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.

Review – Star Trek Beyond

Once again, I missed a golden opportunity. I saw the latest installment of Star Trek on the very first night and then neglected to write my review for a whole week.

Star Trek, Beyond is the third in the series since the “reboot” which changed the Trek timeline and replaced the original cast with fresh new faces. I’ll admit that I was appalled at first, but I’ve grown fond of the new cast. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto do Kirk and Spock really, really well. And tragically, just as we were getting to know him, Anton Yelchin, a.k.a. Chekov died in an accident shortly before the movie’s release.

This story was similar in formula to the previous two post-reboot movies, but a bit better, perhaps because Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty, and also created the brilliant zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead) wrote the screenplay. The pace is less frenetic than its predecessors, and that’s a good thing. It gives the characters more time to spout quotable lines, none of which I happen to remember at the moment. There are of course relationships carried over from previous shows: Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are on the outs, and their improbable relationship drives much of the story’s interpersonal dynamic. There’s a scene in which we learn that Ambassador Spock (young Spock’s other-dimensional self) has died, probably more of a nod to Leonard Nimoy’s passing than an actual story element.

I’d like to note that Sulu’s character (played by John Cho) is portrayed as gay, no doubt an homage to the original series’ actor George Takei. This fact didn’t affect the story in any way, and the choice struck me as a bit too PC. I’d have preferred they’d selected some other random character to carry the rainbow flag into the 23rd century.

As with the last two Star Trek movies, Beyond opens with one or more of the primary characters doing Something Important. In this case, Kirk is presenting a peace offering from one warring race to its adversary. Unlike the over-the-top volcano incident in Into Darkness, this seems more like something a Starfleet captain would actually do. By the way, the scene is quite funny, as well as relevant (to say how would be a spoiler) to the rest of the story.

The plot revolves around the Enterprise’s mission to answer a distress call from a ship that’s crashed on an isolated planet in the middle of a nebula. This nebula is not the dense, electrically charged cloud as these things have been portrayed in classic Trek. It’s more like Saturn’s rings in spherical form; a huge field of rocks, boulders and dangerous space junk, reminiscent of the classic “Asteroids” video game. I’m no astrophysicist, so I can’t say which of these views is more realistic.

Kick-ass women are a staple in sci-fi these days, and Beyond has one, of course, the black-and-white-skinned Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), the only survivor of a crash on this isolated world. I liked the way they emphasize her intelligence as her primary strength, and the fact that she’s survived on this world for years, which is a more satisfying explanation of her expertise than innate talent. (You guessed it; I’m pointing to the egregious example of Rey in Star Wars The Force Awakens.) Jaylah is also an aficionado of late-twentieth-century earth music; I had to laugh when one of the characters referred to Public Enemy as classical music. This is setup for a battle scene that’s so ludicrous that it becomes ironically cool. I like the Beastie Boys, but to see their music being used as a weapon? I can’t decide whether it’s brilliant or idiotic.

The villain, Krall (Idris Elba) is at first quite intriguing. He’s powerful, evil, and conniving, with a look reminiscent of G’Kar from Babylon-5, and a Road Warrior kind of presence. However, I found his back-story (which I won’t reveal here) to be an enormous letdown. I suspect that the writers were trying a bit too hard to surprise the audience.

In conclusion, I’d say Star Trek Beyond is well worth seeing for any sci-fi fan with a reasonable sense of humor. This was not the most outstanding of the Trek movies, but it was a definite improvement on the previous one. In these last couple of years the movie business has been plagued with sequels and franchise entries that ranged from disappointing (the aforementioned Star Wars, which I’ve seen) to terrible (Ghostbusters – considering the reviews, I’ll wait for that one to come to Netflicks, OK?) It was good to see a decent one for a change.

Remakes, Good Or Bad?

Are movie remakes a good or bad idea? Recently I heard about Gene Wilder trashing the Tim Burton remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, calling it an “insult” to the classic 1971 version. (Yes, that was eight years ago; I like Gene Wilder, but he sure can hold a grudge.) Around the same time, I listened to an NPR interview of Lynda Obst, one of the producers of the 1991 masterpiece Fisher King, in which she said that remakes were what’s keeping Hollywood alive through the current economic downturn. I’d say we should examine them on an individual basis. In this installment I’ll discuss three remakes I’ve seen this year.

Of course I would not have missed the latest installment in the Star Trek reboot franchise, Into Darkness. All my fellow Trek fans seem to love the characters and the way the new actors have re-invented the old favorites from the TV show. Kirk, Spock, Scott, McCoy, Sulu, Checkov – they’ve all got it down. It’s especially cool to see Uhura in a more active role, and being played by the very hot Zoe Saldana. The film had non-stop action and plenty of high-dollar CGI effects, but it was disappointing to see yet another recycled Trek plot. Yes, I know there are only a few basic archetypes in fiction, but they could at least invent some new villains. And the romantic relationship between Uhura and Spock? Highly illogical.

The newest Superman show, Man of Steel, generated a lot of controversy. Many people ridiculed the “emo” incarnation of Superman. I liked it; it brought some depth to a character who was always too wooden for my taste. Continuing the “spunky female” trend, Lois Lane has a major role, though this time she’s not a brunette – heresy! Like the previous Superman movies, this one ditches the whole Superboy story line. Though the young Clark Kent does a few rescues in secret, he doesn’t don the cape until he’s well into adulthood. This one had a decent plot and great villains; once again, non-stop action. There was an extensive and imanginative segment on the planet Krypton, something previous movies have ignored. My main complaint about Superman is the Man of Steel himself. As my son remarked, he’s the ultimate “OP” (over-powered) character. It’s appropriate that Kent’s true surname is “El,” a Hebrew word for “God.”

The third and most recent of this year’s movie remakes is The Lone Ranger, featuring Johnny Depp (the guy who stole Gene Wilder’s thunder as Willy Wonka in 2005) in the sidekick role as Tonto. This one got many negative reviews, and I’ll admit it has substantial flaws, but I enjoyed it. Armie Hammer does an interesting portrayal of the masked vigilante as a mild-mannered attorney driven to seek justice for the murder of his brother. With Depp playing Tonto, this neglected character finally gets the attention he deserves. The Native American hero is not the PC version you’d expect these days, but a trickster with her own faults and foibles. After all, Tonto is Spanish for “fool,” something Kemo Sabe mentions at the end of the move. As for the plot, it was the old “evil railroad baron” story, and it veered from melodramatic (a villain who eats the hearts of his enemies) to ridiculous (riding a horse on top of a moving train.) In any case, I appreciated the anti-authority message; they’re all corrupt, even the Army.

As I stated before, I believe we should judge each remake on its own merits, rather than bemoaning the trend. I admit, however, that Hollywood has been intellectually lazy and overcautious for far too many years. If it wasn’t for foreign films and TV shows, or the occasional youth-oriented book series (Harry Potter, Hunger Games) they wouldn’t have any new ideas at all. Still, some characters and story lines are too good to be allowed to die.

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!