Friday, March 22, 2019

Improving Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (cause it wasn't as awful as I thought it would be)

Valerian and Laureline
So I finally watched "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets." (Currently free on Amazon Prime) I thought it would be absolutely awful and it actually wasn't, but it wasn't exactly good either. I'm a huge fan of Luc Besson's film "The Fifth Element" and while it wasn't anywhere near that monumental triumph, it also wasn't a burning pile of poo like the Wackowski's "Jupiter Ascending" or James Cameron's over-hyped and nearly unwatchable "Avatar." (Yes, I really really dislike that film)

However, this isn't a review of Valerian. Instead, it's a list of what could have been done to improve it. Because that's more fun to write. Go read someone else's review if you want to know what it's about and whether you might like it. Try this one from Rolling Stone.

So how do we improve a super expensive and mediocre movie:

1) Cast actors who can act. Sounds simple given the planet's overabundance of talented and under-employed actors. However, we're stuck with the two absolute worst actors in the lead roles. While there is no doubting that Cara Delevigne is stunningly beautiful, there is also no doubting that she is a horrific actress. Her face is useless for expressions, she can't deliver a line with any timing, she has zero emotional range, and you absolutely will never feel any connection to her. Pairing her Dane DeHaan, who can best be described as being from the Keanu Reeves school of acting, has zero screen presence at all and no emotional skill. Now I love, I mean LOVE, Keanu Reeves, and he is perfect at all he does, but the man can't act. I mean, I don't know what he's doing on screen, but it just isn't acting. But for him, it works. It works so very well. For Dane...not so much. And unlike the eye candy of Cara Delevigne, Dane DeHaan doesn't even have that going for him. So he can't act and he isn't anything much to look at. What was the casting director going for exactly?

2) Cast diverse actors. There was absolutely no meaningful diversity in this movie. Not only are our two leads incapable of acting, they, and the vast majority of the cast, are as white as they come. Yes, I know there are many aliens and so we can't expect racial diversity as it is meaningful in American society to matter amongst alien species, BUT most of the speaking roles are given to human characters, and most of those are white. Three small exceptions are a shape shifting blue squid that often dons the guise of a black woman and a few moments of black man who we think is the head of the humans as well as a black solider who was killed for trying to hold his commander accountable for genocide. However, the shapeshifting alien/black woman dies saving Valerian who has promised (as the white hero) to save her from a life of human trafficking. The black leader of the humans has three meaningless lines, delivered through a computer screen, in 137 minutes of film time (pure tokenism). As I said, the black solider is killed for trying to hold the white commander accountable but has no meaningful dialogue. So two of the three end up martyred to save either a white lead (who can't act) or a race of VERY white humanoid aliens. There is a token Asian character, but all the rest of the soldiers, generals, commanders, merchants, tourists, etc... are white (and almost exclusively men). Why not cast actors of Indian, Persian, Hispanic, black, Asian, or any background who can act in both the lead and side roles? Why go out of your way to have a very white film made with people who can't act when whiteness serves no story-related purpose? You can't argue they were the best for the roles, because ANYONE on the planet would have been a better actor and being white had nothing to do with the role. Whether it was a conscious choice to cast mostly white actors or evidence of long-standing implicit bias, it was a very very white film.

3) Move your gender roles beyond the 1960s. So where is Laureline's name in the title? Her name is in the French comic it's based on. But no, we're going to give the film an incredibly long title but have no room for the female lead's name in the title, just the man's. Further, although there is a moment that plays off this, Laureline is frequently made to stay back by Valerian in classic chauvinist fashion. But why does Valerian have to be a male chauvinist whose heart changes over the course of the film at all? I haven't read the comics, but I don't care what he's like there. We could do with some sensitive, compassionate leading men who can also still be good space agents. And we could do with the two of them sorting out their feelings as two equals, not as an asshole man being changed by the love of a woman. Laureline is presented as great at what she does and there is no meaningful reason why she couldn't be the focus of the film. But it's Valerian who gets most of the big combat scenes even though Laureline shows that she can handle herself in a fight just fine. And she also is put in the place to get rescued by Valerian for no good reason. In fact, the entire episode that has her get captured and him saving her only exists to show off his skills and ultimately introduces and kills off the black/shape-shifting blue squid. It doesn't actually drive the plot forward and could have been completely left out of the movie. The one time she rescues him, it's not so much a rescue as it is just finding him and then she gets herself into trouble requiring him to rescue her anyway. Let's make them equals and let's make the emotional struggle between them not about her undoing his chauvinism, but about genuinely trying to decide if they are compatible as people who talk and think about interesting things. The Han Solo/Princess Leia thing they try to do just didn't work. We had one of those, it was of the times in 1977, but this is the 20-teens and we deserve a kind and balanced leading man along with a strong, competent, and doesn't-need-to-prove-herself to anyone leading lady who engage in meaningful dialogue not just banter.

4) Hire a better editor. The editing was terrible at times. Not only was it long, with some scenes that could have been dramatically shortened and whole segments (see above) removed entirely, but the editing on the timing of dialogue quips to end scenes was awful. Lines were delivered just a hair late, making the comedy fall flat. I don't care whether the actor's really had bad timing, or if this occurred in ADR, but the beauty of editing is the ability to remove a little time to make the line hit better. Given that the actor's couldn't act at all, this is the least they could have done. Further, most of those end quips weren't necessary. A little eye roll or facial expression would have done the trick. But sadly, most of these moments are given to Cara Delevigne who clearly can't manage a convincing eye roll anyway so they needed to give her actual dialogue to make the joke. Then they botched it with poor editing. And don't get me started on the poor ADR where entire paragraphs of speech didn't match the lip movements. Yuck. Given that terrible syncing, they could have hired someone else to overdub the two leads and at least improve the acting.

5) Get rid of CGI (or at least reduce its use). Give me some damn space ship models, some matte paintings for backgrounds, and some honest to goodness latex costumes for aliens. It's not that I hate CGI, but there's just too damn much of it. I'll take practical special effects any day. It has a tangibleness that you can't get with CGI; there's no weight to CGI, no gravity. Use CGI to clean it up, use it to supplement, but come on, for someone who used practical effects so well in The Fifth Element, there is just no excuse here. I don't care if some things are un-filmable unless you use CGI, maybe it would make a film better if writers and directors were forced to find meaningful writing, characters, and plot approaches to solve the filmmaking dilemmas rather than just adding more CGI to achieve what's in their heads.

The thing is, all of these problems were avoidable. Who's doing quality control on these $200 million movies? Yes, I know the financing was very different on this one giving Luc Besson a lot of control, but what about those trash heaps I mentioned above like Jupiter Ascending and Avatar (not to mention many many many...most big CGI movies)? Someone needs to ask, "really, these are the BEST two actors you could find? I have two baristas at the Starbucks near Broadway who would love these roles and can actually act!" Same with the diversity, either you find it meaningful to cast the incredible beauty of the human species or you don't. And if you don't, it says a lot about you. There was nothing in this story that needed even a single white actor. So you can't blame it on taking place in the corporate world of the 1960s or at Yale (pretty much any time) as to why there were so many white actors. And for the writing (gender stereotypes), poor editing, and bland special effects, those are production decisions that also show more about the people making the film than the potential of the project itself. In other hands, this could have been a great film. As it was, it wasn't bad, but it certainly wasn't what it could have been.


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