Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

2017 #160
Luc Besson | 137 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | France, China, Belgium, Germany, UAE, USA, UK & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Luc Besson returns to the sci-fi genre that he so memorably visited 20 years ago in The Fifth Element for another colourful, crazy, adventure romp. Based on the French comic book series Valerian et Laureline, it sees special agents Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) on a mission to protect Alpha, the titular city, from forces that threaten to destroy it.

Valerian got a pasting from critics and was a flop at the US box office, a particular problem when it’s apparently the most expensive independent movie ever made. Fortunately for it, it did alright internationally, to the point where home video sales could still secure a sequel (Besson has already written a second and has moved on to developing a third!) While it’s far from a perfect movie, it deserves to find an audience. It’s probably a bit too barmy — a bit too European, even — for mainstream US tastes, but there’s a lot to like here for those who are so inclined.

The main selling point is the imagery. Simply put, it’s incredible. There’s so much going on, all the time. There’s background detail galore. It whizzes through worlds that could be the entire setting for some other story. There are dozens, probably hundreds, of alien species thrown around. It’s so casually inventive, as if it’s got imagination to spare. And it’s mostly vibrantly colourful too, a real comic book of a movie in the traditional sense. All that depth and detail looks particularly amazing in 3D, it must be said, especially during the action sequences that whoosh though intricate, layered environments at breakneck speed.

Valerian, without Laureline

This visual exuberance sometimes comes at the expense of the plot. The main storyline is pretty straightforward — for example, there’s a third-act twist that’s obvious from the moment the character it concerns first appears on screen — but it keeps getting distracted by total asides, as Besson meanders off course to showcase some other species or environment or set piece he and his army of designers have cooked up. If that kind of shaggy storytelling annoys you then Valerian is set to get up your nose, but if you go along for the ride then Besson’s showing off can be delightful.

Some of the other screenwriting details suffer even more, however. It almost engages in some interesting themes about colonialism and that kind of stuff, but instead more nods its head in their direction than actually says anything about them. More overtly, a lot of the dialogue is atrocious. In fact, it’s so bad that you begin to wonder if it’s deliberately ultra-mannered and you’ve just missed some kind of joke. It doesn’t help that DeHaan feels at least somewhat miscast as the cocky heroic lead. Or possibly that’s the point — that Valerian isn’t as irresistibly attractive and amazingly competent as he thinks he is. Model-turned-actress Delevingne, on the other hand, is surprisingly good.

You’ll notice that Valerian and Laureline are (a) co-leads, and (b) both in the name of the original books, and yet the female half of the duo has been ditched from the film’s title. Unfortunately, that does indicate the film’s sometimes-dated attitude towards gender politics. On the bright side, Delevingne manages to imbue Laureline with a feistiness that allows her to mostly hold her own against the men, and — despite the old-fashioned shape of a romantic subplot — Besson’s screenplay lets her be a capable agent in her own right as well. Still, Laureline vs. the Space Patriarchy would not be a wholly unapt alternative title for the film.

Laureline vs the Space Patriarchy

These less-good aspects of Valerian glare out at one rather, and make me want to declare that much of it is kind of rubbish, really… and yet I rather enjoyed the whole shebang. Perhaps it just takes a rewatch or two to settle into the film’s own particular rhythm? Even if that’s not the case, I’d still rather have the messy ambition of a Valerian than another dozen run-of-the-mill Hollywood CGI extravaganzas. Fingers crossed for those sequels.

4 out of 5

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is released on disc in the UK today.

It placed 17th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

2014 #81
Marc Webb | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Amazing Spider-Man 2Despite the fact that the first film of Sony’s Spider-Man reboot was a wannabe-hipster over-angsty teen-romance take on the webslinger, which needlessly re-told his origin story and posted unexceptional box office takings, it seems there was some degree of consensus that it wasn’t too bad. I don’t agree. Two years later, this sequel seems to have met with a largely negative response, accused of crimes like navel-gazing and franchise-building. Again, I don’t agree — I think this is the best Spidey movie since the previous Spider-Man 2.

