Watching the trailers for French maverick Luc Besson’s latest, the sci-fi opus Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, I was wondering where it would fall on a scale between Besson’s own funky, enjoyable Fifth Element and the lackluster and laughable Jupiter Ascending. It looked to tell a big story in a big world and with its director’s quirky visual hallmarks. It should at least be fun, I reasoned, and it is for a while. Unfortunately, Besson’s film (the most expensive European production in history) is a movie that almost needs to be seen to be believed but I wouldn’t actually advise people go see it. Perhaps a better title for this movie would have been Valerian and the City of a Thousand Better Ideas.
Based upon the comic series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, we flash forward to the twenty-eight century with agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sgt. Laureline (Cara Delevingne). Their mission is to retrieve a special alien something-or-other that will relate to a larger conspiracy involving the eradication of an alien home world.
Besson’s face-first dive into the wacky world of sci-fi will frustrate the hell out of you, chiefly because it does such an amazing job of creating a vibrant, weird, wild, and luscious world brimming with alien life only to toy with interesting subjects and then indifferently discard them. The elements are all there, it’s just that Besson doesn’t integrate them in meaningful ways, retreating back to being an overly caffeinated, erratic tour guide. My friend Ben Bailey and I came up with several different revisions that would have instantly improved the movie, and that only took us twenty minutes after leaving the theater (more on that below in full detail). Over the course of 137 self-indulgent, hyperactive yet meandering minutes of story, I am stunned at the level of ineptitude.
It’s not all bad, and in fact the first 30 minutes are some measure of good to great. The prologue is a thing of beauty and the highlight of the movie (if you walked out immediately after, when the title popped up, you would be better off). Set entirely to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” we visually chart the history of man’s habitation of space. Stock footage of 1970s space missions gives rise to the early twenty-first century construction of a working space station. The station’s captain accepts each new national group with a magnanimous handshake. Each scene is a jump forward in time, wordlessly building a stronger sense of community and the accomplishment of man’s dreams. Eventually this greeting also extends to First Contact and different alien species come aboard, and they too are given the same handshake of peace. It’s an earnest sequence that comes across as genuinely moving and uplifting. Finally, we see that the space station has, over the course of hundreds of years, collected into a massive floating home to thousands of alien species that came from far to explore and intermingle.
The next part is also wordless, following the idyllic existence of a planet of Na’vi-like lithe, blue-skinned alien natives who frolic along a beach and collect pearls. It’s another rather sincere visual sequence. This tranquil CGI world comes to a screeching halt when fiery debris begins to rain down from the atmosphere, followed by a gigantic alien spaceship that crashes and causes an extinction-level event. One of our lithe aliens is trapped behind and comes to terms with her fate. She sends out her spirit in one last radiant burst before the pyroclastic cloud engulfs everything. These two sequences engender good will with the audience and show the potential power of Besson’s transporting vision.
Shortly afterwards we get the first major set piece of the opening act, an inter-dimensional bazaar known as Big Market. In one dimension it’s just a large expanse of empty desert, but with the right gloves and glasses visitors can interact with alien vendors and shop to their hearts content. It’s a fantastic setting and Besson takes time to set up the different particulars and rules and then lets it loose. It’s exciting and imaginative and the only sequence where the character of Valerian feels in trouble or at a disadvantage. It’s a wonderfully knotty sci-fi set piece with multiple points of action interweaving into a satisfying spectacle. There’s even a fun alien crime boss voiced by John Goodman. I whispered to my friend that this was already better than Jupiter Ascending. I regrettably spoke too soon.
