VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Violence and Action, Suggestive Material and brief Language

Directed by: Luc Besson

Written by: Luc Besson

(based on the VALERIAN AND LAURELINE comics by Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mezieres)

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer, John Goodman, Elizabeth Debicki & Sam Spruell

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS has been a passion project for director/writer Luc Besson since the late 90s. While filming THE FIFTH ELEMENT, Besson believed that a VALERIAN adaptation would be unfilmable because special effects still needed to catch up to the ambitious material. James Cameron’s AVATAR (which had a mediocre plot, but sported fantastic visuals) served as the signal Besson needed. VALERIAN is based on the 1960s French comics VALERIAN AND LAURELINE, predating STAR WARS and serving as a massive influence on loads of sci-fi material that arrived in its wake. Besson’s big screen adaptation of VALERIAN has phenomenal visuals and is guaranteed to gain a cult following over time (much like THE FIFTH ELEMENT), but it suffers from undeniable flaws (much like THE FIFTH ELEMENT).

Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are special agents in the 28th century. Their latest assignment has them guarding Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) as he gives a special conference on Alpha, a vast space station that houses millions of alien races and has many strange cultures. Valerian and Laureline soon find themselves on a rescue mission when Filitt is kidnapped by an unknown race of aliens. This leads the two special space agents into Alpha’s most dangerous areas as they attempt to save Filitt, possibly thwart a terrorist plot, and discover long-buried secrets.

VALERIAN is visually phenomenal. While THE FIFTH ELEMENT has aged a bit in its computer effects and looks pretty cheesy today, it’s impossible to imagine VALERIAN looking like its dated at any point in the near future. The effects in this movie are fantastic and you will believe that the human characters are interacting with many different monsters. The design of Alpha itself is insane as we see underwater worlds, various otherworldly climates, and (of course) a BLADE RUNNER-esque city of humans. One chase sequence has Valerian jumping from alien climate to alien climate and is absolutely breathtaking to behold. Taken on sheer spectacle, VALERIAN is amazing.

That’s not to say that this film is perfect though. The visuals, action sequences, and goofy sense of humor are on point, but VALERIAN struggles when it comes to plot and performances. The main plot takes a little too long to fully take off because the audience is treated to two different prologues. One of these prologues is a blast to behold as Valerian and Laureline infiltrate an interdimensional market to take down a space pirate (featuring an all-too-brief role from John Goodman as the blubbery alien bad guy). The prologue before that prologue reveals too much of VALERIAN’s hand, so that later revelations which are played for surprises wind up not being surprising at all. This results in the plot feeling predictable and by-the-numbers, even though we get many fun subplots of Valerian and Laureline encountering different alien threats.

In a movie that revolves around two special space agents, it’s also sad to say that VALERIAN’s two leads occasionally stumble. Dane DeHaan can be phenomenal in the right roles, but he seems a bit uncomfortable here and has some wooden line delivery early on. This is especially true in scenes where he’s trying to woo Laureline, played by a much-more assured and comfortable Cara Delevingne (who’s significantly stepped it up after her dull performance as Enchantress in last year’s SUICIDE SQUAD). The chemistry between DeHaan and Delevigne is there as partners, but feels terribly forced in a romantic subplot. Their unbelievable love-interest chemistry ensures that certain moments are eye-rollingly stale.

On a positive note, VALERIAN features colorful supporting characters who chew the scenery in over-the-top ways. Clive Owen is fun as the stern commander, even though his character is unconscious for a majority of the film’s running time. Ethan Hawke shows up as a flamboyant pimp, while Rihanna is memorable as a shapeshifting stripper. Besides the already mentioned John Goodman in a voice role, Rutger Hauer briefly shows up for a cameo. The non-speaking alien characters are pretty damn enjoyable too, with a hungry monster king receiving one of the funniest scenes in the entire film.

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS works as sci-fi spectacle with a goofy sense of a humor, but stumbles in its on-and-off chemistry between the two leads, a very predictable plot that offers little in the way of surprising revelations, and annoying attempts at unearned emotional moments. However, there’s more than enough entertainment value here to make Luc Besson’s latest offering worth a recommendation. If you’re a fan of THE FIFTH ELEMENT, I imagine that you’ll likely be a fan of VALERIAN too. This is far from Besson’s best, but VALERIAN is guaranteed to receive a passionate cult following and reputation in the years to come. This is the new generation’s FIFTH ELEMENT.

Grade: B

BLADE RUNNER (1982)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and brief Nudity

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Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Hampton Fancher & David Peoples

(based on the novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? by Philip K. Dick)

Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, Brian James, Daryl Hannah & M. Emmet Walsh

Besides bringing arguably the most terrifying alien movie to the screen, director Ridley Scott also made a significant mark in the science fiction genre with BLADE RUNNER! This film polarized critics upon its release and underperformed at the box office, but has since gone on to become a cult hit with a large fanbase and modern critics praising it to the heavens. Believe the hype. BLADE RUNNER is not only one of the best sci-fi movies ever made, it’s also one of the best films of all time. Combining noir and science fiction into one wholly original and unforgettable combination, BLADE RUNNER is absolutely phenomenal.

