In Theaters: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

PG-13, 137 minutes, Sci-fi

StarringDane DeHaanCara DelevingneClive OwenSam Spruell

I’ve been looking forward to this movie all year. I don’t even remember when the trailer came out for it, but I had been saving my pennies ever since. My eyes practically bulged out of my head. Science fiction! Fantastic worlds! Luc Besson! W-w-wait–LuC BEssON is MAkIng aNoTHer ScI-FI mOVie????1 I’VE GOT TO SEE THIS!!! After the utterly awe-inspiring impact that The Fifth Element has left upon my soul, I just HAD to see Valerian on the big screen before it was too late.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is not only a crack-filling mouthful of a title, but it adds just enough curiosity to this movie to make you run out into the streets and yell, “WHAT?” The story follows agents Valerian and Laureline as they enter the city of Alpha in order to investigate an uninhabitable zone that threatens the stability of all life on the interplanetary vessel. The only thing standing in their way is the entire galaxy. No big deal.

I hadn’t even heard of the source material before: a French comic series that ran for over forty years. Apparently, I need to read more French comics (I’m looking at you, Snowpiercer). But the two real reasons my very soul cried out for my eyes and ears to digest this film were sci-fi and Besson. I couldn’t help myself. I mean–THE FIFTH ELEMENT.

I sprung for 3-D. I admit it, I’m a hypocrite as I absolutely HATE the 3-D trend. But just look at that trailer! Can you really blame me? Can any sci-fi fan REALLY put fault upon me? Was it worth it? The extra cost and the mind-numbing disorientation that the 3-D movie scarfully (that’s a word! …now) inflicted upon my brain jelly? Well… no. Don’t get me wrong: I did enjoy the movie, but it was just an okay movie. And despite the epic scenery, the movie was not shot in a manner that accentuated the screen popping effects.

The film itself was unfortunately dark. Despite a scene shot in a bright desert, the movie as a whole is set in the darkness of space, the alleys of a major city, and the underworld. Perhaps it was just my eyes, but this really screwed up the 3-D experience as I felt more like I was watching a high definition VHS tape with tracking issues. I’m not going to fault the movie for this, but I am going to seriously warn you away from the extra cost. This movie in 3-D simply isn’t worth your money.

What I did like was the sense that a vast array of cultures existed inside of Alpha. After forty years of comics, there’d darn well better be some depth to the setting. Unfortunately, despite all the visual set-up, only a couple of these cultures were touched upon. I got the feeling that everyone involved behind the scenes felt obligated to pay homage to the source material. Notable, but not entirely practical to the confines of a single movie.

The defining moment to this story has to be the struggle of the alien race that starts off the whole conflict. They’re unique and peaceful and seeing tragedy befall them really pulled my heartstrings. The open sequence involving these people really made me happy to be watching this movie. Sadly, it was the highlight of the story as I began to notice some… shockingly familiar storyline.

LUC, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? Look, I’m not calling this a stinker, but there comes a time when you write a story and you realize it’s the same friggin’ thing you wrote twenty years ago. Luc, I’m looking at you. You know what you’ve done! This is The Fifth Element. You know, that movie you did about space stuff? If you had paid homage to it by putting a Mangalore or a Zorg logo in the background, I would have publicly guffawed. But there are just too many parallels to ignore: the world ending, the military police, everything that looks like New York in 2263, the blue diva, the kissing sequence at the end–ARGH! I mean, how do you have forty years of comics and you set out to remake your own movie? Oh, no. Wait a second here, was Valerian and Laureline the inspiration for The Fifth Element? DON’T DO THIS ME, LUC!

The one things I really wanted from this movie was the characters. I’m sorry, folks, but since I had such high expectations for this film simply because I am a massive Fifth Element fan, I have to compare the two. In The Fifth Element everyone fulfills their quirky and memorable role to a T–right down to the friggin’ cat! But a lot of the characters in Valerian were basically just cardboard cutouts. And Bubble was uselessly unique–just watch and you’re find out what I mean. I found her to be the most frustrating character of all.

