Sunday, July 23, 2017

And the sixth element, it turns out, is poop


The Death of Story continues, but Valerian offers more than story.  It gives us a heaping helping of gorgeously wonderful (and gloriously stupid) visuals, too.  You can call it good, if you want to; but it's sort of beyond that type of categorization.

Written and directed by Luc Besson
With Dane DeHaan (Valerian), Cara Delevingne (Laureline), Sasha Luss (Princess Liho-Minaa), Rihanna (Bubble), Ethan Hawke (Jolly the Pimp), John Goodman (Igon Siruss), and Clive Owen (Commander Arun Filitt)

Spoiler alert: moderate

I won't feign detachment.  I was more excited for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets than anything else this whole season.  It was to be a year-defining masterpiece, the new space opera to beat them all.  And 2017, you know, is a year positively bursting at the seams with big-ticket space opera—it may be the most space operatic year in film history, assuming you measure such things objectively (that is, in constant dollars).  But no fewer than three of them are ongoing Disney franchises; one of them was Alien: CovenantValerian, then, had the advantage of being pure potential—an adaptation of Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres' epochal Valerian et Laureline, the most important comic book I'd never even heard of, let alone actually read.

Everything I've read about Christin and Mezieres' long-running series, however, suggests that we're not looking at the most faithful adaptation possible, despite the obvious long-nurtured love that went into its production.  For one thing, there's not a whisper about time travel.  (And if you can read V+L's Wikipedia page, and not immediately think, "this is Star Trek Meets Doctor Who," then congratulations, bro, you can probably toss a proper spiral.)  Meanwhile, Galaxity, the comics' Earthbound central setting, doesn't appear to be mirrored especially well in this film's titular City of a Thousand Planets.  And, finally, there's Laureline herself (left out of the title, presumably out of deep cynicism), who neither quite emerges as the stronger of our mismatched duo—nor is she anything very close to the timenapped 11th century peasant girl she started out as.

Maybe I missed a line?

Anyway, I note the differences mostly out of a curiosity about what could have been; my own preemptive love for Valerian, as I said, rested upon a foundation of air, not familiarity.  Still, it was a heartfelt enthusiasm that gripped me: Valerian, I had faith, was to be writer-director Luc Besson's long-awaited redemption, a return to the only genre that had ever actually made him great in the first place.  The cinema du look sub-maestro was, after years in a garbage-strewn wilderness of his own making, going to give us what only the man behind The Fifth Element ever could: a garish, gaudy, stupidly earnest and impossibly fun journey into the psychedelic sci-fi dreamscape that had held him in thrall since childhood.  It was to be something no Disney product or lazy Ridley Scott thrillmaker could ever match in its sheer, auteur purity.

The lesson is to be careful what I wish for, but such is, indeed, exactly what the man delivers.  And for a spell, it is truly something.  The 3-D Europa logo spools out, and the most obvious music in the universe cues up—and, honest, it brought actual tears to my eyes.  Valerian begins with a vertiginous montage, a chronicle of our utopian space city and its origins.  It grows, one iconic handshake in space after another, shared first between humans of rival nations, then between their descendants and the aliens yet to come.  All who arrive at the sprawling station are made into friends, with one simple gesture that never stops being lightly comic, or genuinely moving, or both at the same time.  I could've watched two whole hours of just this; all Besson needed was the rights to a dozen more Bowie songs.

It represents Valerian's mission statement—its intention to be a movie ripped body and soul straight from of the 1970s, and shined till absolutely gleaming with $200 million worth of modern special effects, without one iota of its essence being lost.  This is why Besson's celebration of human progress and pan-cosmic fraternity comes packaged first in bracing racial stereotypes, then in patent nonsense.  This is why Besson shamelessly, defiantly decides to score it against something as monumentally overplayed as "Space Oddity."  And this is why all of it nevertheless works so fucking well.  The only misstep here at all is that, as the cobbled-together space city grows and threatens the very physical integrity of the Earth, Besson shifts to some ill-advised verbal exposition, apparently to make even plainer what he was already communicating through the effortless clarity of pristine visuals.  It would be unfair to ask Valerian to ever top its prologue.  It might not be unfair, though, to ask Besson to have stuck to his pristine visuals.  (Not that they remain so pristine, mind you.)  But Valerian keeps up your grotesquely-swollen expectations for a little while at least, as it shifts to its second, and more plot-essential, prologue.

