Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Die Hard on a Space Station, from the Director of Die Hard in Space The Fifth Element.

I’m going to be completely honest with you. This movie is a guilty pleasure of mine. It will not appeal to everyone and that’s okay.

Background

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on the French comic book series Valerian and Laureline. The sci-fi action adventure flick was released in July of 2017 and brought in $40 million at the Box Office [source: rotten tomatoes] with an estimated budget of $177 million [source: imbd]. I don’t know much about movie finances, but I think that is considered a flop. So did the Guardian in this post from August 2017. However, it’s cumulative worldwide gross at the end of 2017 was just under $226 million [imbd].

Besides the enormous amount spent on the film, the other notable fact that makes this film unique that it was an independent film. And therefore not necessarily confined to the strict narrative scope that a major movie studio would require.

Reception

Almost everything I’ve heard about this movie or read about it is that it is visually stunning. Not only is it the conclusion that everyone reaches, it is the first thing that is stated about the film. Followed shortly by the stating the amazing aesthetic of the movie provides little cover for a meandering and sometimes disappearing plot. And then followed up by a few less than kind comments on the performances delivered by the cast.

I agree with the praise for the visual and would elevate it some. There are multiple battle and chase scenes that are very impressive. I know all the rage in sci-fi movies now is to have spaceships battle it out in broad day light on a planet, but superb craftsmanship still gets acknowledged in my book even if it is following a trend that might be considered a little dated by some sci-fi movie snobs.

I’m somewhat forgiving on the plot, because… well I’ll get to the plot in a bit. And I think the performances were delivered well and are deserving of praise.

First Impressions

I liked the movie more than I thought I would. At a friend’s recommendation I watched it a second time within the same week and enjoyed it even more.

It had a feel to it like the Fifth Element did, which makes sense since both movies were directed by the same person. (He also directed the Taken Movies. This guy is a career professional).

Other people mentioned that their first impression was that some of the aliens looked like they were ripped off from Avatar. Having never seen Avatar, I watched that and admit there’s a similarity, but eh… I wasn’t bothered by it. And I thought the criticism that was leveled at Valerian and its cast would have been better directed toward Avatar.

The Plot

I think it is a mistake to consider this a three act plot. At its heart, is an interconnected series of stories. In other words, this sci-fi action adventure has as much in common with Love Actually (yes the 2003 romantic comedy) as it does with any space opera. The main difference is that Love Actually’s plots were at first independent of each other and then built some connectivity where Valerian is a sequence of stories which gives an expectation that it would be more orderly. Which is why I made the mistake myself of thinking this was a default three act plot.

What eventually gave it away for me was the size of the cast. Each medium has a general rule of thumb for how many characters it can have, before the audience starts getting confused. TV episodes have the lowest character count. Movies have slightly more. Books have more (usually 10 while Epic Fantasies can have more…  like 15). Comic Books (!) can have the most between 20 and 25. If you are wondering where my source for all this is, it was a Librarian who was leading a writers work shop.

So how many characters does Valerian have? After skimming the full Cast List on IMBD I counted 16 that I considered important. And that leaves out a couple.

So Let’s take a look at the component stories that make up Valerian. This is what I came up with.

  1. The Creation of Alpha
  2. The Last Day of Planet Mul
  3. The Mission to Big Market
  4. The Security Detail Mission on Alpha
  5. Laureline’s Aquatic Adventure (in space) to Rescue Valerian
  6. Acquiring a Disguise to Rescue Laureline
  7. The Rescue of Laureline
  8. After the Last Day of Mul
  9. The Battle for the Heart of Alpha

Interwoven are a few subplots:

  1. Romantic relationship between Valerian and Laureline
  2. A growing “Dead Zone” in Alpha
  3. The Mystery of Planet Mul

If you include the subplots that is a total of 12 stories! Love Actually had 10.

The part where it feels like the wheels begin to fall off are stories 5, 6  and 7. This part contributes very little to building urgency for the dilemma placed before them: Rescuing the Commander of Alpha Station who has been abducted on their watch.

Every time I look for a way to tie this part of the movie to that I come up short. It gives us a much broader picture of the scope of Alpha Station, but more importantly it puts a lot more weight into how both the romantic story and the action story resolve.