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In the distant future of 2019, earth has become an industrial dystopia with off-world colonies. These colonies employ replicants, bioengineered beings who function as superhuman slaves. When four dangerous replicants make their way back to Los Angeles and begin a bloody quest to find their maker, retired cop Rick Deckard is pushed back into duty. You see, Deckard specialized in being a Blade Runner (someone who tracks down and kills replicants), so he’s the perfect man for the job. However, these four replicants are more human and dangerous than he expected. Decker also begins to discover that not everything is black and white.

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BLADE RUNNER is a special movie in that on paper it sounds like an extremely simple story: a guy with a gun chases down four robots. That’s merely skimming the surface of how deep this movie goes though. The world that Ridley Scott introduces us to is simply amazing to behold. It has since been mimicked in plenty of other films, TV shows, and video games, but this is definitely where the neon-lit mechanical future first came into play. The movie doesn’t waste any screen time in filling us in on exposition about this future, but rather introduces pieces of technology and new information in a natural flow that never distracts from the story at hand. Though I watched “The Final Cut” of this movie (Ridley Scott’s full vision of the story), I have to imagine that not too much was digitally altered (after all, Scott is not George Lucas) as this movie utilized a lot of wild effects and screen tricks that still hold up perfectly to this day.

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Besides the amazing on-screen world, this movie has lots of suspense and borders on becoming an outright horror film during a number of sequences. Though it was mis-marketed as an action thrill-ride and has the basic set-up of a sci-fi flick, BLADE RUNNER cannot be fully classified under either of those genres. When you consider its use of noir elements and the probing questions it asks, the film becomes the cinematic masterpiece that has held up over the test of time. The villains in BLADE RUNNER aren’t simply killer robots piling bodies up every which way they go, but instead, come complete with emotions and interesting (as well as understandable) motivations behind their violent actions. They become outright tragic figures of sorts by the end and that makes them more than just one-dimensional baddies. Thus, these four replicants (the two biggest stand-outs being a frightening Rutger Hauer and victim-turned-villainess Daryl Hannah) become some of the most interesting and compelling antagonists in science-fiction film history.

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By praising these replicants, I’m not trying to take anything away from troubled protagonist Rick Decker. This man is ostensibly a noir protagonist placed in a futuristic, neon landscape. Harrison Ford plays Decker unlike any of the other roles that I’ve seen him play. Instead of being a wise-cracking rogue (ala Han Solo) or a charismatic action-hero (ala Indiana Jones), Decker comes off like a depressed cop who doesn’t necessarily like what he’s doing…but remains good at it nonetheless. Alongside Ford’s Decker is the smoking dame Rachael (Sean Young) who initially seems like a throwaway side character, but becomes a far more important player as the movie goes along. The connection between Decker and Rachael also makes for a perfect, poetic conclusion that left me wanting more (I mean that in the best possible way).

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BLADE RUNNER is a masterpiece of science-fiction, noir, and film in general. The special effects hold up decades later in bringing to life one of the most beautiful and well-designed futuristic landscapes to ever hit the big screen. The world this movie throws the viewer into is so fleshed-out and interesting that I would love to spend more time in it. The complex characters and smart writing make an otherwise simple-sounding story into something profound and emotionally moving. BLADE RUNNER is as perfect as cinema can be. This is one of my all-time favorite films!

Grade: A+

SIN CITY (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sustained Strong Stylized Violence, Nudity and Sexual Content including Dialogue

SinCity poster

Directed by: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino

Written by: Frank Miller

(based on the SIN CITY graphic novels by Frank Miller)

Starring: Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Rosario Dawson, Jessica Alba, Nick Stahl, Josh Hartnett, Powers Boothe, Michael Madsen, Jaime King, Elijah Wood, Rutger Hauer, Benicio Del Toro, Brittany Murphy & Michael Clarke Duncan

With the long-awaited sequel (almost a decade since the first movie) coming right around the corner, the urge hit me to rewatch SIN CITY. To be perfectly honest I haven’t seen this movie in five years, though it was a favorite of mine in high school that I viewed repeatedly. Frank Miller, graphic novelist behind 300, and Robert Rodriguez (along with a brief bit by Tarantino) brought to life the gritty crime stories of Frank Miller in a beautifully made film. This was one of the first films to be constructed in this kind of visual fashion that other movies would use further down the line (e.g. 300 for a good film and THE SPIRIT for a bad one). All the beautiful spectacle in the world cannot save a film that lacks in the writing department, but luckily Frank Miller’s stories are brought to life frame for frame. As in there wasn’t even a full writing credit on this film, because everything was right out of Miller’s books.