Everything afterwards is a cascading mess that assaults your senses and wastes your time. There isn’t a strong narrative drive to the movie, never felt more than during its protracted second act that is nothing but a series of wearisome narrative cul-de-sacs. The movie errs significantly by establishing Clive Owen as an obvious villain so early (he’s torturing a Na’vi-like alien in the friggin’ first act). Owen’s character becomes the supposed MacGuffin that propels the characters forward. They have to retrieve him, but when the audience already knows so early that he’s not worth the effort, the sense of urgency deflates, not that there was much of a sense to begin with. The movie quickly adopts a flippant attitude where it feels like nothing matters, and so nothing does. We jump from one detour to another as if they were single-issue comics that Besson was determined to realize on the big screen. The characters never feel in danger because Besson deploys contrived solutions at every turn. A special jellyfish on the head is a solution to finding a missing Valerian. Simply jumping down a floor grate is a solution to charging aliens. It’s like Besson throws his characters into dilemmas and merely points to the exit door conveniently there the whole time. That’s not satisfying or entertaining. It makes the movie feel episodic, listless, and like it’s just filling up time. What started so promisingly rapidly degenerates into overly exuberant camp nonsense.
Another major issue is that the main characters are awfully boring and miscast. Valerian is supposed to be a charming rogue, a swaggering playboy, a fearsome cop, and none of these attributes work with DeHann. The guy has been excellent in other movies but is entirely unbelievable as the title hero, intimidating nobody and impressing even less. He’s supposed to be a talented expert operative but the results on screen don’t back up the praise. His combat moves require a large suspension of disbelief. DeHann (A Cure for Wellness) speaks in a baffling 90s Keanu Reeves voice for the entire movie, relegating his entire emotional range to a grating monotone. Valerian isn’t charming whatsoever but Besson seems to think an audience will fall for him. He’s an irksome misogynist who sets his sights on his partner, Laureline. Their “romance” is unconvincing and hindered with some laughably clunky dialogue. The movie runs like you have a pre-existing relationship with these characters, but we don’t know them or their back-stories or their shared history. He’s immediately hitting on her and proposing marriage in the first act, though it all seems like a sleazy scheme just to sleep with her. Delevingne (Suicide Squad) has a striking look to her but I can’t tell if she can act yet. Granted the roles I’ve watched ask her to mostly serve as a model. Her character is stiff and unemotive and equally boring, though slightly more convincing as an aloof badass. It’s a shame she gets sidelined as a damsel needing rescue when she seems far more capable than her partner. These two are the living embodiment of prioritizing attitude over characterization.
There’s a very late moment when Besson has his two lead characters just spout transparent exposition at one another to communicate themes and character arcs, and it took everything I had not to laugh out loud. Laureline is about to give an alien something valuable and Valerian pulls her aside and tells her they can’t. “I follow the rules,” he says, and I snapped my head back in alarming whiplash. What? This dolt has been breaking everything and doing whatever he has wanted for hours, and now at the last minute Besson is trying to force him to articulate a paradoxical character description? Being saddled with these two distant, glib, irritating leads is bad enough, but DeHann and Delevinghe have as much chemistry as a batch of dead fish. No danger of sparks flying here.
Before I got into some spoiler detail with my suggestions on how to improve Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, let me appreciate some of its virtues. The movie is often a technical marvel bursting with detail at every edge of the frame. Besson’s quirky sense of humor and playfulness is on display from the imaginative alien designs to the lived-in settings. The movie isn’t afraid to get weird, and some of those details are delightful like a two-barreled gun that can point in different directions. There’s even a small creature that will poop out copies of whatever it eats. Even when the characters and story let you down, the visuals provide a reason to keep going. I enjoyed Rihanna’s shape-shifting alien, a burlesque dancer whose routine feels almost like a medical test to determine which Rihanna fetish works best for you (rollergirl, French maid, naughty nurse, S&M kitten, torch singer, school girl?). Part of her appeal is that she’s the only supporting character in the movie. Her presence changes the character dynamics of Valerian and Laureline and gives us somebody new to hang onto. I liked the dopey aliens that resemble the sloth from the Ice Age movies, and I especially enjoyed a surprise payoff for their insistence that Laureline wear a stupidly large hat. Whether these moments are enough to cancel out the rampant excess will be up to the individual moviegoer.
