Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

For F*** Magazine

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS 

Director : Luc Besson
Cast : Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 2h 17m
Opens : 20 July 2017
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

20 years after The Fifth Element, Luc Besson takes another crack at the space opera subgenre with this sprawling sci-fi epic. It is the 28th century, and Major Valerian (DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Delevingne) are Federation operatives tasked with keeping the peace across the cosmos. Valerian is drawn to Laureline, but because of his reputation as a serial heartbreaker, Laureline rebuffs her partner’s advances. The minister of defence (Hancock) sends the pair on assignment to Alpha, a bustling space station metropolis home to 30 million inhabitants of every conceivable species, nicknamed ‘the city of a thousand planets’. When Valerian and Laureline’s superior Arün Filitt (Owen) is kidnapped, they must get to the bottom of a long-buried conspiracy. Along the way, the pair meets colourful characters including the shape-shifting nightclub singer Bubble (Rihanna) and her sleazy pimp Jolly (Hawke).

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on the classic French comic Valerian and Laureline, created by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières and first published in 1967. When writer-director Besson was growing up, the comics were a favourite of his, and they became a strong influence of The Fifth Element. Mézières was a concept artist on that film, and pre-dating that, many French observers noted strong similarities between the aesthetic of Star Wars and that of Valerian and Laureline. An anime adaptation called Time Jam: Valerian and Laureline was made in 2007, but a feature film adaptation hasn’t been made until now.

This is clearly a labour of love for Besson, and it’s abundantly obvious that lots of people put staggering amounts of effort into bringing this film to fruition. Environments bursting with imaginative detail are all over the movie. There is extensive, expansive visual effects work from vendors including Weta Digital, ILM, Rodeo FX and Hybride. While the film is fun to look at, after a certain point, it becomes exhausting, as if one has gotten indigestion after a feast for the eyes. This is yet another example of an adaptation being late to its own party – in between 1967 and now, audiences have seen similar visuals in many sci-fi films and TV shows. Beyond the obvious Star Wars and Star Trek connections, Valerian is also quite reminiscent of the Mass Effect video games. There is a race of slender, sylph-like tribal aliens with translucent, glowing skin, which will instantly conjure up memories of the Na’vi from Avatar.

Besson busies himself far more with the world-building than with developing the story. The plot is surprisingly difficult to follow, until everything is laid out in an exposition-heavy scene towards the film’s conclusion. While the action set pieces and chases are relatively thrilling, every other scene feels like a diversion, and it seems like we take extended breaks from furthering the plot to poke around some corner of some extra-terrestrial city. Our heroes don’t go through that grand an arc, and because of the episodic nature of the central adventure, it seems like we’re watching a stretched-out episode of a TV series. Audiences might be tired of origin stories, but perhaps that would have served this well, since most viewers outside France aren’t overly familiar with the property.

The film’s biggest weakness is the casting of its two leads. At every turn, DeHaan and Delevingne look woefully out of place amidst the dazzlingly designed surroundings. Valerian and Laureline should be swashbuckling action heroes, charismatic, larger-than-life figures. DeHaan and Delevingne aren’t the obvious picks to lead a sci-fi action adventure, and that’s a significant problem. Leaning into, instead of rejecting, the archetypes would play better, since this is something of a tribute to the space opera genre. Beyond their inability to convincingly inhabit the other-worldly environments, DeHaan and Delevingne have minimal chemistry with each other. The bickering rom-com relationship is tiring rather than tantalising, most of their interaction consists of Valerian harassing Laureline, and a lot of their dialogue borders on Star Wars prequel, Padmé and Anakin cheesiness.

The movie is packed with characters, but none of the supporting cast has that big an impact on the story. Owen does next to nothing, and Kris Wu stands around the control room a bunch. Hancock mostly appears as an image on the screen giving orders to our heroes via video call. Rihanna gets an extended dance sequence, which is entertaining, but is yet another moment when it feels like the story comes to a screeching halt to turn its attention to a distraction. Her character Bubble is sympathetic and is more interesting that either Valerian or Laureline, but she’s only in the film for a bit. Hawke has fun as the cheerfully cruel Jolly, but it amounts to little than a cameo.

Valerian serves up spectacle in spades, and packs in a lot of weirdness that’s sufficiently different from standard Hollywood blockbuster fare. However, it can’t help but feel derivative, even if its source material is a progenitor of the media that this film appears to borrow from. This is meant to be a light-hearted jaunt, but a key plot point centres on war crimes and genocide. It’s often close to being immersive, but is hampered by marked unevenness and miscast leads.

