Mladen and Del review ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’

Image courtesy of STX Entertainment.

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” Staring Dane Dehaan, Cara Delevinge, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Rutger Hauer and Ethan Hawke. Directed by Luc Besson. 137 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Mladen’s take

It’s tough to criticize a mediocre movie such as “Valerian,” which I saw opening weekend. The film had some terrific scenes and a dose of charm. Unfortunately, all of them came in the first 30 to 40 minutes.

There was the pithy beginning which spanned some 400 years of space-time. It cleverly explained how we got to the period covered in the vividly constructed movie by “Fifth Element” director Luc Besson. There was even something pleasant about the peaceful extraterrestrial world that we see destroyed by massive disabled interstellar fighting ships falling from the sky during a battle. That world, the world of the Mul, reminded me of the hermit crab terrariums tourists find in the campy souvenir stores in my Northwest Florida hometown. Mul land was all oversized shells, lots of sand, and calm blue water.

My favorite part of the film depicted our heroes, Valerian and Laureline, recovering a “converter” amid a trans dimensional brawl. Particularly clever was the way Besson depicted Valerian trying to fight and survive while different parts of his body were stuck in two separate realities.

Then, the movie falters. It’s not that any one scene was bad. They just lacked spunk. Plus, the youngsters playing the heroes lacked the street creds that were needed to make their cause inspiring.

I’m irritated that the movie’s marketing listed Rutger Hauer and John Goodman as stars. Hauer, perhaps best known for his role as the soldier clone with a tortured soul in “Blade Runner,” appeared for, maybe, 2 minutes. Goodman provided the voice for a Jabba the Hut-sequel pawnshop owner and mobster. That lasted, maybe, 3 or 4 minutes. Clive Owen, who was superb in the lead role in “Children of Men,” a magnificent sci-fi film that, for some reason, has gone largely unrecognized by moviedom, missed the mark as a fiendish military commander trying to hide a severe misdeed. Ethan Hawke also played a supporting role, but it was unimpressive.

And, there was some crappy editing. The scene with a famous singer/dancer portraying a shapeshifting illegal alien was completely unnecessary. The sequence should’ve been cut, saving the audience about 7 or 8 minutes of frustration. Finally, ‘Valerian’s’ PG-13 rating was a disservice. Well-placed strategic cussing and blood and gut splatter would have given the film a more mature feeling.

Valerian will not become a cult favorite as happened with Besson’s ‘Fifth Element.’ Is the film worth seeing in the theater? Maybe. It’s your dime.

Del’s take

I’m no expert on science fiction. I read it, write it and watch it. When I do I am mostly having fun, not looking for ways to enlarge my brain.

But even so woeful a student as I have noticed a fundamental difference in the way European directors approach SF opposed to their American counterparts (and I might extend that difference to writers, too).

American science fiction strikes me as techno-centric, while in Europe it’s all about style. “Valerian” is a good example.

Besson is a talented director who imbues his films with color, beauty and wit. His characters are usually interesting, including their flaws (they don’t get much more flawed than Jean Reno in “Leon: The Professional”).

His last outing into things outer space was the stylish and funny “The Fifth Element,” which has become a science fiction fan favorite, if not a cult film.

“Valerian” is also stylish and sometimes funny. But it lacks the snappy screenplay and perfect casting of “The Fifth Element,” resulting in a kind of chubby “Fifth Element” lite that bores as much as it entertains.

Valerian (Dehaan) and Sgt. Laureline (Delevinge) are 28th century cop partners who are driven to investigate a mysterious radioactive dead spot growing within Alpha, a spaceborne city that has accreted over the centuries to become a galactic meeting center for spacefaring races. The two are thrown into an Indiana Jones-style quest to solve the mystery and correct a terrible wrong. Simultaneously, Valerian is smitten by Sgt. Laureline and determined to win her hand in marriage, despite his reputation as a womanizer.

The movie is a feast for the eyes, blazing with vibrant colors and new ideas about aliens and their environments. While other science fiction properties are content with forehead ridges or glued-on ear extensions (ahem, “Star Trek,” this might be you I’m knocking), “Valerian” gives us weirdly unique critters the likes of which I haven’t seen since “Babylon 5.”

But the story is pretty much standard fare, the-universe-hangs-in-the-balance popcorn that does not explore any new ideas or challenge your ideas about the universe like the really good science fiction films, for example “2001” or “Arrival.” In fairness, it’s not supposed to.

The movie is overweight with unnecessary scenes. Mladen pointed out one offender, a performance by Rihanna that could easily have been cut. Seems Besson must have at least one song and dance number in each of his movies, which is a shame. If he had slain his little darlings, “Valerian” would have moved ahead at warp speed instead of plodding on impulse power.

