Film Review: Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets

This article was first published to The Edge on 7th August 2017

The first thing that you should know about Luc Besson’s return to the space opera genre, two decades after The Fifth Element split critics and gained cult status, is that he hasn’t set out to do anything differently in Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets. This isn’t like any other major blockbuster released this year. In its structure, characters and imagination, Valerian does things differently. Its closest counterpart this year is, coincidentally, another Dane DeHaan starrer, Gore Verbinski’s A Cure For Wellness. They’re both apparently carte blanche films for eccentric directing talents, which end up as lopsided, thoroughly weird beasts.

Whatever technologies, aliens or worlds you believe you’ve seen in every other space opera, Besson’s not only gone a step beyond with his visions here, he’s brought ten new visions atop every recycled one. The superb opening mixes a humanistic vision through international cooperation, with colourfully diverse realisations of humanity’s future (with reference made to Afro-futurism), followed by decidedly non-anthropomorphic alien races strutting Besson’s catwalk. Soundtracked to Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, it’s grounded in a shared past, literally expanding borders of nations and of cinema to create a future that’s at once outlandish and almost mundane in its familiarity. It’s a masterwork, establishing elaborate backstory through simplistic staples of film language. And Besson’s only warming up.

Part of the fun is in not expecting how strange the worlds of Valerian are. Even a small selection of what’s on offer isn’t enough to sell the at once surreal and lived-in universe on display. The seatbelts on our heroes’ ship activate when they make a crucifixion pose; a desert planet mixes the popular teal and orange colour palette into its very sand; a tourist resort on the same planet is situated in an alternate dimension where the clunky 70s style technology which grants access brushes against a neo-noir vibrancy from a dystopic future; an alien species with the same stature and serenity  as Avatar’s Na’vi make ritual contributions using a lizard-chinchilla’s duplicating bowels; the converging cultures and environments on eponymous space station Alpha are showcased via a Oner that follows Dane DeHaan’s space cop Major Valerian charging directly through it.

Truly fresh and individual worlds are rare, as are the “Wow!” moments which come with them. Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is so stuffed with invention that it alternates between childlike glee in the display, and an almost blasé, matter-of-fact relationship with its treasures. But make no mistake – the showcase is entirely the point. Which means the plot is the secondary experience. What little there is follows Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevigne) as they work to uncover a mysterious entity at the heart of Alpha that threatens all life aboard the station.

However, the vast majority of incidence is the result of Valerian or partner Laureline (Cara Delevigne) being side-tracked, kidnapped, and stalled by setbacks. It’s a practically screwball story of two dedicated work partners constantly being separated to farcical degree. Besson pleasingly doesn’t bother to keep up the pretence, almost immediately dropping the conspiracy in favour of a far more open approach, where the audience has all the immediate information that every character does. Structurally, this is great for the universe, and for the film’s pacing; but once Besson reveals every card, along with the characters’ and film’s hearts for examination, it’s too late. The balance of plot vs. story just isn’t right.

Part of the trouble is casting. Delevigne is remarkable in her role as Laureline, acting as both Valerian’s moral anchor, object of affection, and capable partner-in-space-copping. Whilst she gets the opportunity to let that cool dismissiveness slip intentionally (hello psychic jellyfish!), DeHaan is not allowed the same luxury. Casting someone who appears the same age as the romantic interest as the character which more traditional pulp narratives would have at several years Laureline’s senior is perhaps Besson attempting to subvert those masculine tropes, but this causes a separate issue: DeHaan is very good at playing weird characters in typically ideally masculine roles, but that only works for him if the masculine ideal is just a mask. His Valerian comes off as a stubborn, cocky kid in a James Bond fantasy, except he’s genuinely as skilled as the fantasy version he’s playing at. The character arc is supposed to be about him showing the emotional vulnerability to Laureline that proves he’s not a posturing boy, but this realisation doesn’t arrive until halfway through the narrative, and it’s never paid off in convincing actions. It leaves us two cocky and capable protagonists, only one of whom gets to be vulnerable, and make the balance work.

When Besson arrives at the film’s point, he comes across a little behind the times – we’re about 20 years past two-dimensional discussions of indigenous cultures’ “wisdom” compared to Western, colonialist militarism – and that’s before you factor in the white saviorism. Thing is, as frustratingly condescending as the portrayal can be, there are loads of fascinating ideas to be found here: how Western society likes to remember or forget other people’s tragedies, the vitality that comes with interconnected cultures, and what being vulnerable means when you job is to be a badass. So much of this is brought up or addressed, yet it’s done so in the clumsiest, most dialogue-heavy way possible. Besson’s heart is always in its humanist, forward-thinking place; that doesn’t do much to deafen its thunderingly clunky beating.

Still, there’s a sugar rush excitement that comes with Besson’s slickly choreographed set-pieces, each finding a way to elicit its own moment of pure, dumbfounding joy. You truly will not see another blockbuster of this mind-boggling scale and invention all year; more to the point, whatever she does in Ocean’s Eight next year, it’s in this film that you’ll see Rihanna perform her butt off in about 9 distinct, unashamedly kinky outfits, so, there’s that.

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate Pictures. Certificate 12A.