Summary: Visually, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets serves up bang for your buck, but no matter how dazzling the effects or how thrilling the action, you’ll have a hard time believing Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as space-hopping super agents.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

For F*** Magazine

XXX: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE

Director : D. J. Caruso
Cast : Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Ruby Rose, Kris Wu, Toni Collette, Nina Dobrev, Rory McCann, Tony Jaa, Michael Bisping, Samuel L. Jackson
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 47min
Opens : 19 January 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)

xxx-return-of-xander-cage-posterAny action star worth his salt has got to keep more than one franchise going, so get ready for more Diesel-powered action with this continuation of the xXx series. Extreme sportsman and elite secret agent Xander Cage (Diesel) has long been thought dead, but his services are needed again as a new threat emerges. Xiang (Yen) and his team of highly skilled adrenaline junkie operatives have gotten their hands on a device called Pandora’s Box, which can be used to crash any satellite in orbit. NSA handler Jane Marke (Collette) draws Xander back into the fray. Xander calls on his associates, including sharpshooter Adele Wolff (Rose), stunt driver Tennyson Torch (McCann) and deejay Nicks Zhou (Wu) to back him up. They are assisted by tech expert Becky Clearidge (Dobrev). They must face off against Xiang and his team, comprising Serena (Padukone), Talon (Jaa) and Hawk (Bisping), as Serena questions where her loyalties lie. xxx-return-of-xander-cage-kris-wu-ruby-rose-rory-mccann-and-vin-diesel

The first xXx film was pitched as a hipper, cooler competitor to the Bond franchise. In the same year, the Bond film Die Another Day tried to pull off some extreme sports action. It was not a good look. The premise of devil-may-care thrill-seekers recruited into a spy program is silly, but in the right hands, it can be the fun kind of silly. xXx: Return of Xander Cage is absolutely the fun kind of silly. From the first scene, director D.J. Caruso practically announces that this is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously at all. What follows is a string of outlandish stunts and set pieces which, while smaller in scale, almost rival those showcased in the recent Fast and Furious flicks. Anything that was considered remotely cool in the 2000s is, by now, painfully awkward, so xXx: Return of Xander Cage boldly embraces the cheesiness and is all the more enjoyable for it.

xxx-return-of-xander-cage-tony-jaa-michael-bisping-and-donnie-yen

F. Scott Frazier’s screenplay bursts with quips and one-liners of varying quality, but at its core lies a generic spy thriller plot: one team of agents has the MacGuffin, and the other must get it back. There’s globe-trotting, car chases and shootouts, as well as shifting alliances and standard-issue plot twists. Then again, nobody’s going to watch this for the plot. There are enough bells and whistles and a spirited embrace of ludicrousness to lift this above the humdrum formula of many a disposable action flick. You will believe a man can ski through a rainforest and that motorcycles can transform into jetskis to ride ocean swells. The visual effects work is surprisingly competent, and the explosive climax doesn’t look conspicuously phony.

xxx-return-of-xander-cage-vin-diesel-1

Diesel’s Xander allows the star to indulge his ego as a coolly laconic, an anti-establishment rebel who lives life on the edge. This was never a particularly grounded character and Diesel seems aware of that. This time, he has an eclectic ensemble supporting him.

xxx-return-of-xander-cage-donnie-yen-1

Yen is on excellent form here, the film making good use of his skill set. He’s is charming and menacing as Xiang, but the character is not a moustache-twirling villain and surprisingly, there’s some nuance to him. Yen gets to perform more martial arts here than he did in Rogue One, and he plays off Diesel superbly. Jet Li was originally cast in the part, and it is speculated that he dropped out due to health concerns. We think Yen is a better fit for Xiang than Li might’ve been.

xxx-return-of-xander-cage-deepika-pakudone-1

Bollywood starlet Padukone is counting on this film to help her break into the American market. She’s a serviceable femme fatale, but is far from the most memorable actress to play the archetype.

xxx-return-of-xander-cage-ruby-rose-1

It’s Rose who steals the show as the smart-alecky sniper Adele. The epitome of cool, Rose seems right in her element whether she’s handling a rifle or hitting on every woman in sight. McCann, best known as Sandor “The Hound” Clegane on Game of Thrones, puts in an amusing turn as the slightly-unhinged Tennyson. Dobrev plays up the ‘adorkable’ shtick for all it’s worth, but borders on grating as the resident tech geek. Out of Xander’s sidekicks, it’s Wu who makes the least impact as Nicks, who serves no apparent purpose on the team. Each character is introduced with a title card listing their special skills, akin to the ones seen in Suicide Squad. Nicks’ just says he’s “fun to be around”.

xxx-return-of-xander-cage-toni-collette

As the no-nonsense boss lady, Collette delivers her many dramatic declarations with gusto, and appears to be having fun being a part of a big, silly action movie, since she doesn’t do those too often. Jaa has his hair dyed blonde and styled into a faux-hawk, and his role is largely comedic. If there’s any big missed opportunity here, it’s that Jaa isn’t given more to do, and that he doesn’t have a fight scene in which he either teams up with or faces off against fellow martial arts expert Yen. Jackson’s reprisal of the Augustus Gibbons role amounts to little more than a cameo, but there are a couple more cameos sure to elicit a reaction from the audience.

xxx-return-of-xander-cage-samuel-l-jackson

xXx: Return of Xander Cage isn’t particularly original or, god forbid, smart, but it’s good at what it does. Erring on the right side of self-aware without plunging into obnoxious self-parody, this threequel announces “this is silly, and that’s perfectly okay”. If this gang is staying together, bring on xXx IV.

Summary: The rip-roaring third entry in the xXx series put a smile on this reviewer’s face. A big, dumb smile.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong