Review of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”

A space station that once orbited Earth is now massive and inhabited by thousands of aliens from hundreds of planets. The station now called Alpha was pushed into deep space to act as a beacon for any and all intelligent life to come and share their knowledge and technology. Alpha has existed in peace for over 500 years but something is threatening to destroy it. An area of deadly radiation has appeared at the core of Alpha and its growing. All attempts to investigate the cause have failed. Human police force agents Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are called in to provide protection for Commander Filitt (Clive Owen), the leader of Alpha; but he is abducted by a group of aliens whose DNA does not register on Alpha’s sensors. Valerian and Laureline begin a search for the Commander and stumble into a mystery involving the destruction of a planet 30 years earlier and the desire to keep all details of that event a secret at any cost.

Director Luc Besson has been trying to make “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” for 20 years. He had been a fan of the comic book “Valerian and Laureline” when he was a kid and while making “The Fifth Element” he used the services of the comic book’s illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières who suggested he take a crack at adapting the story for a film. Besson thought the technology to create all the various alien species wasn’t available at the time but when James Cameron released “Avatar” he knew it would be possible. Now his dream has come true and the massive special effects movie is in a theatre near you. Should you invest the time, gas, money and effort into seeing Besson’s creation? The short answer is probably not.

That’s not to say “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” doesn’t have it good points. First of all, it looks amazing. The visual style of the film dazzles you with amazing colors and more alien species than you can count. From massive aquatic creatures to small bird-looking bipeds with big noses to tiny animals that look like a cross between a hamster and a lizard, the creature creation in the movie shows enormous imagination.

The concept of the story, about a giant space station filled with thousands of alien lifeforms all living in peace, is thanks to the comics written by Pierre Christin and the aforementioned Jean-Claude Mézières. While the setting of the film and the comics is vastly different, the idea of human/alien cooperation is clearly shared in both. Also the notion that a seemingly benevolent government might also be to some extent corrupt plays out in both. The comics, which ran for over 40 years, represented Christin’s political views. Besson doesn’t seem all that interested in making a political statement but in telling a fantastical story. That’s where the film runs into trouble.

The story of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is a mess. While we are treated to a several alien species and amazing looking planets, the story has apparently had a great deal less care taken with it. The main story threads are left to dangle for large parts of the film. As we blast through walls with Valerian and go on an underwater adventure with Laureline the main story is mostly abandoned. I don’t want to give away the major plot points and the movie apparently feels the same way. We are finally given a long section of exposition that lays out everything late in the film but by then I had lost so much interest I took it as a good sign the movie was almost over.

There’s also the issue of Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne having zero chemistry with each other. Valerian is supposed to be both Laureline’s partner and lover but when the two flirt with each other it lands with an audible thud. Delevingne looks more annoyed and bored than attracted to DeHaan. DeHaan in these scenes looks more creepy than anything else. It’s a pair that does not strike me as a believable couple and that makes any effort to humanize the characters with their alleged attraction to one another fail miserably. I didn’t like the idea that these two highly trained agents would also be emotionally and physically involved with one another. That would tend to violate any code of conduct in any military service today and would render one partner susceptible to compromise should the other be captured by an enemy. It also would damage their working partnership should their relationship end. None of their romance worked on any level for me.

DeHaan also appears to be doing a Keanu Reeves impression through the entire film. Speaking in what seems to be an unnaturally low vocal register, DeHaan sounds very similar to the “John Wick” actor while not having the same physical presence. DeHaan is a very good actor and has turned in great performances in “Chronicle” and “Lawless” along with other films so I can only blame his choices on director Luc Besson who apparently wanted some effort at menace in everything Valerian says. Sadly DeHaan isn’t able to dredge up any menace but plenty of breathiness.

The best actors in the film are all the CGI aliens and the creatures created with motion capture. Meanwhile, all the humans that aren’t digitally altered don’t look like they are having much fun. Cara Delevingne only looks like she’s trying when the character is screaming in anger and while going into battle. Clive Owen, who is missing for a big chunk of the middle of the film, is chewing as much digital scenery as he can to make Commander Filitt as much of a villain as possible. It doesn’t work. Rhianna turns in a passable performance as a cabaret entertainer with a secret. She isn’t on screen for very long and most of her performance is voice acting but still she holds her own.

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language. Guns of a futuristic type are fired in various scenes throughout the movie. We see characters hit by the weapons but there is no blood. One character is briefly tortured by having a gun fired into its shoulder. Another character is shown being tortured in a lab. The suggestive content includes a pair of characters tussling playfully while on a beach in their swimsuits. Also the dance done by Rhianna’s character could be considered risqué. Foul language is scattered and mild.

There’s probably a good movie to be made from the source material but “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” isn’t it. It ignores its own story for far too long to get in some action scenes and it has a couple of lead actors that have no sexual chemistry at all. While the film is a visual wonder it doesn’t need to be seen in 3D. The movie doesn’t have the visual pop with the added dimension I had hoped. I guess I’ll have to reinstate my moratorium on seeing movies in 3D that weren’t actually filmed in 3D. And knowing what I know now I can’t suggest you see “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” with any enthusiasm.

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” gets two stars out of five.