This next section is going to involve spoilers, though I don’t think this is a movie where knowing the plot is going to really ruin the experience. Still, you have been warned, and if you wish to remain spoiler-free, please skip to the last paragraph (though do come back later).
I was beside myself in frustration because it feels like there are story elements ripe for the plucking that would have instantly improved Valerian and Besson is just too oblivious. Firstly, none of the characters that Valerian and Laureline run into seem to matter in the slightest. That alien mob boss who swore vengeance? Never returns. The aliens that kidnap Laureline and offer her up as a tasty treat to their king? Never return. Besson’s Fifth Element benefited from establishing different groups of characters with conflicting purposes that would continually run into one another and complicate matters. It makes the movie much more fun and it allows characters to have greater meaning than one-off appearances. We should be building a team and gaining a new member from every new location visited, which would make the visits more meaningful and lighten the time spent only with Valerian and Laureline. My first solution would be to bring back these different alien antagonists in comical and bungling ways, especially for Act Three. Another solution is to radically change the angelic, Na’vi-like ethereal aliens. It’s revealed they’ve been hiding on the station for decades (though not in a different dimension, another missed potential payoff). They just want to go home, though whether that’s a replication or a different dimension is unclear. What if these peaceful aliens didn’t forgive humanity for obliterating their planet? What if the key to bringing back their home world was to suck the life force out of the space station or Earth itself? That would flip the script and make you question whether these displaced aliens are morally justified in their actions. It would also set the stage for a rollicking third act that culminates in a frantic chase through all the different levels and communities introduced throughout the film, complete with the various antagonists complicating matters with their own motivations. This would all be infinitely better than the third act we get, which left me flabbergasted at how slack and uninspiring it is (defusing a bomb?). Why build up this strange and wonderful world and do nothing with it by the end?
Getting back to my original question: is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets better or worse than the Wachowski sisters’ misfire, Jupiter Ascending? Besson’s latest certainly looks lovely and is crammed to the rafters with ideas, several of which you desperately wish had garnered more attention and development. This is an overstuffed movie, especially at 137 minutes, and yet it will leave you seriously wanting. The disinterested lead actors slog their way from one uninspired chase scene to another, gallivanting in a world that will have no real significance once we move onto the next expensive set. It all feels like manic decoration meant to stimulate and distract from the glaring deficiencies with characters and story. It starts out great and then degenerates into kitschy futuristic junk. It feels like somebody made a PG-13 Barbarella but mandated that nobody ever smile. DeHann is grossly miscast as a rakish rogue and his onscreen relationship with his leggy costar is painfully realized. I think I respect Jupiter Ascending more because that cinematic world could have sustained something interesting and they took it all seriously enough even when things got absurdly silly. Valerian is so flippant and stuck with sourpuss leads. A better movie was within reach, which makes it all the sadder that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is reluctantly the movie we get, a visual spectacle that bores as it overwhelms. If you put this movie on mute and did some peyote, maybe it would achieve its true artistic value.
Nate’s Grade: C
After watching the debacle that was Batman vs. Superman, I said it had killed my hope for the larger DC film brand. Thanks to writer/director David Ayer, and by extension Zack Snyder’s ongoing influence, Suicide Squad reconfirms every bad step they’re down on this bad road of anti-entertainment.
Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is worried about national security in a world where a certain Kryptonian has upended our sense of priority. She wants to assemble a team of bad guys who can do some good. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is placed as the commander of a “suicide squad,” a black ops team of super villains that are injected with devices to make their heads go kablooey if they disobey. Among the ranks is Deadshot (Will Smith), a paid assassin who never misses, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the former psychiatrist and lover to The Joker (Jared Leto), an Aussie named Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a guy with the ability to control fire, a human-crocodile hybrid named appropriately Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the Enchantress (Carla Delevigne), a thousands-year-old spirit inhabiting the body of Dr. June Moone, who also happens to be Flag’s girlfriend. Assisting Flag is Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a masked swordfighter with a tragic and mystical past. The Squad is thrown into harms way and have to work together as a group if they plan on surviving.