Dialling down the rom-com elements to their appropriate subplot level, ASM2 sees Spidey (Andrew Garfield) having to deal with an electricity-powered supervillain (Jamie Foxx) trying to destroy the city, and the return of his childhood friend Harry Osbourne (Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan), who inherits OsCorp when his father passes away. If you’ve seen Spider-Man 3 (the last one, not the one that’ll be out in a few years… maybe), you’ll know where that’s going…

Fortunately for us, ASM2 has some new twists on the old formulas. Harry’s transformation may be inevitable, but it’s played with different emphasis and motivations. Plus DeHaan is a much more unusual and engaging actor than James Franco, his version of Harry notably different from the previous “pretty young rich kid”. The storyline afforded to Foxx’s Electro is in-keeping with previous Spider-baddies — a fundamentally good person who ends up misguided — but his cool powers keep things visually engaging. Their first big face off in Times Square felt like one of the best effects-driven action sequences I’ve seen for a while, in fact.

Best friends?Then we have the much-maligned backstory about just what Peter Parker’s parents did all those years ago, before they abandoned him with Uncle Ben and Aunt May. There are pros and cons to this: it’s all new, which at least makes it interesting and unpredictable because it has no forebear in comics or films; but it’s also a pretty stock set of circumstances. Worse still, it robs Spidey of a major defining trait: Peter Parker is bitten by a spider by accident — it could’ve been anyone. In this version, it could only have been him. Boo. Sony clearly want an arc plot they can run across a trilogy (or more), so presumably this thread will rumble on… though whisperings that they’re considering some kind of soft-reboot may see it cut short. I wouldn’t complain.

It’s a moderately minor part of the film though, I thought. So too the setting up of some league of supervillains — presumably the Sinister Six, as that’s the first planned spin-off movie. I still think people over-emphasise how much time Iron Man 2 puts into setting up The Avengers at the expense of being its own film; ASM2 does it even less, so I think the complaints are even less warranted. Honestly, there’s so much else going on, why hone in on the one thing you wish it hadn’t done?

That other stuff includes an increased dose of fun and humour — darkness abounds, to be sure, and in everyone’s storylines too; and Webb still dodges the bright-and-breezy tone of Raimi’s movies (which is a shame, because there’s a good argument that that’s where Spidey belongs) — Electrifyingbut it’s more textured, at least. Then there’s Electro, who (as mentioned) may have a familiar story, but is nonetheless perfectly pitched by Foxx. His powers lead to some excellent sequences, including but not limited to the aforementioned Times Square duel. He also contributes to the music, in a way, as Electro’s whispered/sung thoughts ‘bleed out’ into the score. It’s creepy, especially as it’s so subtle in the mix — I wondered what the hell was going on at first. I thought it was a fantastic score all round, in fact, bringing in a modern music element that fits the notion of Spidey as a young character perfectly.

While I don’t advocate a like-for-like repeat of all that in future Spidey films — innovate, don’t replicate (is that a saying? That should be a saying) — I hope there are people at Sony who are aware that things in ASM2 do work, and work very well. As they rush headlong to fix the film’s perceived failings in future instalments, purely so that they can make a success out of their desired Avengers-style multi-franchise franchise, I hope they don’t wind up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Or washing the spider down the drain. Or some other similar but more apt metaphor.

While ASM2 isn’t perfect, I don’t really see what all the negative reviews were on about — I properly enjoyed it. Is it the best Spider-Man film? No. Spider 'splosionIt lacks the confidence, heart and flair that mark out Spider-Man 2, and the bold originality and clarity of purpose that define Raimi’s first Spider-Man. Equally, it doesn’t suffer from the compromised creativity of the forced Spider-Man 3, nor the fumbled plotting and try-hard hipsterism of Webb’s first Spidey effort. It’s a distinct improvement, but beyond that, it’s an entertaining Spider-Man movie in its own right.

4 out of 5

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is on Sky Movies from New Year’s Day 2015.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Chronicle: Extended Edition (2012)

aka Chronicle: Extended Director’s Cut

2014 #115
Josh Trank | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15*

ChronicleThe birth of the “found footage” sub-genre and the resurgence of the superhero movie began around the same time, the former with The Blair Witch Project in 1999 and the latter with X-Men in 2000. They both arguably came of age towards the end of the noughties, with the box office success of Paranormal Activity in 2009 and the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008’s Iron Man. It was inevitable, really, that someone would eventually combine these coincidentally-linked post-millennial cinematic obsessions, and that someone was director Josh Trank, who became one of (if not the) youngest directors to open a movie in the #1 spot at the US box office with this, his debut feature.

