Saturday, July 22, 2017

Spaced: VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS



Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets blasts off with more invention in one sequence than many blockbusters manage in their entire runtime. So chockablock with dazzling gee-whiz whiz-bang sci-fi detail and swooping techno-swashbuckling space opera derring-do, it’s an overload of pulp eye candy. Spaceships soar through the skies, asteroids pelt planets, energy pulses from being to being, viewscreens and robots light up with commands, a multitude of creatures jostle side by side in a universe cascading every direction in and out of the colorful 3D frame, and a hero and heroine pose in rippling red-blooded choreography. Too bad the movie slowly runs out of steam, hitting its peak around the midpoint, then slowly dragging to an underwhelming climax, each sequence a little less involving than the last. But, goodness gracious, how eye-boggling the film is from top to bottom and beginning to end, worth marveling at even after the rote plot and clunky dialogue’s throwback novelty appeal wears off. What preposterously dorky-cool retro-future space serial silliness! It’s good enough to make me wish for a whole bunch more of these, a big, glowing, fully-inhabited fantasy universe worth exploring. After all, marry the look and movement to a tighter, wittier script consistently involving throughout, and you’d really have something here.

Springing from the mind of French trash-master Luc Besson, inspired by a classic French comic book, the writer-director steers into his strengths. Always a tonal eccentric with a brilliant design sense, he’s made a career out of stretching and pulling at genre conceits in unexpected ways. His films aren’t always worthwhile enterprises – he’s made more than his fair share of clunkers – but there’s an earnest appeal to his attempts. Valerian, like Besson’s best films – from the similarly colorful sci-fi Fifth Element to hallucinogenic super-lady actioner Lucy – is built around enjoyable visual tricks and hurtling energy. Familiar in the best sense of the word, here’s a gleaming CG space movie built around geometric ships, rocket suits, laser guns, and glowing screens, and with striking figures – our leads with features more delicate and movements more fluid than we usually get out of stock brutes and babes – flying and posing in elaborately constructed phoniness and quick, chaotic, episodic cliff-hangers. Here we follow interplanetary secret agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), a flirtatious working partnership played with low-chemistry, flat-footed, dopey love/hate obviousness, as they get pulled into a conspiracy involving duplicitous colleagues, secret redacted information, and a bevy of nasty underworld characters on sidetracks and side quests. 

Our heroes’ journey begins in an action sequence with the movie’s coolest idea – an inter-dimensional bazaar where a stakeout turns into a chase sequence that phases in and out of different planes of reality, an inventive transporting genre idea – before returning to Alpha base, where a thousand planets have built a hodgepodge floating city in deep space. They’re meant to be working together in harmony, but amidst the bulkheads and geospheres and capsules of this galactic Zootopia, darkness grows. This leads to Valerian and Laureline’s encounters with their stern commanding officers (Clive Owen, Kris Wu, and Herbie Hancock), heartless robots, a ruthless alien gangster (John Goodman), gossiping duck-billed beings, massive aquatic beasts, memory-unlocking jellyfish, a sexy shapeshifting blob (Rihanna) and her bejeweled cowboy pimp (Ethan Hawke), a tiny rodent that poops magic pearls, and an ethereal race of doomed blue androgynous stowaways (Elizabeth Debicki and others). Through it all, Besson keeps his images spinning with elaborate expensive detail. It’s like the best sci-fi paperback cover paintings you’ve never seen. He had a huge budget and a good imagination and is intent on displaying as much as he can. The heroes crash through dazzlingly rendered visual delights, lingering mere minutes or even seconds in environments so rich with possibility that you could set up shop in just one for an entire feature. But we’re always rushing to the next episode, the next dramatic escape, the next conflict in an unfolding mystery. By the time the plot forces itself to congeal and resolve, petering out in rote villain monologues and tedious flashback explanations, it’s not only with the sad sense of a narrative running out of steam, but with the deflating knowledge that that’s how we’ll have to leave this memorable world.

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