Similar to the Fifth Element the story resolves with a plea centered around love. In the Fifth Element Leelu has everything she needs to save the world, but she is reluctant because she is afraid that humans will always wage war. This leaves Bruce Willis to plead with her on behalf of love.

In Valerian, Laureline is in possession of a small creature (last of its kind), that can resolve the turmoil of the Pearls (the natives of Mul). Valerian is opposed to handing it over. He observes that the creature is the property of the government both he and Laureline serve. He wants to do everything procedurally. Laureline makes a plea for love to sway his decision. And he says something to the fact that “Of course I love you. I would die for you.”

And it falls amazingly flat. Not because of the actor’s delivery, but because of all the meandering side stories. After Laureline risked her life and revived him he shrugged it off with out a thank you, saying he would do the same for her. Which, he does. But the point is he established that dying for one another was part of their jobs as agents, not an expression of love.

I have to think that this truly trips Valerian up. Dying for someone is the ultimate macho expression of love (and Valerian is definitely a macho character), but it is also a career hazard in their case. He had also established that the two are mutually exclusive.

None of that emotional turmoil would have existed without those extra side stories.

An Ethical Dilemma at that End

I’m just going to spend a little time mentioning that I love a good ethical delimma in my science fiction. I did not expect it in Valerian and it was wonderfully presented.

The Macho Hero

I’m probably going to stumble through this next section, but I think it is worth bringing up.

As I mentioned before, Valerian is a macho hero. Granted he doesn’t physically resemble Arnold, Stallone or any of the other action hero staples. But he does have the attitude and careless bravado.

It’s hard to root for him, because well. He’s kind of a jerk. He establishes that early on.

So how does one make an action hero movie in today’s environment? First, he is not the moral compass or voice of reason of the film. That role clearly belongs to Laureline.

But there are a couple of other ways in which the manly machoism is offset. First, Valerian has a woman inside of him. But not in a weird way. Yes there is a joke or two, but even those are offset.

Second, a character who is treated as a sex object (Rhianna’s character) is humanized.

But also the directorial decision by having Emporer Limai acted by and voiced by women. Correct. Two women (Aymeline Valade and Elizabeth Debicki) are credited with playing a pivotal male character.

This doesn’t soften Valerian’s manliness, but it does diminish the influence of his macho manfoolness (new made up word!) on the film to the point where it is not central to plot(s).

 

Things I missed the First Time

  1. Seat Belts!
    1. A couple of times in the first half of the movie, the phrase”Seat Belts” is uttered and they automatically secure the passengers to their seats. Later in the movie, there is a questionably sound submarine and the captain says, “Seat Belt” and the character does nothing (assuming they are automatic) and that character gets thrown!
  2. I don’t speak French.
    1. A lot of the cast is French. As Valerian walks through Paradise alley he is approached by someone speaking French. He responds with (you guessed it) I don’t speak French.
  3. “How much time do we have left”?
    1. Valerian asks this in the last of many many action sequences. We think he is asking the General, but the way it resolves I think he was communicating with someone else.
  4. The Council was in on the cover up the whole time.
    1. This one blew my mind. Most of the entire movie, we are lead to believe that situation on Alpha was driven by one character… who later claims to have been acting on the approved directions of the council.
  5. The walk on air gun that Valerian uses is actually a shield.
    1. In one chase sequence Valerian runs through a wall (seriously) and he starts to fall. He pulls out a pistol and fires a shot and a laser platform which he steps on briefly before jumping off to another. Who has a laser platform pistol? Turns out, that is not its intended function. Thats just Valerian being creative. In the ending action sequence a character has to get to a computer panel to rearrange wires in order to stop a bomb. But he (not Valerian) is taking enemy fire. With minimal time, he runs to the panel firing a laser pistol towards the enemy. It’s not laser fire, that he shoots. It is shields. The pistol has a setting for laser shields! Which is what Valerian used as stepping stones for like a second and a half in the movie.
  6. The converter as a leverage in negotiation
    1. The Commander of Alpha station intends to use the creature as leverage. Presumably, we give this to you and you go away. But the more I think about it, the intent was to gain leverage by threatening the creature’s existence.