The tone and structure of the movie is like an unholy marriage of Stephen Sommers’ (The Mummy) sense of careless plotting and archetypes, mish mashing tones, and Joe Carnahan’s (Smokin’ Aces) sense of wanton violence, killer cool killers, and militaristic fetishism. It’s a problematic pairing of tone that almost sort of works in the opening twenty minutes as it sets up the various bad guys with their requisite little slices of backstory. Primarily Deadshot and Harley Quinn are the spotlight characters, and it helps that the two most charismatic actors play them. The first twenty minutes doesn’t exactly push the narrative forward in a meaningful way as it involves Davis digressing with an armada of high-energy flashbacks, but it’s almost forgivable. Her pitch to the government for a black ops team of super villains seems credible enough in this anxiety-ridden world, so Ayer has at least started off not quite well but well enough. And then it all goes downhill so fast into a vortex of suck and cannot recover.
It was at the first act break that I knew this movie wasn’t going to recover and get better. You see the advertising has been very secretive about who the true antagonist is for this movie, which is none other than the Enchantress. The introduction of this Jekyll/Hyde character and her power is initially interesting, though she certainly stands out in a world of meta-humans. The problem is that this character is obviously far more powerful than everyone else in the movie, as evidenced by Waller’s “show off” moment having the Enchantress teleport and bring back nuclear secrets from a hostile foreign nation. I think Ayer realizes this and so he quickly, and I mean quickly, positions the character as the Big Bad of the film. Dr. June Moone whispers the word “Enchantress” and she appears, and then she whispers it in her sleep and, oh no, the wicked witch lady is out and nobody seems to have any contingency for this. How has nobody thought about the risk of her accidentally saying this one word? Should she be sleeping with some sort of gag?
Enchantress steals the other ancient idol containing the spirit of her brother, which is just hanging around for some unknown reason, and the two of them are distraught that mankind, which once worshiped them, has moved on. They’re going to destroy the world by making a vague world-destroying machine, which basically comes across as a giant energy portal. The brother becomes the primary villain, a giant heavy with dumb tentacle weapons, and the two of them take human beings and turn them into a faceless army of disposable soldiers thank to the power of Enchantress kissing them. It’s at this point that the movie reminded me of Sommers’ Mummy Returns sequel where the goofy tone and careless development swallowed the movie whole, shrugging and saying, “What more did you want from us?” The villains are quasi-Egyptian gods who want to destroy the world. The last act finally positions the Enchantress as the one to topple, and our anti-heroes are attacking her with guns and baseball bats. It’s just laughable and not in the good way. The entire Enchantress as villain storyline is a swirling CGI mess and her army of faceless henchmen inspire no interest or dread.
You would rightfully think that a movie about a ragtag team of kooky anti-heroes would be darkly comic and have a whimsical sense of fun, much like what James Gunn achieved with Guardians of the Galaxy. I walked out of Suicide Squad dumbfounded and muttering to myself, “How… how do you screw this up?” I think the movie has confused snark with humor. There is precious little that comes across as funny. The characters have some one-liners but that’s about it, and they grow tiresome after a while. Suicide Squad is a classic example of trying too hard; it’s all empty posturing and posing, asking for plaudits about how edgy this cut-and-dry PG-13 movie must be with its mall Goth aesthetic and irreverent sense of good and evil. It tries so hard to be edgy that you can see the onscreen flop sweat. Case in point: the avalanche of music selections. In the first ten minutes or so it feels like there is one needle-drop music selection mere seconds after another, and Ayer chooses a mixture of artists for their on-the-nose lyrics. “You Don’t Own Me” for Harley Quinn especially, “Come Baby Come” just for a scene involving a bat with the choice lyrics, “swing batter batter batter,” a cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium” because it has “friends in my head” as a lyric, “Sympathy for the Devil” for many obvious reasons, “Spirit in the Sky” when the gang is airborne, “Seven Nation Army” when the gang is put together, and so on. If there were a handful of on-the-nose music selections, it would be passable, but it’s almost like the overzealous music director worked overtime to provide as many selections as possible to cover-up the movie’s empty sense of fun.
