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: Imagine Dragons – Evolve

This article was first published by The Edge on 15th July 2017

Can it really be only four and a half years since Imagine Dragons’ debut album Night Visions took our world by storm? The band that future historians will cite as the biggest influence on the soundtracking and promotion of films and TV in the 2010s (perhaps next to only Lana Del Rey) will neither go away nor succeed in proving that they matter. Be honest with yourself – did you know there was a third Imagine Dragons album released in June? Did you know that in the last year they had released songs other than disposable made-for-movie-soundtrack singles like ‘Sucker For Pain’ and ‘Levitate’? Did you know they are the 10th most popular act worldwide on Spotify, with nearly double the monthly listens of cited “Similar Artist” OneRepublic? Continue reading

Review: Tove Styrke – ‘Say My Name’

This article was first published by The Edge on 25th May 2017

Simplicity is the modern-day hallmark of a good summer song – just look at ‘Closer‘ by The Chainsmokers, ‘This Girl’ by Kungs, and, going back a little further, Felix Jaehn‘s remix of ‘Cheerleader’ by OMI. Swedish pop star Tove Styrke(because all the hot young female stars are Scandinavian these days) has certainly got one eye on sun-soaked structural simplicity with the addictive melody of ‘Say My Name,’ but it’s the combination of sparse arrangement and eye-catching sounds that make this so smoothly explosive.

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Review: Harry Styles – Harry Styles

This article was first published by The Edge on 23rd May 2017

It would be the act of an ignoramus to say that a singer fresh from boyband megastardom would be looking to break a few rules and taboos in beginning a solo career – didn’t we discuss this last year, with ZAYN’s almost embarrassingly smouldering Mind Of Mine? One can assume that former bandmate Harry Styles, as a real human being and not a simple marketing device, wants to do the same. And that’s exactly what he’s done, but his aim’s somewhere far left of the R&B favoured by Malik. Continue reading

On Edge: Anticipating Iron Fist

This article was first published by The Edge on 14th March 2017

Despite its arrival on the 17th of March, less than a week away, the excitement surrounding Iron Fist has long been wanting. I’m very unsure of what this show will be*. We’re four seasons into the Netflix-Marvel experiment, which shows no signs of slowing down, despite some obvious flaws. Two seasons of Daredevil, one apiece for Jessica Jonesand Luke Cage (the last of which debuted just last September) have brought us to 2017, with the last of the Defenders set for his own show, before their coalescence in the summer. So, what do we know, and what might we expect from the debut of Danny Rand? Continue reading

Review: You Me Her (Season 1)

This article was first published by The Edge on 9th March 2017

There’s a great question at the heart of You Me Her – exactly how much can one person love two people? Jack (Greg Poehler) and Emma (Rachel Blanchard) are a suburban couple in Portland, Oregon, suffering from unsatisfying sex. Through a series of increasingly bad decisions, including dumb advice, betrayal, and cyber-stalking, the couple meet Izzy (Priscilla Faia), a 25-year old law student moonlighting as an escort. They quickly become enamoured with her, and vice versa, but suburban Portland might not be ready for a polyamorous relationship such as theirs.

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Review: The Chainsmokers & Coldplay – “Something Just Like This

This article was first published to The Edge on 23rd February 2017

Jesus, are we still doing it with The Chainsmokers? I hate to bring white supremacy into the discussion less than two sentences in, but just because someone has a smash summer hit doesn’t give them the right to suddenly be appearing on awards shows, performing with once reputable acts – they ruined Halsey less than a year after her debut album blew up, and now they’ve come for Coldplay, the dukes of safe, warm pop. I don’t remember this happening for that OMI fellow when the dull ‘Cheerleader’ remix came out fifty years ago. Why, back in my day… nope, white folks have always got tons of airtime for the stunningly mediocre.

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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