Review: City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian Poster

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Sometimes a good thing is worth waiting for. Fifty years after the debut of the French space adventure comic series Valérian and Laureline, these intrepid heroes have reached the big screen. Valerian is the creation of writer Pierre Christian and illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières. The series has won numerous awards but few people know it in the English-speaking world. Though I haven’t yet read this long running series (it would give Doctor Who a run for its money) judging by the movie, it must be pretty impressive.

Valerian follows the 28th Century adventures of government agent Major Valerian (played by Dane DeHaan) and his partner and love interest, Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne.) The story’s exotic settings include the giant multi-species space station Alpha and the paradise world of Mul. The film is visually stunning and replete with the usual CGI spectacle. The action is non-stop but well paced, not needlessly frenetic like, for example, J.J. Abram’s recent Star Trek and Star Wars movies.

Though “City of a Thousand Planets” is not the most inspired title, I’m at a loss to think of a better one, except perhaps “Series that Spawned a Thousand Imitators.” As I watched the move, I was struck by the number of elements I’d seen in other sci-fi TV shows and movies, including Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar, The Fifth Element, and Babylon Five. Since the Valerian comic series has been around longer than most of them (and almost as long as Star Trek,) we can guess who was plagiarizing whom. The Millenium Falcon, to name just one example, looks an awful lot like Major Valerian’s spaceship.

Overall, the movie was quite enjoyable but no masterpiece. It couldn’t live up to its amazing trailer, which features a pastiche of the movie’s most spectacular images set to the Beatles song “Because.”

The story is interesting, though not terribly original. I correctly predicted many of its plot turns, which is always disappointing. The main characters are likable though their acting is a bit flat at times. In fact, my favorite performance was by pop singer Rihanna as Bubble the shape-shifter. In particular, I found DeHaan’s youthful appearance jarring. He barely looks old enough to drive a car, let alone pilot a spaceship. The movie’s lowest points revolve around the romantic banter between him and Delevingne, which was at times painfully cliché. The action scenes made up for that.

Flaws aside, Valerian is still a must-see for any science fiction buff, especially Star Wars aficionados who loved the originals. I’d rate it 4 out of 5 stars.

Media Monday: Review, Rogue One

Rogue One movie poster.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One was a pleasant surprise. I must admit that my expectations were low, due to the disappointment that was The Force Awakens. I hadn’t been paying much attention to the media, so going in I didn’t know where it fit in the Star Wars time line. Though it’s being billed as a “stand alone” film, Rogue One fills in the gap between the 1977 first movie (also known as Episode IV) and Revenge of the Sith (Episode III.) It’s exciting, action-filled, and best of all, it’s original.
The screenplay was written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, based on a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta. Yet another director, Gareth Edwards, takes the helm for this installment, and he does an impressive job. The story line is fairly straightforward: the characters find out about an insidious Imperial plot to build a “planet killer,” which turns out to be the original Death Star.
One of the more satisfying things is how the movie explains one of the most glaring flaws in Episode IV: why does the Death Star have an explained weakness?
Like the force awakens, there’s a spunky female protagonist, Jyn Erso, played by the always delightful Felicity Jones. Unlike Force’s Rey, Jyn doesn’t benefit from a sudden unexpected blossoming of Jedi powers. She has to use her brains and daring to achieve her goal, to steal the plans for the Death Star.
It also introduces an endearing non-human character: the cynical android K-2SO voiced by Firefly alumnus Alan Tudyk. Maybe this is because, as our society becomes more automated, we need to give machines a personality.
According to Wikipedia, one of the film’s controversial aspects was the use of computer-generated imagery to portray the deceased actor Peter Cushing, and to show Carrie Fisher as a much younger woman. I expect we’ll see a lot more of this in the future.
I’d also like to comment on another controversy that’s arisen in the alternative media: that Rogue One serves the “social justice” narrative by casting non-white and Hispanic actors (such as Diego Luna as Cassian Andor) in the heroic roles, while the bad guys are all white. If this was indeed a goal, it didn’t detract from the movie. After all, the Star Wars saga is supposed to take place “long ago in a galaxy far away.” The fact that the characters are even human is one of those unexplainable coincidences of science fiction.
I’d like to close this review by wishing the great Carrie Fisher a speedy recovery from her recent heart attack.