I will confess that I could not stop myself–for days–from laughing at Laureline’s changing scene. She is held prisoner by a barbaric race that insists she dress up. Stubbornly, she refuses, but her caretaker cannot be dissuaded. Hilariously, she encourages Laureline to continue. If you don’t laugh at this scene, I daresay you haven’t got a funny bone in your entire body. So as far as memorable characters go, at least I got one.

On an off note: the dynamic between Valerian and Laureline struck me as… odd. From early on, Valerian proposes the idea of marriage to Laureline, but she dodges around his advances. That itself wasn’t odd, but the proposal was. What is wrong with me? Since when should the idea of marriage strike me as out of the ordinary. You know what? Screw you, modern society. Quit raping normal values already.

With the decade-long surge in the popularity of comic book films it was inevitable that all kinds of stories would make it to the big screen. But whereas Marvel is succeeding, other companies struggle. The French market appears no different. While this wasn’t a bad movie, it did have its share of flaws. I can tell you right now that this probably would have been success if it had premiered as a quirky streaming series, but unfortunately the box office outlook is nothing short of grim.

Rating: Watch it.

Watch: Visually stunning, offbeat, and full of potential. That changing scene is hilarious.
Don’t watch: Flawed story, too dark, and overly condensed material. Rihanna needs to stop acting. Period.


Sci-Fi Saturdays: Sunshine (2007)

R, 107 minutes, Sci-Fi

Starring: Cillian MurphyRose ByrneChris EvansMark Strong

I came across something striking in the hallowed Bargain Bin: a movie with a short list of actors I’ve liked. The cast included Scarecrow, The Human Torch, Ujio, and a Bond girl. Even better was the story which involved a desperate struggle in space. Screw it–I’m buying this!

What I got was Sunshine. Oh how I love deep space disaster flicks! The crew of Icarus II set out towards our dying sun with the intent of shooting a bomb with all of the remaining volatile material on Earth into the core of the star before our home freezes over. The previous crew of the first Icarus disappeared shortly before reaching their target, so the only hope humanity has left is its back-up crew. On board is the scientist responsible for the creation of the bomb, Robert Capa (Murphy).

It seems as though all is going well until the crew discover the original Icarus adrift in space. When a course correction to rendezvous with the derelict vessel threatens to destroy them, the crew has to work frantically to save their now damaged ship. With no chance left of completing the mission without repairs and supplies, the crew have no choice but to explore the mystery of the fate of their predecessors.

Something I like the most about these types of films is the hopelessness established by the extreme distance from civilization. You can’t just open the door to the ship and scrounge for food and water. To make matters worse, they’re heading right into a star. Questions come to my mind: Would you freeze or burn in the wake of a star? If neither, at what point would you neither freeze nor burn, but simply succumb to the vacuum? This is the most extreme of environments and the issue of getting everything right is pressed hard.

The technical designs in this movie aren’t really anything special. They mostly just get the job done, but I will say that the plant nursery is pretty dang cool. With flowing water and fresh air, this the definitely the place to go relax. Oddly, the doesn’t utilize it. Instead several crew members spend their time burning and blinding themselves in a nearly barren and totally boring observation lounge. It gives you the sense that the crew really doesn’t have their priorities straight.

Enter the real conflict: People being stuck inside of a confined space for far too long. They’re getting stir crazy and they’re getting sloppy, which is not something you want with people in charge of Earth’s fate. So as things get more and more screwed up, the characters are pressed harder and harder to succeed.

While this may not be the best science fiction entry to date, Sunshine still has something offer. This film is about coping against mounting odds and figuring out what’s most important. Will you succumb to the darkness? Or will you shine brightly like the sun?

Rating: Watch it once.

Watch: Quick and good survival drama.
Don’t watch: You probably won’t like the ending, at least not the first time around.

