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
In 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas, three eight-year-old boys went out late one night to ride their bikes. They were never seen alive again. The ensuing media circus that erupted lead to the conviction of three teenagers (The West Memphis Three) who many believed were innocent of these heinous crimes. Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. It was the basis of three stirring, powerful, galvanizing documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, two men credited with saving the West Memphis Three. Now after their release from prison, here comes Devil’s Knot, the first fictional film about the notorious case, Hollywood’s first crack at well-tread material. Is there anything new to be found?
Director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Chloe) and his screenwriters do a credible job of distilling the complicated case against the West Memphis Three to its basics, relying on a modulated tone that shies away from the sensationalism that dominated the case back in 1993. With the benefit of time and hindsight, it’s easy for the movie to point out the erroneous thinking of the prosecution, the jump to conclusions, and the Satanic panic engulfing the community of Arkansas. We’re told by a police officer that they knew this “Satanic cult stuff” would hit town; they’ve just been waiting for the day. To its credit, the movie does a fine job of calmly and objectively pointing out the deficiencies in the police and prosecution’s case against the West Memphis Three. We’re told that from the twelve hours of interrogation with Jessie Misskelley, only 40-some minutes was recorded. The obvious mistakes in his confession, as well as the police coaching and coaxing him to their desired response, is made readily apparent. There’s “witness” Vicki Hutchernson (Mireille Enos of the oft-canceled The Killing) who says she say chief suspect Damien in a Satanic ritual, but the film cuts back from the imaginary to Vicki watching a movie on TV, the real source of her descriptive flourishes. Egoyan’s direction has a calm, objective overview that is reverent and respectful of the dead and the bereaved. It’s rarely boring and the facts of this case are such that any retelling would be somewhat compelling.
So that brings me to the ultimate question: why even make a fictional movie about this subject? Four lengthy documentaries have covered the intricacies of the legal story, the breakdown in justice, and the personal toll on all sides of the crime. The only thing a fictional movie provides is: 1) the fun/distracting game of seeing relatively famous actors play the real-life people we’ve previously seen, and, 2) as an option for people who hate documentaries. If you’re one of those people who dislikes documentaries and doesn’t view them as “real movies,” then Devil’s Knot is for you, you dismissive filmgoer. Otherwise, literally everything was handled better in the Paradise Lost films. With the West Memphis Three thankfully out of prison, the omnipresent sense of urgency from the documentaries is now absent, replaced with a Monday morning quarterback sensibility pointing out all the obvious bias, judicial hypocrisy, and flaws of the case. And as anyone who has plowed through the powerful and addicting documentaries knows, there are plenty of flaws to point out for harsh scrutiny and incredulity. Movies have a long history of showing us an example of judicial injustice, and this is a prime example. However, Egoyan has put the emphasis of his movie on two outsiders rather than people in the center of this case. The West Memphis Three themselves are barely supporting actors in their own movie. I suppose the filmmakers may have wanted to present a different angle to the case since the Paradise Lost films showed the accused up close and personal. The construction of this plot just doesn’t work under the perspectives of Pam (Reese Witherspoon) and Ron (Colin Firth).
Ron serves as a pro-bono adviser to the defense, but that doesn’t mean he has the same access inside and outside the court. He can gather evidence on his own but really this guy is meant to be a fly-on-the-wall for the planning and frustration of all the legal roadblocks thrown at the defense. Is an added body in the room necessary? Could not one of the defense attorneys have provided the same purpose? Instead, he gets to grumble in the court and out about all the legal shenanigans going on to railroad innocent boys. He is essentially spelling it out to an audience. Pam has even less narrative purpose in the film. Her perspective makes sense early on as the mother of one of the murdered young children. Her panic, her worst nightmare come to life, it all makes for the stuff of major drama, which is why you’d imagine Witherspoon was drawn to the part. But once the case against the West Memphis Three gets going, Pam transforms into our Chief Reaction Shot Provider. Whenever a curious moment happens in court, we cut back to Pam and Witherspoon cocking her head in dawning curiosity and uncertainty. It’s as if she is meant to symbolically represent the entire community that was so fervent in their beliefs that these boys were guilty… until they heard the shaky case and the questionable experts put on the stand. So Pam and Ron end up becoming signals to the audience on how to feel and what to think. The movie doesn’t have enough faith in its audience to keep up with the minutia of the trail, or even the lawyers’ arguments, reducing a complex legal trial down to two nonessential characters nodding or shaking their heads.