If you like science fiction, you’ll enjoy my novels and stories on Amazon.

Warrior Girls in Sci Fi — Too Bad-Ass to Believe?

I’m not the only one dissing the new Star Wars. Gavin McInnes has some pointed criticism, and he said it so well, I’m jealous. For those of you who don’t know him, he’s the Canadian expat writer who co-founded Vice Magazine and appears on the Fox News show “Red Eye.” In a recent article  at Taki’s Magazine, he argues that The Force Awakens is part of the anti-white-male propaganda currently infesting pop culture. It’s the phenomenon that portrays TV dads as bumbling idiots while their wives hold everything together. I’m not going to argue that point, rather, I’ll discuss a related issue: the ascendancy of the kick-ass female in science fiction.

McInnes writes that he can only stand the feminist nonsense in movies by looking for the chinks in the armor, the rare times where traditional values are affirmed, or a man is portrayed in a positive way.For example, Luke Skywalker, a white male, seems like a Christ figure when he appears at the end of The Force. My strategy is different. I short-circuit the propaganda by being a sexist fan-boy (though, given my age, I should probably say “dirty old man.”) That’s because nerds like myself find the take-charge female warriors of sci-fi to be totally hot. If you don’t get it, watch a few episodes of “The Big Bang Theory,” where some of the actresses I list below make guest appearances.

My favorite kick-ass sex symbol is River Tam (played by Summer Glau) from the “Firefly” series. In the movie Serenity, she dispatches a room full of reavers (bloodthirsty space cannibals) all by herself. We accept this, because she’s a mutant genius, an emotionally-damaged victim of secret government experiments. Another is Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Katee Sackhof), the whiskey-drinking blonde fighter pilot in “Battlestar Galactica.” Then there’s Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, who climbs into a robotic loader exosuit to battle the alien queen in Aliens, with the ferocity of a mama bear protecting her cub. Probably the best is recent years is Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, who looks fantastic in both her “flaming” evening gown and her Hunger Games battle gear. If I were Peeta, I wouldn’t have wasted the last minutes of the movie snuggling. The trilogy’s biggest sin was to have such a wimp be married to the warrior goddess.

Bad-ass as these warrior girls are, they all have weaknesses and vulnerabilities, which makes them seem real enough to be sympathetic. That’s something that Rey (played by Daisey Ridley) lacks, which was my biggest problem with her character. Everything just comes too easily for her. As a consequence she’s more annoying than appealing, despite her fresh-faced athletic looks. The worst serial offender is Angelina Jolie, whose action-move-heroine roles frequently cross over into the ridiculous. It doesn’t help that Jolie’s body is too damned perfect, with her economy-sized lips and breasts. Remember the wet suit in Lara Croft : Tomb Raider that somehow manages not to flatten out, but to accentuate those awe-inspiring mammaries? I guess Croft is so tough that she doesn’t mind the added drag while swimming.

Sexual fantasies aside, it’s all about creating a good story with interesting characters, not about following some formula, whether feminist or traditionalist. Warrior girls need more than their good looks and killer moves to make them interesting. They need to be people we actually care about.

Review — “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Yesterday Arlys and I finally saw the most anticipated movie of 2015, the seventh and latest installment of Star Wars. I’m sure many of you have already seen it, but as a sci-fi writer and a long time Star Wars fan, I’m obliged to review it. Spoiler warning: It’s not going to be pretty.

I’ve heard a number of people rave about this film so I was prepared to be amazed. Instead I was quite disappointed. Maybe my problem was too much hype and anticipation. No, it’s not as bad as Episodes I and II (that is, the fourth and fifth releases.) But honestly, I think “Revenge of the Sith” was better. The visual effects and the acting were fine. But the writers (JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan) have apparently gone to the Dark Side – is it too much to ask for a single new plot element?

OK, I admit that strictly speaking, there are no new stories, ever. The first Star Wars movie (Episode IV) is a prime example of the “Hero’s Journey,” as defined by the great Joseph Campbell. Even if we accept originality as a relative quantity, “The Force Awakens” would score in the negative numbers. Practically everything in it is recycled: a plucky young hero(ine), a droid with an urgent message, a tiny but wise and ancient alien, a family split between the Light and Dark Sides, the death of a beloved character, and a very familiar looking doomsday weapon. And get this: the new threat to the Galaxy is a gang of Imperial throwbacks led by a guy who raves like Adolf Hitler. It’s all too familiar. The old Imperial officers did look a lot like Nazis, didn’t they?

