everyone. The Pearls even forgive Humanity for destroying their planet. I really liked that story element; it might be hard to accept because it would be very hard for any of us to get over a blow like that, but I think the idea is somewhat inspirational. Honestly, I just think this movie is full of good messages.

What I did not discover until later is that the movie was based on a comic book. I have slightly mixed feelings about this: while as a general rule I wish we had more original screenplays and less adaptations of existing material, there's obviously nothing inherently wrong with adapting a good story to a different medium.

There is one issue worth mentioning about the adaptation though: it seems the original comic was simply called "Valerian and Laureline". Dropping Laureline's name from the title was not cool, and unfortunately the movie itself does cast her in slightly less of a equal role as well. While she came across to me as an equal partner in plot and dialogue, the action scenes were generally a bit more focused on Valerian's heroics, and the romance angle especially struck me as decided male-driven in it's viewpoint and execution. Valerian is chasing Laureline, and eventually he "wins" her. She's... well, an object, a prize. I never saw any hint that she was interested in him; she simply listed off the reasons that she wasn't, and once those were "resolved": boom, she falls into his waiting arms. As if being "his" was the default state somehow, and it's only a few minor negative character traits that kept her away.

Having said all that, I can understand some of the reasons that might have contributed to it's renaming: "Valerian and Laureline" doesn't tell you much about the movie, while "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" is much more descriptive and evocative. Perhaps it would have been better if they just called it "The City of a Thousand Planets"; it doesn't have as much of that pulp adventure flavour that I think they might have been going for, and they might have wanted it to sound like one chapter of a series instead of a stand-alone adventure (think "Indiana Jones and the X of Y" for both points), but at least it would be more fair.

It's a bit strange that the film is set in "the City of a Thousand Planets", yet it's so lacking in diversity. Quite apart from how human-centric it all is (the ruling body of the city seems to be all human, and it's mostly humans and the almost-human "Pearls" that drive the story), even amongst the humans there is very little diversity. By which I mean: almost every human in the movie is white. I think there was one Asian officer, who had no (or almost no) dialogue? About the only touch of colour in the cast  (not counting purely voice roles) is Rihanna, but funnily enough she actually plays a shapeshifting alien... I don't know what to make of the fact that the only non-white on-screen cast member is not actually playing a human at all, but it ain't good.

By the way, I have to wonder how humans ended up in such a central position in this peaceful interplanetary collective. I mean, we don't exactly have the best track record for "getting along with people who are different", do we. What is it about our history that caused all these different alien species to pick Earth (or rather a satellite in Earth's orbit, but whatever) as a good place to gather up and pitch their tents? Had we achieved world peace, ending all human suffering and conflict, by this time?

I'm not complaining, just wondering; it's a very optimistic view of the future, which is not a bad thing - yes, it's natural to cynically assume that it could never happen, but sometimes a bit of optimism is a nice thing to balance out all the pessimistic stories that so dominate media these days.

This movie does not feature a reluctant hero. No brooding or feet-dragging here: Valerian willingly and enthusiastically does his job to the best of his abilities without whining about how he "never asked for this" or it's "not his fight". It's like a breath of fresh air. Thank you, Luc Besson!

The movie opened with a montage that showed how the City of a Thousand Planets came to be. Then we were taken to the planet of the Pearls, observing their planet, lifestyle, and fate. After this we were introduced to the inter-dimensional bazaar (which I loved by the way; what a creative concept!), learning how it all worked naturally as we watched the protagonists doing their job.

All of this world-building felt very smooth and natural to me. So it was very jarring when it was followed by the film suddenly dropping a poorly-excused info-dump explaining a bunch of stuff we are already knew or could have easily guess about the City. It was just a really weird and clumsy moment that didn't need to be there; what little info we needed to know could have been worked in to the movie much more organically.

I found it somewhat confusing that the alien race where called Pearls, when there were also actual pearls in the movie that were used in the plot. That... was a bad naming decision in my opinion; I sometimes had trouble figuring out what the characters where talking about. Also, there was a macguffin simply called a "Converter"; apart from how generic the name is, it's actually a creature that replicates stuff and not, as you might expect, a machine part that converts stuff.

Don't even get me started on how nonsensical the whole Converter thing was to begin with. Or the Pearl's dependence on pearls to power their tech even though they learnt everything they know about science and technology from the City, which did not depend on the pearls in any way.