I’ll admit that I had some interest watching the actors inhabit the roles, and there are scads of people involved in this story. Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek) does a valiant job showcasing the head-scratching decisions of the trail judge, David Burnett, and his slimy dismissive nature. Stephen Moyer (TV’s True Blood) is particularly infuriating as John Fogleman, chief prosecuting attorney. Seth Meriwether (Trouble with the Curve) looks eerily like his character, the young and accused Jason Baldwin, and he nails his moral convictions and gentle nature. Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) gets to do his troubled youth thing he does so well. Kevin Durand is an actor I normally enjoy but even he can’t do justice to John Mark Byers, step-father to one of the slain boys, and easily the most memorable figure in the Paradise Lost films; the man is so theatrical and larger-than-life, and yet Devil’s Knot treats him like a featured extra, with many of his speaking scenes off camera. There isn’t a bad actor in the extremely large cast, though Firth’s Southern accent isn’t the most refined. If the movie lacks much reason for existing, at least the bevy of good actors respectfully bringing new life to these people, good, bad, and many somewhere in between, is the one credible quality to this movie.
What to make of Devil’s Knot, an example of a decent, modulated, and well acted movie that ultimately has no reason to exist in the wake of three excellent documentaries (Paradise Lost) and one other pretty good one (West of Memphis). The ground has been covered. However, that doesn’t mean that a well-told story can’t be told again, with a different angle, with a different approach, but Devil’s Knot hinges on two characters serving as metaphorical barometers to teach the audience what to think and how to feel. Then there’s the matter that the trail covers the entire 114-minute running time. There’s so much more that happens after the initial trial, so much that the last two minutes of this movie are almost a nonstop barrage of text updating the audience on many of the post-trial developments, including the West Memphis Three being released from prison in 2011. The movie feels too limited; there is so much more depth here, to the details of the case, to the personalities and human drama, to the story after the trial. Egoyan and his cast and crew have made a respectful fictional version of these sensational events, but the problem is that they don’t do enough to justify their own film’s existence. Unless you have an irrational hatred for documentaries, just watch those instead.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I’ve learned a valuable lesson when it comes to genre movies – do not trust the marketing department of 20th Century Fox. Every promotional clip, trailer, TV spot, even the notion that people were flying around in cities as an attempt at viral marketing, it all coalesced into making me turn up my nose at Chronicle. It just looked like a bad movie. Then the critical reception was rather glowing and I took a chance, pleasantly surprised by the skill and execution of the flick. What made this thought-process notable was that it was almost an exact repeat of what I went through with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Every piece of promotion stoked my disinterest into outright loathing, and then after the positive press I saw the movie, begrudgingly, and was floored. I guess when it comes to future 20th Century Fox genre releases, I’ll try and figure out my reaction and then turn that upside down. If a movie looks like utter crap, then under this new value system it must be good. I’m sure my new cinematic equation will prove me wrong as soon as the latest Eddie Murphy family vehicle terrorizes theaters (“This fall, Eddie Murphy is… The Governor. And his political opponent? His wife! Also played by Eddie Murphy”). In short, the marketing department at 20th Century Fox sucks but Chronicle does not.
Chronicle is the chronicle (heh) of three high-school friends who contract telekinetic powers. Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is a social outcast, determined to videotape his life as a means of escape from his ailing mother, his violent, alcoholic father (Michael Kelly), and the torment of school bullies. His cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), is trying to read up on philosophy to impress Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), a blogger/amateur documentary filmmaker. He’s more than some dumb jock. Steve (Michael B. Jordan) is the popular athlete planning to run for political office one day. The three guys discover what looks to be an alien craft underground. After coming into physical contact, the guys discover they suddenly have the ability to control objects with their minds. They test out their new powers in small ways at first, stopping speeding balls, assembling Legos. Matt insists they establish some system of rules to ensure they use their new powers for good. Andrew chafes at the idea of holding back, especially since he is by far the most powerful member of the group and eager to settle a few scores.
Just as the found footage motif is starting to get old along comes a movie that makes creative and clever use of the narrative structure. Documenting one’s life, including the endless trivialities, has become normal habit for a younger generation accustomed to Twitter-style instantaneous information dissemination. Given that Andrew is abused and harassed, it makes sense for his character to use his camera as a means of security physical and emotional: the promise of being recorded should at least keep some of the bullying and physical abuse at bay, and it also provides a barrier for him and the real world, letting him stand outside himself. As John Malkovich said in Shadow of the Vampire, “If it isn’t in the frame, then it doesn’t exist.” This is one of the few found footage films where I didn’t feel constrained by the limitations of its concept. I suppose it helps when your main characters have super powers and can fly into the sky for a game of pigskin. The climactic battle is plenty thrilling but also subtly ingenuitous, as we cut back from various camera footage to piece together our super smackdown; we jump from security cameras, police dashboard cams, helicopter cameras, to even personal video cameras of people doing what people do… document the strange and unusual (I’m just curious who assembled the footage, though I have my theories).