There’s only one aspect of Episode VII that’s new to the Star Wars franchise: the character of Finn (John Boyega), a deserter from the aforementioned fascistic First Order. Sadly, the writers botched that opportunity. For someone raised from birth to be a storm trooper, Finn has a depressingly normal personality. Perhaps we can accept that such a person might develop a conscience when ordered to massacre of innocent villagers. But where did he learn to speak in wisecracks and and be protective of females? He’s never known anything but soldiering, so we’d expect him to be super-confident, fearless, humorless, and naive about human relationships. Above all, he shouldn’t have tried to run from the conflict; a man like him would need to fight for a cause, even if it meant switching sides. Instead, Finn is a reluctant hero, and yet when the fighting starts, he’s incredibly cavalier about killing his former comrades. Where’s the internal conflict? And why aren’t his new friends more suspicious of him? Double agents posing as defectors are a time-tested strategy of war.

Rey’s character (Daisy Ridley) is another unfortunate waste of potential. We’re long past the time when attractive female warriors were novel and edgey. Now they need depth, nuance and back-story, none of which Rey has. Not that she’d have had time tor character growth at the frenetic pace of this movie. Her personal “force awakening” reminded me of a childhood dream where I suddenly, without warning or context, realized I had super-powers. Yes, science fiction requires the willing suspension of disbelief, but that’s a two way street. The writers have to give us something worth believing in.

I could rant on further about the movie’s Death-Star-sized plot holes, but I’ve gone on long enough. Despite all these problems, I did enjoy it. It’s visually stunning, with a background that’s full of delightful little details of both the biological and mechanical variety. The Star Wars characters we know and love are back, even if their interaction is a bit stilted at times. Finally, it leaves us with this mystery: how did Han and Leia’s son end up looking like Severus Snape?

Out of a possible five stars, I’d give it a 2.5. George, please come back!


Red-Headed Stepchild

Science Fiction is one of the despised genres of literature, loved by the masses and derided by intellectuals. Perhaps I am being oversensitive, but it seems that the critics consider genre fiction to be less important than ‘literary’ fiction. Yet as Samuel R. Delaney once observed, science fiction is one of the least respected forms of writing, about on par with comic books and pornography.

Admittedly, ones perception of sci-fi as despised depends on the definition of the category. One I recall from a writers’ workshop I attended long ago (sorry I don’t recall which one) is that it is fiction in which technology is a crucial element. My own concept is broader, more akin to that of speculative fiction: something about the story, plot, or characters is outside the normal realm of experience. Fantasy is also speculative, therefore science fiction is that portion that is plausible according to the known or extrapolated laws of the universe (that is, it excludes magic and the supernatural.)

Even the first, narrower definition encompasses a number of classics that are not normally considered science fiction. For example, works like 1984, Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange are often considered dystopian fiction, but all are technology dependent, as wel as speculative. Likewise, Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is seen as a political novel and Crichton’s Andromeda Strain as a thriller. Third-world novels with speculative or fantasy elements are classed as “magical realism.” Thus, sci-fi’s most outstanding works are re-classified as something else.

Part of the problem wit sci-fi is, I believe, political. Many famous science fiction writers (such as Robert Heinlein) would be considered right of center or libertarian in inclination, as opposed to left-leaning academics and intellectuals. In the Golden Age of the mid to late 20th Century, there was a theme of American triumphalism running through a lot of old-school science fiction, which has since become politically incorrect.

Perhaps science fiction is despised because, like its close relative fantasy, it’s escapist. It’s too much fun. Literary fiction is supposed to portray the day-to-day struggles of ordinary people, and well within the boundaries of acceptable thought – in other words, boring. It reminds me of a politically correct critic who attacked Lord of the Rings as “racist.” Indeed, it must be very offensive to the orc and troll lobbies.

All of this is no big deal to those of us who love science fiction, fantasy, and the other speculative realms. From Star Trek and Star Wars to the numerous movies adaptations of Phillip K Dick’s stories, sci-fi is loved by the masses, who vote with their dollars in far greater numbers than for some critically-acclaimed snooze-fest. Thus are the low-down exalted. Glory to the nerds!