No character symbolizes the film’s ethic of trying too hard more than Leto’s (Dallas Buyers Club) rendition of the Joker. Admittedly Heath Ledger’s performance was iconic and cannot be replicated, but Ayer’s script doesn’t even justify the character’s presence. There is no standout or memorable scene with the Joker to help signify just what kind of character he is, how he’s far different and more dangerous than your everyday psychopath. If you called this guy a different name you would swear it’s a different character because they fail to make his inclusion meaningful. We see Joker in flashbacks relating to Harley Quinn, and it’s in these short moments that the character plays best, in particular a high dive into a vat of chemicals all in the name of twisted love. Through Harley, we get a fleeting sense of a Sid and Nancy sort of courtship that could be interesting. However, alone, Leto’s Joker is a wash, intimidating guards with lackluster “crazy talk” and maniacal giggles. There’s a shot of him lying on the ground surrounded by a carefully constructed circle of weapons. It’s a small moment but it makes him seem more OCD than scary.
Joker’s storyline is trying to free his girl from prison, but the larger problem is that Harley Quinn is a worse character when she’s with her “puddin'” Mr. J. She loses her independence and just becomes arm candy and settles into The Girlfriend in Short Shorts. She elevates him and he drags her down. That’s a direct problem with characterization. The Joker is a distraction to the other characters and his small scenes tracking her down do not excuse the detour. Leto snarls and struts but it feels over conscious and dull. There is a better way to use the Joker: make him the target of the Squad. That pushes Harley Quinn directly into the center of the story and provides plenty of internal conflict for her to wrestle with her tortured psyche and sense of adoration for a man who had tortured her and abandoned her. That would be more interesting. In the Snyder universe, we have a Batman who has no compulsion against killing his enemies, so why the hell is the Joker still alive to terrorize? It seems bizarre that Affleck’s Batman would let this guy go unless the fan conspiracy theory that the Joker is secretly a disturbed Jason Todd, a former Robin, was accurate. That would make the character instantly more intriguing and provide some needed depth to what is a shallow character that is all exaggerated attitude. He’s the worst modern Joker but not the worst part of the movie.
The characters are just not that interesting and the far majority of the Squad teammates are meaningless background players. Killer Croc, Boomerang, Slipknot, and Katana are utterly useless in this movie. They fill out space and kill some faceless bad guys, but their plots could just as easily been attached to the other Squad members. Katana in particular is another one that feels like she’s been pulled in from a different movie entirely. She’s introduced as this killer assassin and Flag says, offhand to the point of hilarity, that her sword captures the souls of the men it kills. There’s a later moment where she’s swearing her love to the trapped soul of her husband in the glowing blade, and I just couldn’t hold back and started laughing. I’m sure this point is directly taken from the comics, but it’s thrown in without any care, any setup, and its tone is directly conflicting with the snarky nogoodniks. Diablo is given a boring and predictable arc but he at least has a dollop of characterization outside “zany” or “menacing” because he wants to not use his fire-starting powers. These characters just don’t matter to the story, and the actors aren’t given anything close to resonant character moments to make them matter to us. The Batman cameos are completely superfluous as well. There’s no reason that our criminals couldn’t have been brought in from other circumstances. Batman also has a creepy moment where it seems like he’s forcing himself on Harley Quinn to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. It’s such an off-putting and curious moment I kept waiting for Bruce Wayne to wake from another dream sequence.
I think back on Captain America: Civil War again and how the filmmakers were able to deftly integrate a bevy of heroes and make them matter, giving each one a small moment to be fleshed out, providing arcs, and incorporating them in exciting and satisfying ways into combat that would let them show off their stuff. Suicide Squad is not that.
