Saturday, 19 August 2017

Valerian and the City Of A Thousand Planets

A dark force threatens Alpha, a vast metropolis and home to species from a thousand planets. Special operatives Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.

A long time ago in our very own galaxy, Luc Besson dreamed of directing a movie version of a French comic book series. Some movie buffs even consider the source to have been an influence on George Lucas’ original Star Wars movie. This equation clearly works the other way around in Besson’s hands, as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets finds the director doing his best Star Wars impression. Trying to do something like this is bold in a marketplace that has not traditionally been very welcoming to Star Wars imitators, and even less so, to French imitators. Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is the most ambitious and colossally risky cinematic endeavour since James Cameron made Avatar.

Written as a kind of cocky intergalactic soldier, Valerian ought to be as sexy and charismatic as a young Han Solo, though Dane DeHaan, so good in brooding-emo mode, seems incapable of playing the kind of goofy insouciance that made Harrison Ford so irresistible. Despite holding the rank of major, Valerian looks like an overgrown kid. Fortunately, his co-star is cool enough for the both of them. As played by British fashion model Cara Delevingne, a revelation here: sassy, sarcastic and spontaneous. Laureline holds true to one of Besson’s core beliefs: that nothing is sexier than an assertive, empowered leading lady. Sure, she needs rescuing at times, but more often than not, she’s the one getting Valerian out of trouble. She’s just a sergeant, but every bit as capable as her commanding officer, and the film is considerably more fun when following her character. Indeed, the chemistry between the two may be odd, but they make a good team, constantly trying to prove themselves to one another while each pretending not to care.

Most of the time, Valerian is too busy following orders to question what his superiors are asking, but such blind obedience has its bounds, since the plot of Valerian concerns a vast military coverup for a cataclysm that Besson depicts in the film’s opening minutes: the near-annihilation of a seemingly primitive, yet peaceful species known as Pearls. Tall and slender, like Avatar’s Na’vi, with bald heads and iridescent opaline skin, the Pearls are the most elegant and expressive of the movie’s many computer-generated aliens. Their long limbs give them a graceful form, while their faces are nuanced enough to convey even subtle emotions. These people are a testament to just how sophisticated performance capture technology has become, even in someone other than Andy Serkis’ hands.

Luc Besson is one of the few living directors with both the ambition and the ability to establish his own universe. At a time when Star Wars itself has gone corporate, Valerian manages to be both cutting-edge and delightfully old-school; featuring a mind-blowing range of environments and stunning computer-generated alien characters. The kind of wild, endlessly creative thrill ride that only the director of The Fifth Element could deliver. The technologies used here enabled him to let loose with digital techniques he wished he'd had back on The Fifth Element. Such innovations make it possible for Besson to build upon the multiculturalism of the Star Wars series in a big way, taking the intermingling of species in a classic scene and expanding it to a vast city named Alpha, where a seemingly infinite number of aliens happily stick to their roles, while humans of all colours run the show. No doubt, there are dark and sordid Blade Runner-esque corners to this hyper-modern megalopolis, but Besson never lingers long enough for us to play more than fly-by tourist as he follows Valerian and Laureline through these various realms.

Generally speaking, Besson works at a fast pace, using dynamic framing and tight editing to convey loads of visual information. The movie is designed to propel us from one sequence to the next, and it’s remarkably effective at doing so without providing a clear notion of what the duo’s mission is supposed to be. Early on, they’re sent to Big Market, a massive virtual-reality bazaar where Valerian manages to retrieve an adorable, ultra-rare creature known as a Mül Converter, which can make copies of anything it ingests, from a Jabba the Hutt-like black trader voiced by John Goodman. This is when the movie kicks in, which is where audiences first feel like we are discovering a truly visionary new environment for the first time. Though Luc Besson manages to sustain that effect throughout the film’s time on Alpha.