One thing that I found strange was the sub-plot with the Pearl's soul. While I didn't think it was inherently a bad story beat, I didn't feel it fit here. It's just a bit too out-of-place, and doesn't add anything to the story or plot (other than I suppose providing an excuse to see the planet of the Pearls early in the movie then transition to Valerian and Laureline; personally I don't think that an excuse was really needed though). What's more, I felt it was just brushed off a bit too matter-of-factly considering there was no other indication anywhere in the movie that spirituality or belief in souls is a sufficiently common-place thing for the main characters (or for that matter the audience) to easily process or accept the knowledge that one of them has been housing the soul of an alien being that died years ago on a distant planet. Honestly, I think just making it a "psychic echo" or something would have fit better, if it was really necessary at all.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Jupiter Ascending review

I kinda wanted this movie to be good. Maybe it was because of how it rare it is these days to get something that isn't a sequel, remake, or comic book adaptation. Or perhaps it's because the few snippets I saw gave me a subtle 80's sci-fi vibe without actually crutching on nostalgia. Or it could just be because I like epic, visually-stunning sci-fi movies.

But there were a couple of problems: the two leads. I don't think much of Channing Tatum or Mila Kunis. No offence intended, I just don't usually see anything from them that impresses me. So the knowledge that these two were going to be starring together did not fill me with hope.

Well, I finally got to watch the movie. Since we've already brought up the cast, let's start with the acting: this movie was easily the worst performance I've seen from either of the two stars. Of course the writing and directing are factors, but I just didn't find either character to be particularly likeable or relateable, and I felt absolutely no chemistry between them at all. Like, none. The most lasting impression I have of the two of them is a strange detached emotionlessness.

I didn't really feel that the rest of the cast was particularly good or bad either way. Sean Bean was alright, Eddie Redmayne was... well, he didn't hold back, I'll give him that, but I can't say it was a good performance. Or at least, he didn't really make a very scary villain. I actually thought Douglas Booth was very good, easily my favourite performance in this film.

The story is a bit of a mixed bag. I think some of the concepts that the story is based on are quite interesting - more so than I had been expecting in fact - but much of the actually plot is quite weak. There's some rather terrible clichés here, first and perhaps foremost is one of the worst cases of "the chosen one" I've ever seen. Overall I feel the story was a bit of a let-down.

Luckily the action is good. Nothing ground-breaking, but the "worst" parts are perfectly serviceable, and the best are very cool and visually stunning. Channing Tatum handles action just fine; coupled with some interesting visual designs and spectacular special effects, this movie is great to watch on a big screen.

Speaking of the special effects, they are brilliant. Some of the alien vehicles were really cool, parts constantly shifting as they cut through the air. The aliens always felt like they were actually there, even when physically interacting with the actors. There were a couple of creature designs that worked very well, with the "grey" aliens being particularly disturbing. Some of the alien environments were quite stunning; probably some of my favourite parts of the movie, I only wish it had spent more time exploring such vistas and less time on cramped spaceships and boring old Earth.

Overall I'm going to give it a 6/10. Your eyes will enjoy this film, though your brain probably won't.


I really liked the plot about Earth being essentially a farm. It's an interesting concept; the desire for life is one of the most fundamental forces that drive all living things, just how far would you go to hold off death? If it's natural to kill and consume animals to live, then is it really evil to kill other humans to extend your own life? It's a moral debate that the movie touched upon, I actually wish it had spent a bit more time exploring it.

What's more, the setup actually solves a lot of problems that tend to occur in typical sci-fi. How come the universe is full of humanoid creatures? Because it turns out they all come from the same source; they are in fact all human. Why would anyone bother threatening our planet, really? What could we possibly have that any space-faring race needs and couldn't get somewhere closer to home with less resistance? Well, as it turns out, us. Not to be used as slaves or anything, but because we are, well, livestock. It's... kind of elegant actually.

It's a shame it's let down by a Chosen One, a Special who, for some reason, can control bees. Seriously, what's up with the bees? You're telling me bees can not only instantly analyse a person's entire DNA sequence without even touching them, they can also compare it to "royalty"? What does "royalty" mean in this context, is it a special "royal" gene or do they somehow have records of all the DNA profiles royalty has even had (and if so where the hell do they store what amounts to thousands of times more DNA than a bee's cell is supposed to contain)? Bleh, nevermind, it's far too stupid to be worth even thinking about.

Having said that, I actually thought the "genetic reincarnation" thing was a rather interesting concept. I can think of a few reasons why it probably doesn't actually hold up in the real world, but conceptually speaking, in the vastness of a space full of human-occupied planets, who's to say that the exact genetic sequence cannot occur more than once by pure coincidence? Unfortunately while I think it's an interesting little idea, I don't think it's strong enough to anchor the movie around. What's more, I don't really think it fits the rest of the setting. We have no indication that the population of the galaxy at large are particularly inclined to spirituality or superstition, that would lead them to care if someone else happened to show up with their exact DNA. Far from it; these people are so pragmatic that they will not only farm humans like themselves just to reap their... whatever it is that they actually take from them, they will even make a business out of it. I dunno, they just didn't strike me as a society that would put much faith in any sort of reincarnation. Not saying it didn't make sense or anything, only that it felt a bit contradictory.