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For those who don’t know (a surprisingly large amount out there), SIN CITY is composed of four different crime stories that weave and intersect around each other. Think PULP FICTION loaded with even more over-the-top gratuitous violence that also packs a depressing and dark edge. The main thing I can see turning people off SIN CITY is how damned dark it is. However, some stories inject crazy humor into the mix and go into ridiculous territory that remind the viewer they’re essentially watching a live-action comic book. I’m going to tackle each story individually to address the pros and cons of all four tales, but the movie is absolutely gorgeous to behold. Extreme care and attention to detail was put into every frame to bring Frank Miller’s gritty city landscape to life and the sinful citizens inhabiting it. So without further ado, on to the four stories contained within 2005’s SIN CITY…

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THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT: Serving as an opener and closer to the film, these two brief segments welcome to the viewer to the nasty world of SIN CITY and bid them on their way right before cutting to credits. Josh Hartnett plays a character known only as The Salesman. He woos two different women and harbors a dark agenda. This story lasts under five minutes, but keeps a level of mystery around the Salesman character that makes you want to know more about him. This information is never given and never will be, but Josh Hartnett knocks it out of the park with his charismatic and foreboding performance. The opening bit also serves as a nice introduction to just what kind of tone the entire movie will have. A+

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THE HARD GOODBYE: If there’s a single story that I would point out as my least favorite in SIN CITY, it would be HARD GOODBYE. It’s not as if the story is terrible, because it is actually very creative. It follows Marv, a scarred and thuggish individual. He’s just had the time of his life with Goldie, the one hooker who has ever accepted his love. After waking up from a drunken stupor, Marv finds Goldie murdered in bed with him and he’s framed for the crime. Unfortunately for the corrupt cops and a powerful family, Marv is a lunatic who has no problem with hurting anyone who gets in his way or applying vicious torture techniques in order to get information. Mickey Rourke’s misshapen giant is a gentleman to ladies, but is more than a little eager to get his hands dirty on the male scum of Basin City (a.k.a. Sin City).

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The only flaw I find in HARD GOODBYE is how damned dark and mean-spirited the whole story is. It might seem silly to complain about brutality in a movie called SIN CITY. It’s also worth noting that this film originally received an NC-17 from the MPAA and had to go through some edits in order to secure an R rating. Most of these edits most likely come from HARD GOODBYE as it’s nightmarish at points. Elijah Wood pops in for a memorable role that doesn’t have a single line of dialogue. This story also has the most depressing ending of the bunch. It’s phenomenally made and vicious, but it’s also downright unpleasant at points. As well-made as this film is, I’m glad this story was fired early. A-

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THE BIG FAT KILL: Things go from depressing to really entertaining in this story involving gun-totting prostitutes, a hardened man named Dwight, and quite a lot of gangsters. After kicking his girlfriend’s abusive drunkard of an ex out of her apartment, Dwight is convinced that he’s up to no good and follows him into Old Town. This section of the city is full of hookers who will give you the night of your life if you follow the rules or be the death of you if you try any funny stuff. Murder, chaos, and a race against time to cover up a bad mistake ensues. I don’t want to say too much about this story, because some of the enjoyment comes from how wild things get and the unexpected turns the plot takes. BIG FAT KILL is a nice pick me up from the depressing previous story and packs a lot of absurd humor that makes it the most entertaining segment of the movie. I would even go as far as saying that this is my favorite tale of the four being told. A+

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THAT YELLOW BASTARD: The final story actually begins before HARD GOODBYE and then picks up after BIG FAT KILL. John Hartigan is one of the last honest cops in Sin City. They’re a rare breed, in case you can’t guess from the title nickname of Basin City. Hartigan has been on the trail of a pedophile/child-killer who happens to have powerful connections. John puts a few bullets in the psycho and saves an eight year-old girl named Nancy, but finds himself framed for the crimes. Eight years after being locked up, Hartigan is a free man and tries to protect Nancy from the now yellow-skinned psychopath who wants revenge. The plot of YELLOW BASTARD is predictable, but is very cool to watch unfold to say the least. This is the a more character driven story that is actually given a decent amount of time to make you care about John and Nancy. Sympathizing with them makes everything to come that much more gripping. One of the more grotesque deaths you’ll see in cinema occurs in this story and it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving character. Predictability aside, this story delivers on every level. A+

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SIN CITY works in visually capturing a comic book brought to life, but also has Frank Miller’s stellar writing behind it. Every single actor and actress, including usually less-than-great Jessica Alba, gave exactly what was needed of them in their characters. The biggest strength is that all four stories (despite how short they actually are) could fill a four separate movies worth of material and still be rock solid. Packing them all inside a barely over two hour long running time leaves no room to drag and captured my attention from frame one. There are lots of things to like in SIN CITY. The beautiful visuals are merely icing on the cake as the movie moves from emotional and cold to dark and grim to strangely funny and all around amazing. There was never anything quite like SIN CITY before it came along and even if this ten-year-delayed sequel doesn’t deliver on the promise of delivering more great material, then we’ll always have this perfect noir that stands as a cinematic landmark of sorts.

Grade: A+

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