The key to Chronicle’s success is that it’s a well-written, character-based piece that just so happens to morph into a superhero cautionary tale. Andrew has a pretty hard life and it’s easy to see why this insecure, neurotic, and angry young man takes his new-found gifts as a cosmic opportunity for retribution. In a way, Chronicle is like an all-male version of Carrie for the digital age; incidentally, Andrew was set to perform in a school talent show and I was cringing, saying to myself, “Oh no, here comes the Carrie moment.” He’s a tragic figure and you feel for the kid, which gives him a little more leeway when he starts to veer to the dark side. Until the very end, you can follow Andrew’s motivation for every action, so when he dresses up in his father’s firefighter outfit to shake down the neighborhood bullies, you can justify it to yourself, saying, “Well, he’s desperate and needs to pay for him mother’s super expensive medication. Oh, and those guys had it coming. Jerk.” The power of empathy is a mighty one, and writer Max Landis (son of director John Landis) takes a measured amount of time to connect everything back to the character. The best compliment I can give Landis is that nothing feels out of place. The characters behave in a relatively believable manner, the action intensifies at a natural incline, and the characters manage to have some brainy, existential debates about power and responsibility in between typical teenage pranks/antics (it’s only natural that teen boys would somehow use telekinesis to improve their sex life). Sure these characters aren’t terribly deep and the multitude of Andrew’s misery heaped upon misery almost seems ridiculous. In another universe, perhaps Andrew uses his powers to lash out at his tormentors at school, though that approach would questionably glamorize school shootings. However, by the time the big action hits, we’re emotionally invested in the characters and have watched Andrew’s long fuse finally blow.
The special effects are even more impressive given the low budget and the found footage gimmick. The camera makes some nifty telekinetic moves, floating around and giving the film a bigger space to play within. The flying effects are pretty convincing, especially when one of our guys ends up tumbling back to Earth in one tense sequence. Whether it’s floating Pringles or cars crushed inside out, the effects are smooth and well integrated, and any noticeable lack of polish just fits in with the fuzzy nature of our video recording as lone record of the events. There’s a notable solution for sub-par special effects in movies: blame the nature of the movie (Uwe Boll, that suggestion is free of charge).
But the best special effect is young actor DeHaan (HBO’s first-rate show, In Treatment). Looking eerily like a young Leonardo DiCaprio, the guy manages to channel pent-up rage, frustration, and helplessness in a way that doesn’t feel histrionic or twerpy. His character is the point of view for our tale given that it is Andrew’s camera after all; we’re mostly locked into his perspective. Good thing that the character is interesting enough and so well played by DeHaan that I didn’t feel stuck with a loser. He reacts like most teenagers would react when bullied and harassed, trying to be aloof and ambivalent but only able to hide the pain and resentment for so long. When Andrew does start to give in to the allure of his powers, DeHaan seems practically seduced by his sense of superiority. There’s a dangerous look in his eyes that turns on that cues the audience for trouble to come. Russell is an amiable actor even if his character is bland and somewhat inconsistent as a foil to Andrew. Jordan (TV’s Friday Night Lights) is a charming guy who finds the right balance of exuberance and sarcasm with his character. Together, the threesome of guys has a winning chemistry and character dynamic. When they’re getting along and the good times are rolling, you feel part of the gang.
Being a super hero has become a dominant male fantasy as of late in the movies, so it’s invigorating to see a movie that puts a fresh spin on what seems ad infinitum. Chronicle is something of a small wonder, bringing new life to the found footage concept, making smart use of its narrative confines rather than chained by its limitations. The story is just as involving from a character standpoint as much as its sci-fi genre elements and superhero wish fulfillment. Landis and debut director Josh Trank are talents that I have no doubt Hollywood will snatch up. They’ve given the super hero genre a necessary human element, too often lost in the splashes of action and merchandising. Along with its engaging character-work, Chronicle also happens to be a clever action movie with some soaring thrills. Ignore the shoddy marketing and take a chance on Chronicle.
Nate’s Grade: B+