Conclusion

I spent a lot of time writing about this movie, and a reader could easily mistake this as my all time favorite. (It is not). I enjoyed it. I hope there will be more movies like it (there probably won’t) and I think at the moment it is underrated. Here’s to hoping this becomes a cult classic.

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Review: Thrones And Bones

One size does not fit all in this nordic like adventure.

Why I Picked it Up

One of my sons has been really into books about Dragons. For over a year I suggested Frostborn (the first book in the series) and each time he said, “meh”. Then one day he comes home with it from the school book fair.

Not long after he began pushing me to read it. I did. And it was glorious! It had a slower start than I prefer but the last 100 pages were worth the wait.

Then I checked out the second book (Nightborn) from the Library and it was one of the most entertaining fantasy adventures I read. This won’t be true for everyone, but I definitely feel that a study could be made of how to write sequels using this book.

In particular, I enjoyed that we essentially join a story that is in progress. Its instant drama. Which is a sharp contrast to the prolonged opening to Frostborn. Additionally we are introduced to new characters that have stories of their own.

Shortly after reading Nightborn, I followed it up with the last book in the series: Skyborn, which was a solid conclusion to the series.  This is faster paced than Frostborn, but a little less urgent than Skyborn. Which can pretty much be said for the third installment of any trilogy.

My only critique for this series was really that in the third book the plot is centered around dragon eggs hatching… all on the same day… at the exact same time. Viewed on its own, it is as absurd as it sounds. However, in the context of the story it works. It doesn’t strengthen the fantasy, but it doesn’t weaken it either.

Although this series could be considered a trilogy because it has 3 books in the series, and it there are elements that are introduced in the first book that appear in the third. But it didn’t feel like a it told one story in 3 installments because all of the conflicts in the first book. For me it told two great stories over three books. I only mention because you don’t really need to read book 2 immediately after book 1, but I highly recommend reading book 3 right after book 2.

BookTube

There was only one review on youtube for Frostborn and I’m guessing none exist for the whole series.

Review: A Fire Upon the Deep

If Lassie was an episode of Game of Thrones in Space, but even better.

Why I Picked it Up

Mainly, I was looking for a long space opera and this kept popping up as recommendation.

My Impressions

It was not the space opera I was looking for, but that didn’t stop it from being all sorts of amazing.

My first impression was nightmarish. The book opens with a conversation between two sentient AI’s talking about a third sinister AI. I happened to be working on a project at work that involved machine learning which also contributed to my nightmare.

Nightmare’s aside, everything else went smoothly. There are times in the book that are physically stunning and other times it is emotional. Yes, I may have shed a tear over a book with a spaceship on its cover.

What really struck me was the amount of time spent on examining the effects of a propaganda campaign that was published on “The Net”. This topic is relevant for today and so you might be tempted to think this was published recently. But it wasn’t. It was published in 1992! A time when most people didn’t have access to the Internet.

There were a number of other things that amazed me.

  • The concept of a shared consciousness as an identity.
  • The number of times characters underestimate the threat.
  • The medieval political maneuvering.
  • The degree the level of distrust rises among the cast.

In short, the ideas and concepts in this book are big, beautiful and amazing. On top of that they are expertly delivered.

My One Draw Back (it doesn’t really matter)

The only thing that disappointed me was that in the first few chapters it appeared to be a family sci-fi adventure, and it turned out not to be. I’ve read so many stories and seen so many movies where the children the story is centered around are orphaned. And that was before Harry Potter. Since then, it has gotten to the point where I consider it unoriginal and get frustrated when I see pages and time dedicated to it.

It is now a joke in our family before we watch one of these movies for me to ask if the Mom and Dad make it out alive. They almost never do.

Why it doesn’t really matter

It doesn’t matter because there are multiple children in this book who are part of the main cast and this is not a children’s book! Most publishers would force an author to rewrite the story into either a mid-grade or YA format. But that didn’t happen and its amazing.

Goodreads and Booktube

As of this writing the book is rated 4.13 stars, with over 44,264 ratings!

 

TLJ: Rey vs Luke

I’ve heard a lot of criticism about the scene in TLJ where Rey beats Luke with his own lightsaber. Well, I didn’t hear it. I heard a lot of people defending against the claim, and I want to toss in my cents.