Finally, the promises are faithfully kept, but there is so much more going on. To say that Valerian is a science-fiction epic doesn’t quite do it justice. Imagine crushing a DVD of The Phantom Menace into a fine powder, tossing in some Ecstasy and a pinch of pepper for the colour and snorting the resulting mixture while wearing a virtual reality helmet in a Las Vegas karaoke bar. That sounds like too much fun, but you get the idea.

Overall, you should applaud Luc Besson as this is a world-building where not even the sky is the limit and every frame is stuffed with a mad-genius invention.

Sunday, 6 August 2017


Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in WWII.

Steven Spielberg laid claim to the Normandy beach landing, Clint Eastwood owns Iwo Jima, and now, Christopher Nolan has authored the definitive cinematic version of Dunkirk. Unlike those other battles, however, this last was not a conventional victory, but more of a salvaged retreat, as the German offensive forced a massive evacuation of English troops early in World War II. Christopher Nolan’s new film may be his The Longest Day, and it is also very close to being his shortest film. In fact, at a mere 106 minutes, Dunkirk is the first Nolan movie to dip beneath two hours. Nolan’s Dunkirk has that kind of blazing big-screen certainty that I last saw in James Cameron’s Titanic. It is very different to his previous feature, the bafflingly overhyped sci-fi convolution Interstellar. This movie is a powerful, superbly crafted film with a story to tell, avoiding war porn in favour of something desolate and apocalyptic, a beachscape of shame, littered with soldiers zombified by defeat.

Dunkirk thrusts you into a pressure cooker and slams the lid on. It doesn’t have anything like the gore environment of Saving Private Ryan, but that doesn’t lessen its power. The scenario is simple — hellishly simple even. But if the movie’s set-up is basic, its structure is anything but basic. No filmmaker is as fascinated by time as Christopher Nolan is, or as keen at playing with it, and here he applies the temporal trickiness he pioneered with Inception, intercutting three timelines that move at different speeds. The result, as perspectives converge and overtake each other, is meticulous and mesmerising. And, in the case of a sequence which cuts between two characters trying not to drown, almost unbearably stressful.

Dunkirk is first and foremost a mood-piece and a hugely effective one. It doesn’t hurt that Hans Zimmer is on brilliant form, his score throbs like a heart and ticks like an angry stopwatch, so nerve-wracking that at times it feels like an additional enemy front. Nolan is concerned with what men can endure. Dunkirk is a study of people under immense pressure, from Rylance’s civilian-on-a-rescue-mission to Cillian Murphy’s traumatised wreck-survivor, to Harry Styles’ bolshy infantry grunt. An impressive debut performance, and definitely not the Rihanna-in-Battleship debacle you may have feared. At this darkest of hours, some of them crack; others hold firm. But all the arcs are effectively underplayed, with muted performances, no big speeches and, in the case of Tommy, the terrified audience surrogate, almost no talking at all.

The film is, of course, on a massive Nolanesque scale. Dunkirk is traditionally seen in terms of a miraculous underdog littleness that somehow redeemed the disaster. The small boats countered the memory of a British army dwarfed by Wehrmacht strategy and a British establishment humiliated. Though, Nolan gets the “wow” factor back by stripping away the pixels, shooting real Spitfires above the real English Channel. The results are incredible, particularly on the vast expanse of an IMAX screen, with the planes veering and soaring above a mass of blue. Indeed, where it does deliver on the action is in the sky. Today’s audiences have spent decades watching digital dogfights in Star Wars movies, themselves originally inspired by World War II movies. Finally, it almost feels wrong to say that a film about a situation so grave – which involved so much loss of life – is utterly thrilling, but it just is. Nolan handles the subject matter with absolute respect, but his set pieces equal any modern fiction film for pacing, shocks and breathless adrenaline. Literally: there are times where it actually feels difficult to breathe.

Overall, Dunkirk is a war film like few others, one that may employ a large and expensive canvas but that conveys the whole through isolated, brilliantly realized, often private moments more than via sheer spectacle, although that is here too.