Posts Tagged science fiction

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Luc Besson.                    Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke, and Rihanna.

Sometimes movies should just be fun. No, I do not think it’s a good idea to turn our brains off when we watch a film; we should be conscious of whatever art we’re consuming. However, when a film spectacularly succeeds in one regard, there is nothing wrong with overlooking noticeable weaknesses in favor of its strengths.

In the case of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets those strengths are the wonderfully inventive and breathtaking visuals which permeate every frame of director Luc Besson’s wild, joy-filled thrill ride. It is unabashedly clear that he has crafted exactly the film he wanted to and could not care less what any viewers think of it, and the blatant love he has for this project and its delirious imagery is contagious. It is nearly impossible not to smile when watching an underwater hunt for a mysterious jellyfish that lives on giant dinosaurs, a chameleon-like creature called a Mul-Converter making thousands of high-powered pearls to save a planet, and a chase sequence that simultaneously occurs on a planet’s real surface and in a virtual black market.

If all that sounds crazy, it’s because it is, and the most remarkable thing is none of those would be the film’s most bonkers idea. There’s more than one possible answer to what that is, but for my money, I would answer it’s the shape-shifting alien named Bubble, played by Rihanna, whom our hero Valerian must go inside so she can act as a camouflage for them to rescue his partner Laureline. And if that doesn’t sound insane enough, we first meet Bubble being exploited by her pimp Jolly (a sinister yet comical Ethan Hawke) in a musical number with Bob Fosse-esque choreography, which completely stops the plot of the film for another wild invention of Besson’s.

The plot is utterly nonsensical, and the less time anyone spends thinking about it, the better off they will be. Thankfully, the film wastes very little time with expository dialogue or clarifying the plot, because the plot is not the driving force of this film. You either accept whatever is happening on screen at the current moment, or you don’t. Towards the end, there is an attempt to tie all the plot points together in a coherent fashion, which is the film’s biggest failure, because 1) it’s not possible to make complete sense of a story this outlandish, and 2) the focus on the plot bogs the film down with unnecessary details, stretching its runtime about twenty minutes too long.

As two special agents charged with keeping the universe safe, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne clearly enjoy themselves as Valerian and Laureline, even if their characters don’t have any defining personality traits. Their missions reference movies from Star Wars (the originals and the prequels) to Star Trek to Blade Runner with escapes down giant trash shoots, planets with underwater centers, giant computer systems that control entire planets, and the titular city of a thousand planets, which houses every species in the galaxy. The result is an all encompassing spectacle that demands to be seen in 3D on the largest screen possible. There a few films which I think benefit from 3D, but this is unquestionably one of them.

In many ways, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the film that Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 should have been. It’s more daring, more creative, and this intergalactic adventure is a lot more fun. The use of pop hits is another similarity to Guardians; the opening sequence here is underscored by David Bowie’s Space Oddity, and the perfectly synchronized montage takes us from the first space adventures of the 1960’s to the 28th Century. In that sequence alone, I had more fun than I’ve had at any movie all year, and that doesn’t relent for most of the movie.

There are many people who will understandably find the craziness of the central concept a damning flaw, but for me Besson’s symphony of imagery and visual effects more than makes up for that with its sense of originality, wild creativity, and most importantly, fun. Valerian is first and foremost about the visual world Besson wanted to build, and the film’s greatest asset is that it never forgets that, and it invites us to enjoy it as much as Besson obviously does.

 

Personal Recommendation: A-

Content advisory: Sci-fi violence and peril, some slightly suggestive costumes, and a mildly risqué dance number.                        MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

 

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Interstellar

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, and Mackenzie Foy.

Since I never published anything here, I figured there was no time like the present to share my thoughts on Interstellar, a bold and beautiful piece of filmmaking that regrettably stumbles a bit towards the end.

For anyone who does not know the premise of Interstellar, it is as follows. When the future of the earth is severely threatened with dust storms and famine, former NASA scientist and now corn famer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is chosen to lead a team of astronauts into space to search for a new planet on which mankind can survive. Staunchly opposed to this mission is Cooper’s daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy who grows up into Jessica Chastain), who fears she will never see her father again. Whether he succeeds, whether he returns home, and whether he sees his daughter again all take second place to the dazzling special effects and complex world building, until Nolan decides to shift gears in the final hour.

(Mild spoilers in the next paragraph; skip to the following one if you don’t want the ending hinted at.)