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See my review of Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” here:

This week Charlize Theron kicks it up a notch and one emoji tries to save his digital world. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Atomic Blonde—

The Emoji Movie—

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Review of “Suicide Squad”

Concerned the growing population of metahumans could become a threat to national security, government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) suggests creating a team of supervillains called Task Force X. They would be sent out on the most dangerous assignments and, if things went bad, be disavowed by the government. Initially reluctant, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is convinced when archeologist Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne) releases the ancient witch that inhabits her called Enchantress and steals top secret documents from Iran in an instant. The team is comprised of the residents of the highest security prisons because they are the worst of the worst: The assassin known as Deadshot (Will Smith), the crazy yet deadly Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), jewel thief and all around bad guy Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), pyrokinetic street gang killer El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), cannibal Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), assassin and expert at climbing anything Slipknot (Adam Beach). The person put in charge of Task Force X is Col. Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman). By his side is a Japanese assassin known as Katana (Karen Fukuhara). Wielding a sword that traps the souls of its victims, Katana will act as Flagg’s bodyguard. Also for security, each criminal member of the squad is implanted with a micro explosive in their necks. Should they turn against the team or try to escape, their head will be blown off. If dealing with all the crazies in Task Force X isn’t enough to give Flagg nightmares, Harley Quinn’s psychotic supervillain boyfriend the Joker (Jared Leto) is looking for a way to get her back by his side. When Midway City is under attack from a super powered foe, Task Force X is deployed to retrieve a powerful person from a high rise building. Will the team of bad guys be able to stick together long enough to complete their mission? Will they all be decapitated by the explosives in their necks? Will Harley Quinn ever see the pale face and green hair of her puddin’ ever again?

“Suicide Squad” has been ripped to shreds by the real critics. It has been called dull, slipshod, overblown, overstuffed and just plain bad. One reviewer even referred to DC as the Donald Trump of blockbusters. That is harsh! Here’s the thing…I apparently didn’t see the same movie as the majority of critics as I found “Suicide Squad” to be a great deal of fun with a plot that, while at times overly convoluted and under explained, moves at a pleasant pace and filled with several characters that are appealing in various ways. In short, I really liked “Suicide Squad.”

“Short” is the word for this review as I don’t want to give anything away. There are plot points that have been kept under pretty tight wraps that I don’t want to spoil for anyone that hasn’t seen the movie yet. Let me say this much: The film has some problems in the way the story is laid out. Events near the middle don’t make a great deal of sense and there are some issues of timing, as in when some orders are given and how they relate to the big bad of the story. Maybe they were trying to keep the running time down to something reasonable at just over two hours but a bit more explanation would have helped make the story more coherent.

This will be a bit of a spoiler but I also had an issue with which members of the team don’t make it to the end of the film. One of the squad became a personal favorite as the movie progressed. He starts out as a fairly well rounded character with a backstory revealed late in the film. His worth to the team is questioned and he displays what he can do, gaining the team’s admiration. He is also pivotal to the conclusion and he gets killed. Meanwhile, another member of the team is pretty much useless and his actions lead to a second member getting the explosive in his neck set off. He doesn’t do much and is largely comic relief (and precious little of that). Perhaps one of those that don’t make it was selected to provide as much emotional punch as possible while the other is just to let the audience know there are high stakes for not following the rules. Whatever the reason, I would have liked to have seen one of these two lost squad members make it to the next film, if there is one.

While the team is led by Will Smith’s Deadshot, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is the Queen of “Suicide Squad.” Her performance mixes the crazy, silly and dangerous in roughly equal amounts. Harley is a sexpot that will kill you for ogling her despite her dressing in short-shorts and a skin-tight t-shirt. She is as deadly with her hands as with a gun or her trusty baseball bat. Always looking for a way to reconnect with the Joker, Harley is truly the wild card of Task Force X. Robbie seems to be having far more fun in her role than anyone else. While Harley’s trademark Brooklyn accent is at best fleeting, Robbie still manages to embody the best and worst aspects of the Joker’s former psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel.

The rest of the cast isn’t given much of an opportunity to shine the way Robbie is. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Killer Croc gets a few good lines and a chance to be heroic while Will Smith plays more of a father-figure to both the team and the young daughter he hopes to see once again. Cara Delevingne plays her dual role as Dr. June Moone/Enchantress in two modes: Frightened and horror movie kitsch. Neither is terribly entertaining. The rest of the cast is fine. Jared Leto’s Joker is teased in the trailers as a major character but in fact is more of a bit part. His actions are pivotal to some parts of the plot but otherwise he’s just a flashy cameo.

A few words about the Joker: After Heath Ledger’s performance as the clown prince of crime in “The Dark Knight,” taking on the role of Joker for the next actor was going to be a thankless job that could only be compared unfavorably to what came before. While Leto certainly puts his own spin on the villain it can only pale in comparison to Ledger’s masterful, grounded yet clearly damaged Joker. Perhaps if he is the main villain in Ben Affleck’s solo Batman movie we’ll get a better chance to judge is green-haired lunatic. As it stands right now, the jury is still out as to whether Leto is a worthy successor.

“Suicide Squad” is rated PG-13 for disturbing behavior, action throughout, language, sequences of violence and suggestive content. All of the suggestive content involves Harley and that is all pretty mild. There are various acts of violence committed against humans and non-humans. We see one member of the squad get his head blown off by the explosive implanted in the neck. It isn’t terribly graphic but you know what happens. A couple of helicopters and fighter jets get taken down by various means. Foul language is fairly common but is no worse than the word s**t.

Perhaps I’m judging “Suicide Squad” against the last entry into the DCEU, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” I found that film to be plodding, dull and devoid of joy. By comparison, “Suicide Squad” is like a springtime meadow full of brightly colored flowers and playful puppies. It moves at a brisk pace and is a great deal of fun. It even has a couple of good guy cameos just to let us know the two films are connected. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to find the flaws as devastating as the real critics. See it yourself and make up your own mind but, despite the problems, I liked it.

“Suicide Squad” gets four stars out of five.

Three new movies open this week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Florence Foster Jenkins—

Pete’s Dragon—

Sausage Party—

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