The obvious route for a found-footage superhero movie is surely in the Kick-Ass/Super mould: a wannabe dressing up in a funny costume and setting out to fight crime, in the real world. Trank and screenwriter Max Landis have grander ambitions, however, setting their sights on characters who develop Superman-esque powers. It means the movie isn’t as low-budget and independently-produced as you might have expected (although clearly not high-budget, it’s full of special effects, and was released by 20th Century Fox), but it does retain a more subversive element — for one, that great responsibility doesn’t necessarily follow great power.

Boys will be boysThe story sees high school senior Andrew (Dane DeHaan) decide to start filming everything in his life, thanks to his borderline-abusive alcoholic father (Michael Kelly) and terminally ill mother (Bo Petersen). The same day (what a coincidence!), his cousin and only friend, Matt (Alex Russell), takes him to a party where, along with most-popular-kid-in-school Steve (Michael B. Jordan), they discover a hole in the woods with mysteries inside… Days later, all three begin to develop telekinetic powers, which they learn they can levy in various incredible ways — those ways being super, but largely without the heroic…

Which, in case you misread me, is not to say the boys become supervillains. Rather, they do what a lot of teenage lads would do: throw balls at each other with their mind; eat Pringles without having to pick up the can; use a leaf blower on a girl’s skirt; and so on. Using the found-footage style naturally, the friends experiment with their abilities, gradually increasing them, and bonding in the process. The story isn’t short of action or incident (some might disagree), but is equally character-focused, presenting individuals who are more rounded and believable people than your average superhero characters.

Rooftop bondingThis is even more pronounced in the extended version (“extended director’s cut” in the US), which includes over five minutes of extra bits that, in my opinion, make it a superior edit. Some are minor in impact, true, but there are a couple of short sequences with Andrew and Steve that deepen their relationship further, which enriches events at the end of act two. There’s also a moment that subtly prefigures the climax, and an extra bit in said finale that seems nigh-on essential to me. Considering the film still runs (just under) 90 minutes even with these additions, it’s difficult to see why they were cut in the first place. “Pace” is usually the rational for that, but if this is indeed a Director’s Cut then clearly Trank didn’t think they were an issue; equally, I can’t see why Fox would have objected. Still, they’re here to enjoy on Blu-ray…. though not on DVD… and I guess they’re not in TV screenings… Tsk.

Some accuse the film of being clichéd and predictable, which I don’t hold much truck with. It’s not twist-filled, but I felt the characters and their interactions grew naturally — if you can see where it’s going, it’s because it’s well-constructed, not because it’s how every movie does it. The time invested in growing our relationship with all three lead characters pays off increasingly as the movie rolls on, too, so that the climax is about more than just spectacle.

Spectacular climaxThat said, spectacle it has. You wouldn’t expect that from a $12 million found-footage movie, but an epic duel through the streets of Seattle is one of the strongest climaxes to any superhero movie I can remember. It’s kind of like Man of Steel’s, only released a year earlier and executed a thousand times better (the lack of mass destruction and associated innocent-bystander massacre is a bonus). The finale is undoubtedly the high point of the film’s visual extravagance, but numerous other sections are striking too, not least thanks to Andrew’s mastery of controlling the camera with his mind, letting it float gently around as he films himself and others.

The qualities of the climax could be seen as a microcosm for the entire film, actually: a stylistic gimmick that works so well you forget many people consider it a gimmick; a scale grander than you might expect from both that gimmick and the movie’s budget; a largely-innovative treatment of a much-trod genre; and, similarly, characters who are multi-dimensional and better-realsied than your average, thanks both to Landis’ writing and a team of top-notch performances, particularly from DeHaan and Jordan — there’s a reason they’ve both gone on to bigger things.

One to watch out forIn the hands of many a desperate-to-get-noticed filmmaker, a found-footage superhero movie would likely have been a straight-to-DVD affair that could at best be described as “mediocre”. In Chronicle, however, Trank and co have crafted one of the best movies produced in either sub-genre. Most of the people involved — as well as the film they’ve all come from — can be classed as “one to watch”.

5 out of 5

The network TV premiere of Chronicle is on Channel 4 tonight at 10pm.

It placed 6th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

* Right: Chronicle was released in UK cinemas as a 12A, but with a couple of cuts for violence. On DVD/Blu-ray, it’s an uncut 15. Meanwhile, in the US, the theatrical version is PG-13, while the extended cut is technically Unrated. However, most of the additions are character scenes, so it’s surely still a PG-13. ^