Presently we find ourselves upon a distant planet, populated by a lithe and winsome race of iridescent pearl-fishers.  It is an overt cartoon, and pleasing to the eye; it hits a snag, however, once the pets of this race are revealed to be this film's categorically-unacceptable maguffin, a "Muel coverter"—that is, a species of little dragon-dog things that literally shit out multiple copies of whatever they eat (and by way of an even more baffling visual effect).  But this is only the moment where you realize that Valerian lacks any filter whatsoever, which might have helped it differentiate between those space operatic notions which are stupidly cool, and those which are merely stupidly embarrassing.  (This ratio, of course, is the scale upon which space opera is measured.  Star Wars and Flash Gordon hit it 100%;, Jupiter Ascending, rest the Wachowskis' weary souls, but 10 or 20.  Valerian shall slice it right down the middle.)  It is a brief moment, anyway; with the extinction of this planet and its dumbassed biosphere, brought about by the crash of starships that are as mysterious to us as they are to the edenic natives, Valerian roars back into the running.

It stays there for thirty, maybe even forty whole seconds, too, before our leads (portrayed, respectively, by model-actor, Dane DeHaan, and actor-model, Cara Delevingne) begin to talk to one another.  We were speaking of equanimity.  So I suppose it would also be unfair to say Valerian ever gets any worse than its main characters' introductions.

But now the plot, or "plot," can finally begin: Valerian and Laureline report for duty, and are sent to steal the last survivor of the Muel converters from a silly space pirate with an even sillier gun.  They do so with aplomb, amidst an interdimensional mall (again, this movie is so 70s).  It recalls Futurama's Internet, only Valerian delivers the same basic idea with vastly more interesting action mechanics.

It's certainly of a piece: the whole movie recalls Babylon 5, only Valerian delivers that same basic idea with vastly more money.

The team succeeds (sort of) and brings their prize back to Alpha, our previously-glimpsed city of a thousand planets.  But Valerian has had an experience that's hard to explain—visions of a world dying—and it slowly begins to dawn upon him that it has something to do with the precious rare animal he's retrieved, especially once a team of alien commandos try to steal it.  Valerian and Laureline devote themselves to getting to the bottom of all this intrigue, and thus does an adventure across the multitudinous metropolis ensue.

It is, and this is fitting, fiercely episodic: there is an exceedingly rough start-and-stop momentum to the story Besson's telling.  (It's beyond astonishing to learn that his script was re-written several times, over the course of years, quite possibly dating as far back as his brief collaboration with Mezieres himself during pre-production on The Fifth Element.)  It means that Valerian is, at best, only ever as strong as its individual vignettes, and this is a problem; it also means that Besson couldn't care less about transitioning between those vignettes, and this is a huge problem.  (And it's a disappointment, too, since The Fifth Element's most endearing quality, besides its silly ingenuity, really is its forward drive.)

But ultimately, what it means is that it's hard-unto-impossible to forgive the bad parts by mere reference to the good ones—because practically none of them particularly matter in relationship to one another.  There are many bad parts, unfortunately.  Sometimes they're embedded inextricably into the good ones: if Besson wants to have a hot alien blob monster who looks like Rihanna do a quick-change/shape-shifting striptease—whilst Ethan Hawke wiggles in the background—that's fair enough, but if the character becomes a sidekick to our heroes, then she probably ought to be a meaningful addition to their team.  At least on the level of a sexy Chewbacca.

