Playing Catch Up With The Films of 2017: Valerian and the City Of A Thousand Planets (dir by Luc Besson)

Valerian and the City Of A Thousand Planets is another film, much like The Dark Tower and this year’s Transformers movie, that I watched in a state of total and thorough confusion.

More than once, I asked myself, “What the Hell’s going on?  Who are those people?  Why are they blowing stuff up?  Why are they shooting at each other?  Who’s fighting who?  Wait, is he a good guy or a bad guy?  Is Valerian human or alien?  WHAT’S GOING ON!?”

But I have to admit that it really didn’t bother me that Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets is an almost totally incoherent movie.  After all, Valerian is a Luc Besson film and Besson has always been a supreme stylist above all else.  That’s not to say that there’s nothing going on underneath the glossy visuals of a Besson film.  It’s just to say that Besson is one of the rare directors where the subtext is usually less interesting than what’s happening on the surface.

Take Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  It takes place in the far future, on Alpha.  Alpha used to be the International Space Station but now it’s become a floating city where the inhabitants of a thousand different planets mix and socialize.  It’s a very cosmopolitan city, one where the only disturbance comes from obnoxious human tourists who are all either extremely British or extremely American.  Now, you could argue that Besson is making the argument that Alpha is meant to represent France but, if you spend too much time doing that, you’re going to miss just how amazingly Alpha has been visualized.  It’s not just that everyone in the movie says that Alpha is home to a million different creatures.  It’s that when the film travels to Alpha, you take one look at the screen and you believe it.

The film’s plot … well, this is where it gets difficult. It gets off to a truly brilliant beginning, with an intergalactic summit that takes place while David Bowie’s Space Oddity plays in the background.  After that, the film’s visuals were so amazing that I have to admit that I was usually too busy taking it all in to pay much attention to what was actually going on.  Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne) are members of the special police force that has been created to protect Alpha and apparently the rest of the universe as well.  Valerian has strange dreams about a primitive race of people who live on a beach.  Laureline frets about Valerian’s recent proposal of marriage.  They’ve both been assigned to track down a creature, the last of its species, that is currently being sold in a black market.  It all links back to some secrets concerning their superior (Clive Owen) and a plot involving intergalactic refugees.

And, obviously, if you’re someone who insists on finding political subtext in every movie that you watch, there’s a lot to be found in Valerian‘s story about space refugees and government cover-ups.  But, honestly, none of that is as interesting as the effort that Besson has put into making his flamboyant universe come to life.  Valerian may be narratively incoherent but visually, it come close to proving Lucio Fulci’s theory of “absolute film.”  The plot is less important than the film’s visuals and how you, as the viewer, reacts to those visuals.  Even Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne seem to have been cast less for any acting ability they may have and more because the boyishly rugged DeHaan and the achingly pretty Delevingne both compliment the film’s visual scheme.  Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is cinematic pop art.

Film Review: Battleship (dir. by Peter Berg)

For nearly a year now, we’ve been seeing teasers and trailer for the film Battleship and we’ve all smirked and laughed.  “Really?  A film based on an old board game?  Alien battleships that look like they’ve escaped from a Transformers film?  Action scenes that look like Battle L.A.?  AND LIAM NEESON!?”

Yes, we’ve all been prepared to hate this film.  In fact, the most popular thing I ever tweeted (RT’d by 22 people within minutes of being posted, I might add) was a joke about how Battleship looked like it was a film specifically made for people who thought Battle L.A. was too complicated.  So, after all this build up, I finally saw Battleship on Friday and you know what?

While I wasn’t one of the many people who applauded at the end of the movie, I actually kind of enjoyed it.

(Does that make me a bad person?)

Battleship is the story of two brothers, a somber-looking admiral, and an alien invasion.  Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard) is a Commander in the U.S. Navy.  In a genuinely amusing scene, his irresponsible younger brother Alex (Taylor Kitsch) is arrested while breaking into a closed convenience store so he can get a chicken burrito for Samantha Shane (Brooklyn Decker, a great name) who is the daughter of Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson).  Stone arranges for Alex to avoid jail by joining the U.S. Navy.

Jump forward seven years and Alex is now a lieutenant, engaged to Samantha, and hated by his future father-in-law.  When five alien ships crash into the ocean, both Stone and Alex Hopper are on the battleships sent out to investigate.  They quickly discover that the aliens are not friendly and soon, the future of humanity rests on the untested shoulders of Alex Hopper.  Well, Alex Hopper and a street-wise sailor played by Rihanna…

I really, really expected that I was going to hate Battleship and I was even kind of looking forward to coming back to the TSL Bunker and writing up my snarkiest post since my review of Avatar.  Therefore, imagine just how shocked I was as I watched the actual film and discovered that it’s actually not that bad of a time waster.  Yes, the film is predictable and the script is full of clichés and dumb dialogue but the difference between Battleship and Battle L.A. is that Battleship is aware of its own stupidity and is even willing to encourage the audience to laugh at the pure silliness of actually basing a movie on a board game.  Even the film’s final act of heroism — which features a lot of inspiring speeches and a return to duty by an iconic battleship of the past — feels less like typical third act posturing and more like a very deliberate parody on the conventions of recent U.S. Military Vs. Alien Invaders films.  Whereas films like Battle L.A. and Acts of Valor often feel like recruiting films for the military, Battleship feels like a recruiting film for movies about the military.  The CGI looks good, the battle scenes are nicely done and director Peter Berg seems to be having fun finding ways to visually remind us of the original Battleship game.  Taylor Kitsch makes for a surprisingly likable hero, Liam Neeson grimaces through his 6-minutes of screen time, and Alexander Skarsgard is to die for in his white naval uniform.  Even Rihanna appears to be having fun uttering silly lines like, “Boom” and “Mahalo, motherfucker.”

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Battleship is hardly a masterpiece.  It’s about 20 minutes too long and there’s a few times, especially during the middle of the film, when Battleship seems to run out of momentum.  Fortunately, every time this happens, Taylor Kitsch delivers another hardboiled line or Liam Neeson grimaces as he stares out at the alien fleet and the film picks back up again.  Battleship isn’t a great film and it might not even be a good film but it’s hardly the crime against humanity that I was expecting.