Plus, even though it was a novel way of making Jupiter Jones (such a stupid name) a Chosen One, the fact is she's still a Chosen One. I mean, if the Lego Movie was mature enough to get past the whole "The Special One" nonsense, why can't "grown up" Hollywood manage it? Have I mentioned that I'm sick to death of Chosen Ones?

Funnily enough, that might not even have been the worst cliché in the movie. Personally, I give that honor to the "stop the wedding!" nonsense. Apart from being a terrible trope to begin with, this is absolutely not the right movie for that crap. Especially since the romance sub-plot was so poorly handled to begin with. Jupiter basically spent the whole movie with her life in constant danger; I don't think she had five minutes without someone kidnapping her or trying to kill her, and yet she decides now is the time to try to put the moves on an alien who has never once smiled at her (and who she herself never once smiled at)? No offense, but I kinda feel like she's got other things to worry about.

I guess that what grated on me the most, though, is how big of a helpless victim Jupiter was the whole time. She just had no agency; she made no decisions, she did nothing to drive the plot, she just did what she was told for pretty much the entire movie. She's talked into selling her eggs, she's dragged around, kidnapped multiple times, rescued multiple times, agrees to take ownership of Earth, agrees to marry some guy she's just met and has to be saved from the wedding, agrees to go alone with the big bad guy to his lair of doom... the one and only time she actually made a decision for herself is right at the very end when she decided not to hand over Earth. I mean, thank God she didn't need to be rescued from that (I mean, she needed to be rescued, but at least it wasn't "quickly, we have to get there before she dooms the Earth" the same way as the whole "quickly, we have to get there before she gets married" thing). It was just too little too late though. She is just such a weak character; a complete victim at every step of the way. It actually surprised me; while I don't particularly like Mila Kunis, I at least know that she's good at playing assertive characters, so I wasn't expecting her to be so passive here.

BTW, what makes Earth so special that it's the "shining jewel of the Abrasax inheritance"? I guess they spliced human DNA with primate DNA to get Earthlings? I don't think it's explicitly stated, but it does fit. It would explain the missing link and all that, right? But if she has primate DNA in her, how is she an exact genetic match for a human who does not have primate DNA? And why do Earthlings look exactly like the "standard" human, when we see several with slightly different features (mainly ears, for some reason)? Or maybe Earthlings are "pure" human, because Earth is hospitable enough that they didn't need to change anything? Maybe that's what makes it so special?

Jupiter's dad died for a telescope? When he had a child on the way? Seriously? What a colossal idiot. Sorry, I got no sympathy for that level of stupidity.

If Caine's tiny little wristband shield-projector can protect him from the attacks from the Greys in their attack ships, then why didn't his own ship have some kind of shielding? Did he need to drop it to use the super-slow tractor beam? Why? Clearly they can control the shape of an energy shield, as evidenced by the one on his arm. Plus I'm pretty sure they got right up to the Aegis ship at the end, even though it had it's shields up.

I quite liked the Aegis captain, though I question why she was acting like the head of Jupiter's security rather than like a police officer. I mean, wouldn't it make more sense to, I don't know, "take her back to head-quarters and sort things out"? I guess Aegis captains are very independent. Good for them. Still, I can't help but wonder if Jupiter now owes them money or something, after how much time and effort they spent helping her. Plus they're going to need to repair that ship. Jupiter doesn't have any money. Can she, like, sell just a few humans, just to pay the bills? You know, for the good of the planet as a whole? Or how about, like, taxes? If the Aegis are police then that means they're funded by by taxes, right? How is she going to pay for that?

So is Caine going to stay on earth? Maybe the Aegis assigned him there to protect her? Why would they do that if Jupiter doesn't pay taxes?

What happens to Balem's holdings? Are they split amongst his siblings? Does Jupiter get a share? Legally she's his mother, so how does intergalactic inheritance law deal with that? Perhaps that's how she's paying the Aegis? Or does the Aegis just seize everything as "evidence" then, you know, just keep it/auction it off?

Speaking of, I kinda figure she probably should have married Titus... then Caine could have just shot him. The Aegis knew that Titus was planning to kill her, so Caine would have gotten off scot-free, right? And she would then own Titus' holdings, apparently including several other planets that need protecting. Think how many lives would have been saved if he'd been just a few seconds slower in saving her...

How come no-one ever took away Caine's boots when they took him prisoner, even though they can apparently melt metal?