Consider just the central narrative itself, if you even want to call it that: Valerian has been afflicted with the holocaustal memories of a dead alien princess (and I mean literally Holocaustal—the number "six million" is mentioned), but if Valerian is wrestling with the katra of a fallen telepath here (or wrestling with anything, besides trying to figure out the best way to stare at CGI) neither Besson, nor DeHaan, nor the script itself seem to remember this quite often enough for the audience to do so much as suspect.

In the meantime, the actual dramatic arc (again, if you want to call it that) spins around Valerian and Laureline's strange, retrograde love affair—Valerian pursues Laureline, Laureline rebuffs him, for she hardly believes his marauding polygamy could be checked by something as flimsy as a statement of commitment—and Valerian's throwback, actually-rather-sexist feminism is something that might've been charming in a nostalgic kind of way, if only either Laureline or Valerian came across as more interesting iterations of their type.  They're certainly both pretty—unnervingly so, like anime characters, and I mention it because I think it's important to Besson's scheme—but nobody is pretty enough to redeem Besson's "insert feelings and themes here" brand of dialogue, dopey and inconsistent enough to make The Fifth Element, not exactly a beacon of screenwriting brilliance, look like solid melodrama.  Critics have been harsh upon DeHaan and Delevingne (and they're not wrong), but I'd like to present an open question to them, in the voice of Harrison Ford: Luc Besson may be able to write this shit, but what actors could say it?

Valerian and Laureline have their moments, though.  It keeps their unlegendary romance from falling into complete oblivion.  There's a certain bit, involving a deliriously stupid mistake on Laureline's part, that Valerian shrugs off, with confident nonchalance, and this moment—probably the only legitimately great line, definitely the only legitimately great line read, in Valerian's whole attempt at blockbuster immortality—sells their relationship as vital and desirable, more than any number (an uncountable number) of Valerian's half-assed leers, advances, and marriage proposals ever could.

It's still Besson's best film in years—a compliment so backhanded I could break a knuckle on it, I know.  In truth, Besson's storyelling chops have only incrementally improved from his last exercise in sci-fi self-degradation, Lucy.  (The ending just keels over and dies: on one hand, it's illegible in a basic sense, as a cinematic document of what the fuck was supposed to have happened, and the best I can figure out is that the last five minutes of the climax, which are boring anyway, needn't have actually occurred; on the other hand, Valerian reveals itself as an inutterably lazy rip-off of Avatar.  The latter isn't even a tiny surprise, obviously, given what those aforementioned edenic natives look like; but it's done with such palpable insincerity that it makes you reevaluate how much authenticity even Late Cameron could still deliver.  The short version, anyway, is that this is a movie that begins with a pair of borderline-sociopaths, actively brushing off the death of their entire field team with an annoyed comment about a torn dress, and then, two hours later, it simply teleports its characters to a point where we're expected to believe they have empathy now.)

But if I'm criticizing Besson's storytelling, I am, in a sense, begging the question.  Valerian does not exist primarily to tell a story (though it would've been a plus).  It exists to exhibit its kaleidoscopic, psychotic sci-fi universe, and it does this surpassingly well.  Not every idea works.  But the ones that do are beautiful, kinetic, sometimes sublime.  I would never recommend it, at least not to anybody who wasn't already in the bag—but I do like it.  I even love it, I think, albeit as quietly (and ambivalently) as I possibly could.

Score:  6/10


  1. I'm with you on this one. This movie color- and costume-designed its way into my heart within its first two minutes. Yet the only cameo perfomances I liked were those of Mathieu Kassovitz and Alain Chabat. The most apropos cameo was that of Jessica Rabbit: Besson's 15-year-old id supplies a Chuck Jones menagerie that all-too-easily embarrasses The Phantom Menace's castrated version of Roger Rabbit. I mean, is it just me, or do Laureline's flamboyant simian captors deserve at least some of the praise heaped on Andy Serkis's motion-capture bathos? I even think I prefer Cara Delevingne's smirking American brass to Daisy Ridley's lonely awakening of Keira Knightley's force. Besson's 3D images somehow seemed to manage more photographic physicality than the digitally-flattened landscapes of Mad Max: Fury Road.