There isn’t one good action sequence in this whole movie, and with the Enchantress army of monster goons, it starts to feel like an extended episode of the Power Rangers but with an oversight of firearms. What’s the point of bringing in a bunch of weird characters with super powers if all they get to do is one gunfight after another? Once the Squad lands in Raccoon City, er, I mean whatever city ground zero is, the movie is one long slog to eventually confront the Enchantress. It’s one abandoned street filled with goons to get shot down after another. Repetition settles in and Ayer doesn’t use the opportunity to have his characters do something fun or different. The action doesn’t excite and the characters don’t excite, and everyone trudges, head down, to their dire destination in the sky. It feels like a shadowy warzone without a clear objective, direction, or understanding of the threat. There is one interesting aspect of the action that’s never developed as it should be, and it’s the Squad’s vulnerability to losing Flag. Not only does he have the control to make their heads burst, if he is killed in action then the Squad dies too. Deadshot realizes that the team has to defend Flag and out-rightly rescue him a couple of times. It reminds me of a video game escort mission but Ayer never really does much more than having his characters recognize this dynamic. As much thought is put into the action as put into the antagonists, which is to say little. Some of the action is so poorly edited and choreographed that I just hit my head against the back of my chair and waited for it to be over.
There are a few bright spots in the film, mostly provided by the lead actors. Smith (Focus) is still one of the world’s most charismatic actors even if he’s saddled with the rote “I wanna see my daughter” storyline to humanize his remorseless assassin. Smith relishes his anti-authority figure and settles into a comfortable and appealing groove. Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) is delightful and her character’s zany non-sequiturs are more often funny than grating. You can tell Ayer is also a fan, as his camera lovingly oogles her body. It’s a performance that whets your appetite for more Harley Quinn that the movie doesn’t seem to be able to deliver, especially when it starts to go down a route that presents her almost sentimentally. Davis (The Help) does a fine job selling her badass tough guy moments as the leader of the program. I don’t quite buy the “government/jailers are the real bad guys” angle the movie consistently presents to elevate its Dirty Dozen. The “worst of the worst” can’t be all that bad considering we’re working under the mandate of a mainstream PG-13 rating. They’re villains with gooey centers and moral codes.
It’s not at the punishing level of disaster that Batman vs. Superman wrecked, but this is a movie that is plenty bad, and not in the good way, or the fun way, just in the bad way. Even things that should be saving graces for a comic book movie about antiheroes, the fun personalities and visuals, are lacking. Ayer doesn’t know what to do with his overabundance of characters once he gets them assembled and he doesn’t have the visual dynamism of a Snyder. Ayer has talent with writing machismo characters and can even be a fine director of action as he proved with the sturdy WWII tank movie, Fury. It certainly feels like this movie got away from him. If this is trying to be an over-the-top B movie, it fails. If it’s trying to be a flashy and stylish diversion, it fails. If it’s trying to be a subversive take on super heroes, it fails. It just doesn’t work. It wants to thumb its nose at super hero movies and dance to its own anarchic, nihilistic beat, but you never believe the movie’s own convictions. It feels like empty posturing, confusing attitude and costuming for edge. It felt like some film exec pointed at Guardians of the Galaxy and said, “Make us one of those.” The sad thing is that Batman vs. Superman wasn’t good but it was at least ambitious, having to set up multiple franchises, serve as a sequel and reintroduce Batman. Suicide Squad had to do considerably less with the easy task of making a group of crazy anti-heroes as popular entertainment, and it flounders. It’s going to be a long wait until 2017’s Wonder Woman, the next DC movie in their larger plan to compete with the Marvel big boys, and the howls from dissatisfied moviegoers will echo until then, providing a pessimistic landscape for every new scrap of footage and trailer. Remember that the Suicide Squad trailer looked mighty good too and the actual movie is well and truly awful. Sometimes the packaging is the best part and sometimes it’s the only part.
Nate’s Grade: C-