Review: Moonlight

This article was first published to The Edge on 13th February 2017

There’s a song that plays at the very beginning of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. Before anyone is seen, over the company credits only, we hear the refrain of Boris Gardiner’s ‘Every N****r Is a Star’. It’s a cut that’ll be familiar to anyone who heard Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, where it is also the very first thing the listener hears; the film the song originally came from, and its soundtrack album, were flops upon their initial release, but the power of Gardiner’s words has resonated long in underground music circles. Continue reading

Review: The Autopsy Of Jane Doe

This article was first published to The Edge on 31st January 2017

I’m by no means the person to ask about the history of horror in film, but you don’t have to be an expert to notice the subtext trend in the genre’s most recent successes. The Babadook is about depression and grief. The Witch is about fear of femininity and powers that a masculine worldview doesn’t understand. The Invitation, also about depression and grief. Last summer’s surprise hit Lights Out is concerned with the same, and the pain that families both hide and pass onto each generation. The Autopsy Of Jane Doe touches on all of these and more. It’s far from the best of the bunch, but it’s a punchy addition to the canon, bridging the gap between eerie chamber pieces like The Invitation, the atmospheric restraint of The Witch, and inevitably the more schlocky, booming crowd-pleaser tradition of Lights Out. It makes for a compelling, somewhat jarring stylistic and thematic cocktail. Continue reading

Film Review: American Honey

This article was originally published to The National Student on 10th October 2016

When Star (Sasha Lane) meets Jake (Shia LaBouef) he proposes that she join him and his friends in their work as a travelling magazine sales crew, in Andrea Arnold’s latest Cannes triumph. 

Their instant spark convinces her to abandon the broken and impoverished home life she leads in Kansas, and set out with the team. Under the watchful eye of the white trash queen bitch Krystal (Riley Keough), she travels the south and Midwest of America, selling subscriptions and experiencing a greater amount of life than she previously had. But as she pursues a relationship with Jake, her newfound freedom and family is placed in increasingly precarious situations.  Continue reading

Film Review: Nerve

This article was originally published to The National Student on 27th July 2016

★★★★☆

You’d be hard pressed to think of a film from the last year that opens with a scene more on-the-nose as Nerve.

NerveEmma Roberts’ Vee is procrastinating on her Macbook, Facebook stalking her high school’s football star, and listening to “sick choons” on Spotify. We see close ups of her cursor as it hovers over various icons; it waits temptingly over the “Like” button for her crush’s photo; we see her biting her lip, her facial movements tentative in extreme close-up; Vee gets a Facetime call from her best friend Sydney (Emily Meade). Continue reading

Justice League, Wonder Woman, Blair Witch and all the other best trailers from San Diego Comic-Con

This article was originally published to The National Student on 24th July 2016

Every July, film studios flock to San Diego Comic-Con, the biggest event of its kind in the world, to show off their latest productions to the nerdiest people in the world.

In recent years, to side step the piracy problem, those same studios have been releasing the footage they show there to the general public, within a few hours.

We’ve collected the best (or otherwise) footage revealed in the famed Hall H from the last few days, of the films you should know about over the next year.

Spoiler – there’s a lot of superheroes… Continue reading

Film Review: Star Trek Beyond

It’s difficult to imagine the recent abundance of spacefaring films existing without the success of J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot. Since then, Guardians Of The Galaxy, The Martian, and more, have boldly gone where Gene Roddenberry went first. The latter film especially, displayed the same ambitious vision of humanity as the original series: an unfailingly diverse set of people, using their problem solving abilities to save people, inspiring the planet at the same time. As much fun as Abrams’ first film in the franchise was, it’s always been more Star Wars than Star Trek; Into Darkness may as well have been any post-9/11 fear-infused action film, despite its ill-founded homaging of Wrath Of Khan. After that slight misfire, Paramount chose Justin Lin to replace Abrams. As a director known best for his orchestration of the unabashedly silly Fast & Furious films, it would be easy to dismiss him. It would also be wrong. Star Trek Beyond brings the en-vogue Pop fun of Guardians Of The Galaxy and the same hopeful attitude that The Martian wowed audiences with. It’s undeniably a modern blockbuster, yet it’s also the most classically Star Trek thing to wear the label in decades. Continue reading

Film Review: Warcraft: The Beginning

This article was first published to The Edge on 12th June 2016

It’s incredibly easy to spot the difference between a film which makes big strides in the name of a studio’s cynical interests, and one where risks are taken by a truly talented filmmaker straining his every muscle to create something special under the weight of studio expectations. Duncan Jones’ third directorial feature is exactly in line with the latter category – his determination and vision in creating the Orcs in Warcraft: The Beginning alone, is the sort of landmark for CGI and motion capture that would be impossible to find in another director’s stab at this material. Continue reading

Film Review: Race

This article was originally published to The Edge on 9th June 2016

There’s a true, convincing love story at the heart of this biopic; but it isn’t the one between Jesse Owens (Stephan James) and Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton). It’s the one between Owens and his coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Buoyed by immensely charismatic, emotional and empathetic performances from the two, the relationship grows as many coach-player relationships do in sports movies: from an aloof coach with the optimistic, often outsider player, into mutual respect and then a true friendship. It’s standard stuff, but at its best Race makes it work like gangbusters. By the halfway mark, as coach and runner make the Transatlantic voyage to Berlin for the Olympics, a small gesture by Snyder to stay below deck with Owens cements their bond. In fact, it’s something of a surprise that both men can make it through the events of the film without actually kissing. Continue reading