In response to the more disappointing aspects of Interstellar, I came up with a snarky dismissal which is unfair to the film’s ambition, scope, and stunning visuals, but it does convey my biggest problem with Interstellar. So here goes: apparently, it takes three hours and a black hole to accomplish what you can accomplish in five minutes with weeping angels and a TARDIS. Also, the main theme of the movie can be summarized more succinctly and just as thoughtfully by a famous Beatles’ song.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I really did like Interstellar. A lot, actually. It is undoubtedly Nolan’s most ambitious film to date, and to watch him reach for the stars is breathtaking. The first hour and 45 minutes were just short of sublime, and I was thoroughly captivated by the stunning imagery, Cooper’s quest, and the dynamics between him, his daughter, the head of NASA (Michael Caine), and his fellow astronauts (led by Anne Hathaway). The relationships don’t rise that far beyond those of the standard Hollywood blockbuster. The eventual outcome of the mission is kind of obvious, and there is a big twist that I found easy to predict, but none of that bothered me. I was completely sold on the film.

Then shortly before the two hour mark, it started to go off the rails. When Hathaway made a big, important speech, Nolan tried to leave behind the puzzle making and science fiction, and tackle emotional and spiritual themes which transcend all else. It didn’t work. The scenes are too forced, the dialogue is too on the nose, and the scenarios aren’t original enough to rise above generic conventions the way Nolan wanted to.

By no means is the last hour bad filmmaking, but it falls back on tired formulas after the first two hours had pushed forward boldly and beautifully. Still, I would pretty highly recommend Interstellar; its triumphs more than make up for its flaws. If the film failed to reach Saturn, it at least made it to Jupiter.

 

Content Advisory: Violence and peril, brief strong language.                       MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: B

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The World’s End

Year of Release: 2013     Directed by Edgar Wright.  Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Rosamund Pike.

One of the strongest and funniest aspects of The World’s End is the way that it blends genres.  The film starts out as a buddy comedy and then becomes a science fiction/horror film and then an apocalyptic thriller as well.  No genre is ever abandoned, rather each one is maintained and blended with the others as the film takes increasingly absurd turns.

The film opens with Gary King (Simon Pegg) in an alcoholics anonymous meeting recounting the “best night of his life.”  After graduating from college, he and his four buddies attempted the golden mile in their home village Newton Haven.  The golden mile is when in one evening, they would each drink one pint of beer at each one of the twelve bars, beginning at The First Post and ending at the famed World’s End.

They didn’t make it.  After nine pubs and nine pints of beer as well as several shots all five of them were completely wasted and collapsed unconscious in a nearby park.  Nearly twenty years later, Gary is living at a sobriety clinic and the other four have gotten prestigious jobs.  However, recollecting that night reminds him of his dream and ambition, and he decides there is no time like the present to attempt the golden mile again.  With carefully calculated lies and manipulations, Gary manages to talk all four of his former friends into joining him on his quest.

A large percentage of the film’s humor is derived from Gary’s narcissism as his selfishness and his alcoholism continually create more and more outlandish and dangerous situations for himself and his buddies.  The terrific chemistry between all five of the men heightens the absurdity of each situation.  Gary is so caught up with himself that he has never matured over the past twenty years.  Consequently, he has no awareness of common expressions, which is underscored by an hilarious if vulgar exchange.  Gary also obsessed over his one night stand with Samantha (Rosamund Pike), which he finally moves on from in one of the funniest Casablanca parodies I have ever seen.  Another funny scene pays tribute to Star Wars as Gary attempts to become an action hero.

Once the five friends arrive in Newton Haven, it becomes clear that the town is different than it was twenty years ago.  Gary insists that they are the same and it is the town that has changed, while the other four try to tell him that they have matured and thus a town known solely for its pubs seems different.  It is obvious that Gary has not matured, and as Andy (Nick Cross) begrudgingly says, Gary is never wrong.  Humorously playing on that repeated line, The World’s End becomes a parody of classic science fiction and horror films as the friends try to discover what is wrong with the town.

Gary’s basic personality never changes; he desires to have a good time and be the king among his friends.  In the end Gary’s free will and right to live as an alcoholic screw-up is affirmed, yet the film also shows the shallowness and selfishness of this lifestyle as well as some of the dramatic consequences.

It is a well established fact that British humor is hilarious.  The World’s End does not fail to deliver many laughs as five friends participate in a Friday night of drinking that will have the most surprising, lengthy, and memorable Monday morning.

Content Advisory: Recurring crass and obscene language, some profanity, several sexual references, fleeting rear nudity, much comic action violence, a drug reference, and frequent drinking and inebriation.                     MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults

Overall Recommendation: A

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