The Signal (2014)

PG-13, 97 minutes, Sci-fi

Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Laurence FishburneOlivia Cooke

     Once in a while a great film comes along that mixes all of the right elements, makes you really care about the characters, and leaves just enough mystery to keep you hooked… then it promptly screws it all up in the most glorious of fashion.  You sit there, dumbfounded.  Your mouth hangs open as the credits roll and the single syllable of “wa” floats in the air as a tiny puff of frustrated confusion wheezes around your vocal chords.  It’s over!  Pack it up and go home!  It’s enough to make you want to throw things.

     “Are you agitated?”

     The Signal follows three college students as they hunt for a mysterious hacker.  After some difficulty, the trio have an encounter of the otherworldly kind that puts them all into comas.  Upon waking, the main character, Nic, finds himself locked in a medical and psychological nightmare as government scientists probe his mind, keeping him isolated from the rest of the world.  Nic is monitored ‘round the clock until he realizes that something about him has changed… and has given him the power to escape.

     Sounds interesting enough, right?  And believe me: it is.  I was hooked—legitimately hooked.  Lawrence Fishbourne is the big name of this film, playing the role of the antagonistic psychologist bent on breaking Nic down.  His performance is actually quite familiar.  Wake up, Neo.  Morpheus included, you begin to realize that duplicating the role works well for this movie and I honestly cannot complain.  The only real problem I had with Fishbourne’s character resided in the script.  If you can’t figure out who he very obviously is thirty seconds after he first appears, then I can’t help you.

     Additionally, two of the students are in a troubled, but well-established relationship.  Through use of flashbacks, these two fleshed out from what would have otherwise been a stereotypical two-dimensional couple.  By the end, I came to care about the survival of their relationship even though I hadn’t considered myself attached to either of them up until that point.

     Then there are the technical designs.  This is a science fiction film that works without the use of shiny, bleeping gadgets or legions of laser-spewing space vessels.  What little there is in the way of design is concentrated into a handful of impressive visuals that left me saying, “I want one of those!”  I’m sure similar has been created by hundreds of people for a cosplay convention, but it’s still cool!  And they’re used properly, too.  You don’t even understand their purpose until the final scene.

     Finally, there’s the cinematography.  The beginning of the film is shot almost as though it was a college project and the use of first-person handicams emphasizes the crudeness of the action until it breaks out into a full-blown horror story.  All of this happens just in time to switch gears.  Suddenly the pace slows and the camera becomes stationary.  You find yourself just as confused as Nic and your brain has to adjust as though you’re watching an entirely different movie.  But this isn’t the only change.  No, sir.  The final length of the film is full of considerably more action, where the cameraman comes back to life and things start to blow up.  So your brain switches gears again, but due to the director of photography being a gracious human being we are given chaotic sequences where the action is slowed, allowing you to actually understand what you’re seeing.  Why is this important?  Because I hate jump cuts!  If you’re going to do a stunt, just commit to it.

Thank you, David Lanzenberg.
Thank you, David Lanzenberg.

     As I said, this is a great movie… right up until the end.  It was such a let down.  Unfortunately, the slew of independent films being released is continuously on the rise.  It’s not to say that they’re all bad, but… but I was always taught that there need to be elements in a story to make it complete.  Just as this story passes the upper scale of rising action, right as the climax is about to appear (or perhaps is just birthed), it ends.  I…  I just…  Where is the resolution?  The falling action?  I mean, it just ENDS?  This movie puts you through all of this conflict and gets you attached to just to say, “Haha—eff you, you film geek.  Go watch the next Sundance poopfest while I wipe myself off.”

     You know what this film really is?  It’s three episodes—broken by the change in pacing and camera work.  And the ending?  It’s a season cliff-hanger.  I can legitimately see this being filmed as a TV mini-series.  Give it five episodes, ease up on the cursing, and BAM: you’ve got a Tuesday night event for weeks to come.  And the best thing about this idea: You’d have a freaking ending!  Watch this if you will, but know that this is the kind of movie that gives birth to rage statuses.

Rating: I’d buy it if it were cheap.

Watch: If you like sci-fi, action, and Larry.  Also because Olivia Cooke is adorbs.
Don’t watch: If you need a freaking conclusion.