    Like others of his generation, I think Besson has inevitably lost something by opening Pandora's digital cartoon paintbox. In his case, it's the simple pleasures of watching human hams like Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, and Chris Tucker, squeezed into burlesque friction by a fish-eye futurism. Still, Besson's designers yet retain the artistic license of which castrated Hollywood licensing can hardly dream.

    1. It's just you. Serkis rocks. Daisy Ridley, meanwhile... yeah, I don't know why anybody found her more than "basically okay" in The Force Awakens.

      I know now that Jessica Rabbit's in this movie, but I definitely didn't see it. Whatever else is wrong with Valerian, it's definitely visually stuffed. Regarding the 3D, I did actually see it in that format, which I haven't done for a movie since Gravity. (It is not the equal, by half, of Gravity.) But I did enjoy it, even if I generally prefer to keep it as a novelty experience.

      As for the comparison between the mostly-practical world of The Fifth Element and the anything-goes CGI of Valerian, I 100% agree. Would the Mul folks have been cooler as practical creations? One strongly suspects this to be the case. (Would this movie have benefited overall from having been made in 1999 or so, and reteaming Willis and Jovovich? God yes. Tucker could've played Bubble.)

    2. One note on Serkis, though: I still haven't seen War for the Planet of the Apes. I do assume he's amazing in it.

  2. I haven't even seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but I did enjoy Rise of the Planet of the Apes, mostly as the best Boomer update I can imagine of both Frankenstein and King Kong. Serkis's first line in that movie had a hilariously consistent effect of rousing audiences out of their own pre-verbal state. The first time I saw the movie, a fellow theatergoer exclaimed, "He talked!" At my second screening, right on cue, I heard: "¡El habló!" Talk about chimpan-see, chimpan-do.

    In Valerian, Jessica Rabbit was herself a practical creation: she's the last of the parading streetwalkers to eyeball DeHaan. Speaking of DeHaan, I was rather gratified to see him cast so defiantly against type, both physical and psychopathic. But instead of a personal trainer, he really needed a Yiddish vaudeville coach to shake him out of the baby-Brando school and into the spirit of the proceedings. If his leers were less half-assed, we could have had something like an inversion of the Willis-Jovovich dynamic.

    Still, a movie that plays like Avatar-meets-Who-Framed-Roger-Rabbit? (or, "Pepé Le Pew and Barbarella in: Head-Trip at Nuremburg") must be seen, if only to be believed.

    I was lucky to finally catch Gravity at a 3D revival recently, and the patience and symbolism of its images will be hard to top, like Hitchcock dreaming of Apollo 13. I share your love of the directorial long-take. Check out Love & Mercy, if you haven't yet.

    1. I've heard only good things about it, and it's on Amazon Prime, so why not?

      Glad you got to see Gravity on a big screen and in the proper format. (I'll be the first to admit that it loses impact on a regular HDTV, though it's still a peerless experience.) The way that movie's subsided in people's imaginations is a real shame. Reminds me, too, I need to catch up with Life.

  3. What? Laureline is an Arthur Dent in this universe? I can't say this movie was aiming for that, but then again I'm not sure the movie is aware that Laureline exists.

    Or at least, when it does, it's exactly the retrograde feminism you describe. Are we really still doing "women change their minds easily" jokes? This is 2017, Mr. Besson.

    1. But they put her in that amazing hat. (Two, if you count the jellyfish.) They totally respect Laureline!

      There's still a better than even chance I'm buying the stupid thing.

    2. OK, yeah that hat was the best character in the entire movie. No argument here.