This purpose of this post isn’t to defend the scene. It is to question of the validity of the criticism.

Did Rey beat Luke?

The scene starts out with Rey relaying her dark side experience to Kylo Ren in her hut. The two touch hands and Luke shows up freaking out. He blows out the walls in super dramatic fashion and Kylo Ren disappears. I’m guessing here, that Luke breaks the force link and that is what blows up the walls of the hut. Not just that he’s upset.

Rey immediately confronts him about trying to kill Ben Solo. Luke responds by telling her to get off the island and walks away. She says “stop”. Twice. Luke keeps walking.

Rey initiates the duel by knocking him down from behind with her quarter staff. This isn’t the duel itself. It is a cheap shot, not a duel. Luke responds by standing up while Rey swings the quarterstaff at him again. Then he force grabs a lightening rod, to defend himself. And have a pretend lightsaber battle with her.

But he doesn’t really use his weapon right away. He blocks one strike from Rey. She finds that now that he’s facing her it’s a different dynamic. She swings wildly and Luke effortlessly dodges. Keep in mind, it is presumed that Rey is an expert or at least competent in using this particular weapon. But she keeps missing.

Luke strikes her in the back. In pretend lightsabers, Luke just won. But she keeps going. She forces Luke back who begins using his pretend lightsaber to more actively defend himself. She has clearly upped her game from the wild swings a split second earlier, but Luke is still better.

How much better is Luke. He freaking disarms her and throws her quarterstaff away. That is twice now that she has lost. Both times in a pretty humiliating and aggravating way.

It is this final phase of the duel that people are upset over. After being disarmed, Rey extends her arm in the direction of where Luke has tossed her quarterstaff and she summons… the lightsaber! (that was such an amazing shot). And she’s like I’m done playing pretend, this how we settle things back on Jakku!

It strikes me that she is upset that Luke drew a lightsaber on Ben Solo in a similar manner.

And then she charges Luke who falls over when he trips. She then turns it off and says “Tell me the truth”.

In some accounting of this you could say they split the duel. 2-2. Honestly, the only way she won her two was when Luke was defenseless. He can’t parry a real lightsaber with his pretend one. And do you remember what she did to that rock when he saw her practicing? Ya, you’d back up too.

No, Luke proved his mastery in the most amazing way possible. Without a lightsaber.

 

 

 

 

 

TLJ: There is no gravity in space

Or is there?

The complaint that baffles me the most in all the rumblings about TLJ is the bombing scene in the opening. The complaint is often phrased as “There is no gravity in space!”

Let’s put aside that there is gravity for large objects like planets and stars. The complaint is really that people didn’t believe the bombs would fall. And they are using their understanding of physics to explain why the didn’t believe it.

I’m surprised at how frequently this complaint is stated. In more moderate tones, it has been phrased as questions on quora and on stackexchange.

First, Star Wars is not a series I turn to when I want to enjoy a plausible hard sci-fi tale. It routinely breaks away from explanations of how the technology works. Or makes the explanations so simple they can be explained in a sentence. The one exception was when the midichlorians were introduced as an explanation of how some are stronger with the force than others. That explanation was not well received.

So what I’m getting at is really most of the people with this complaint were already going into the movie looking for things that they would not like. The people I’ve spoken with who have this opinion did not enjoy The Force Awakens and were still sour over it.

When I suggest that this may be the reason they were pulled out of the moment, they generally respond, “But… physics!”

Now I don’t know much about physics, but I know enough to know there is no sound in space. And guess what. There are plenty of spaceship sounds in all of the movies.

I think the official explanation as to why the bombs fell is because they had some sort of magnets in them. That’s possible, since similar looking bombs appeared in TFA and were infact magnetic. (They just didn’t fall from a spaceship, they were planted by Han and Chewbacca in the oscillator on Starkiller Base.)

I think a better explanation is that a force in motion stays in motion unless acted on by an outside force. The question is then, what puts them into motion? And here I would suggest the ship’s artificial gravity. Which is clearly on display as Paige Tico falls down. It is reinforced again when the manual controller falls (or whatever you call the thing with the big red button) and Paige catches it as it falls past her.

Note: this is similar to the explanation provided on stackexchange.