My big gripe was in the casting. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of Dane Dehaan. If you haven’t seen “Chronicle” you’re missing a science fiction treat. But Dehaan is wasted in the Valerian role, which plays to none of his strengths. As a love interest for Delevinge he fails completely, coming across as a moonstruck adolescent pining to get laid, sadly unlike his tough but likeable and romantic predecessor, Korben Dallas of “The Fifth Element.”

I was forewarned Delevinge was a bad actor, but she seemed fine in her role, at times outshining Dehaan and others sharing the screen. Mladen is right. Rutger Hauer’s role can be measured in seconds and Ethan Hawke is on the screen and gone before you can ask “Is it over yet?”

“Valerian” isn’t a bad movie. I credit Besson for giving us an alternative to the caped dreck pouring out of Hollywood’s hind-end like a bad bout of Montezuma’s Revenge (I can see it now … “MONTEZUMA’S REVENGE … the dark tide rises!). I wish it had been shorter, smarter, and better cast, but I guess you can’t have it all.

Absolutely see it at the theater. It’s stunning visuals will be lost on the small screen, unless you’ve got a curved wall-o’-TV parked in your living room.

Oh, and do watch “Chronicle.”

I give “Valerian” a B for originality and visual presence.

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical editor. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers.

“Dunkirk” Starring Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Harry Styles, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, and Tom Glynn-Carney. Directed by Christopher Nolan. 106 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Del’s take

Christopher Nolan does not make movies. He builds monuments, towering edifices that reach for the heavens as intricate conspiracies of space and time that dwarf the efforts of mere mortal filmmakers. “Dunkirk” is no exception. Like its predecessors, “Interstellar,” “Inception” and even “Memento,” “Dunkirk” fits together with an old-school clockmaker’s eye for precision and a craftsman’s appreciation for complexity and detail.

It is an excellent movie, perhaps worthy of the Oscar talk surrounding it, and I wouldn’t mind seeing Nolan rewarded with a statuette. But for my purposes “Dunkirk” lacks a single ingredient, missing from all Nolan movies, that would make it the best film of the year.

The story is told from three different temporal viewpoints – a week, a day, and an hour – by multiple viewpoint characters. Foremost is an unnamed British soldier (“Tommy” in the credits) (Whitehead) who is desperate to escape advancing Germans and not above a peccadillo or two to get aboard a boat heading west. Others include Mr. Dawson (Rylance), who captains one of the small boats credited with saving hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk. Tom Hardy’s role happens over a single hour as he pilots a Spitfire in battles with Messerschmitts, Heinkels and Junkers.

For those not up on their history, in the early days of World War II Hitler’s Germany, after finishing its conquest of Poland, invaded western Europe using a new fighting technique called “blitzkrieg,” or “lightning war,” where tanks and mechanized artillery, augmented by ground attack aircraft, moved at rapid pace to confuse and destroy opposing forces. In a few short days the Germans were able to surround the British and French armies that had deployed to northern France and Belgium, and threaten them with obliteration. Those armies had retreated to Dunkirk, where their commanders hoped the Royal Navy would carry them back to England. But the navy suffered grievous losses to marauding Luftwaffe bombers and U-boats and pulled their forces back. It was not until an armada of privately owned craft crossed the Channel did the soldiers find a way home – over 300,000 of them by the time it was over.

It may sound confusing, but the storytelling works itself out about mid-movie when you realize the three narratives are beginning to overlap and will presumably converge toward movie’s end. I’m not sure such a gimmick was necessary, but it does allow Nolan to focus on characters and not events, a characteristic of many war movies.

Acting was solid through and through. Newcomer Whitehead did a credible job, as did Styles in his role as a British soldier. Rylance proved again why he is an Academy Award winner, and his teenaged son, Glynn-Carney, rose above more experienced actors, such as Cillian Murphy.

The script was well written with only a few expository lapses here and there – Nolan loves to “explain” things or conduct info-dumps through dialogue. The score worked for me and visuals were mostly satisfying, although at times I could tell the difference between models or CGI and the real thing.

A few gripes: One subplot, where soldiers board a beached boat and wait for the tide to come in, goes on and on to the point of absurdity. And a historical error – Nolan has his Spitfires and Messerschmitts tangling at low altitude, only a few hundred feet above the waves. During the Dunkirk evacuation the air battles occurred at a much higher altitude, prompting British foot soldiers to ask, “Where was the RAF?”

My large complaint was with the strange lack of human warmth evoked by “Dunkirk.” Nolan, I fear, is more technician than artist, and as meticulous and grand as his movies may be, they don’t inform to the heart. The characters and their actions are merely a clockspring or spoked wheel in the Nolan gadget that tells a great story, but tells it mechanically. Call it the Uncanny Effect – it looks like human but is missing just enough to provoke a feeling of unease.

Still, “Dunkirk” is an excellent movie and you should buy a ticket and watch it in the movie theater, because that is where movies should be seen. Don’t be surprised if Nolan received an Oscar nomination for best director, nor should you be surprised if he wins. He is probably overdue.

If only Geppetto’s creation would discover that it is a real boy.

Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.