A John Carter-like attempt to film an influential comic which many sci-fi movies (including Besson’s own Fifth Element) have been ripping off for decades. I’ll bet this was better in 3D. The movie seems to want to be in VR, having Valerian put on special glasses when he wants to see into other dimensions (recalling Freddy’s Dead).

The Pearls, a peaceful race of white Na’vi, live on Shell Beach with their pets who can shit dark matter, until their planet is destroyed as collateral damage in a space war led by Commander Clive Owen. Survivors have invaded the International Space Station (now a massive free-floating city of a thousand alien races) and learned all the alien techs to built themselves a supership Shell Beach simulator. Commander Clive sees all this as a threat, and sends soldiers to stop them, or something.

But first, Major Tom Valerian (Dane DeHaan: Lawless, A Cure for Wellness) is sexually harassing his coworker Laureline (Cara Delevingne: London Fields, Paper Towns). According to my Alamo Drafthouse waiter, their relationship made some kind of sense in the original comics, but human behavior isn’t Besson’s strong suit, so he’s botched it. These two are sent to interrupt a trade between Pearls and a Hutt unmistakably voiced by John Goodman, and during their escape a bulletproof rhinobeast wipes out their team.

Valerian’s boss, the General, looks like a Weasley but is actually Sam Spruell of Snow White and the Huntsman… then there are a series of higher-ups played by Rutger Hauer and Herbie Hancock who we barely see. Our team is eventually separated, and Laureline goes underwater with a beardy submariner named Bob (Alain Chabat of The Science of Sleep) while Valerian gets help from a shapeshifting Rihanna (after murdering her pimp Ethan Hawke), who does a dance which will be my most-watched scene on netflix once it comes out.

Some effects shots are very cartoony, not fooling anyone, and the action choreography is quite bad when viewed the day after Atomic Blonde. The very long info-dump ending is bad, the plot is mostly bad, the teaching Valerian about the meaning of love is bad, so I spaced out in the last half hour and tried to figure who Dane DeHaan reminds me of – is it Nicolas Cage? He’s fine, don’t get me wrong – all the acting and filmmaking is generally spot-on, just in service of a poor script. There is one great bit in the ending: Laureline is left alone with Commander Clive and just keeps punching him.

I was so disappointed… instead of the tough, capable Weaver or Rapace, we get a bunch of panicky crew members who make very bad decisions, leading to all of their deaths and leaving evil android David in charge of thousands of frozen would-be colonists. These people have no capacity for fighting, thinking clearly in an emergency situation, or prioritizing… and for some reason everyone in the crew is a married couple, so when their partner dies they become useless. More importantly, it’s no fun watching them walk into traps that we Alien-movie vets easily see coming and just die unceremoniously. Each movie brought something new to the table until this one, which only rehashes things we’ve seen before.

But then I was pondering on the way home – maybe this bunch of useless, easily dispatched characters was assembled on purpose. David says something about humans being a failed species on the evidence that they need a space colonization program in the first place, that it’s worth letting them die, and he’s going to make sure it happens. Maybe this is the opinion of Ridley and the umpteen writers, and they prove their point by having humanity’s most vital mission entrusted to these bozos. The Alien series stories always featured individuals fiercely triumphing over adversity, over external forces and internal human greed, and now Ridley has given his corporate lords another space-massacre movie to sell, but he no longer sees a society worth saving.

Captain Billy Crudup is a Christian, which is mentioned every time he’s on screen to diminished effect from the Prometheus origin-story wonderings. He lasts a good while, is finally replaced by the Carey Mulligan-looking Katherine Waterston (Queen of Earth, Inherent Vice) down on the planet and Cowboy Danny McBride (of mostly James Franco movies) in the ship. The star, of course, is Michael Fassbender as both drama queen David and buttoned-up Walter. They are identical-ish, and in the finale they switch places and you totally can’t tell except that you’ve been expecting it the entire movie, then you know they’ve switched places and you’re waiting for the rest of the characters to discover it and it’s exasperating, then finally it’s too late and you think “good, to hell with humanity.”

Ehrlich called it “majestically shot” and Matt Lynch said “gorgeous,” hmmm, maybe I was sitting too close? Also, come to think of it, David also genocides an entire planet of those bald guys from Prometheus, so maybe it’s less anti-humanity than anti-life.

Magical, delicate-looking stop-motion retelling of the Little Prince story, in which I guess he leaves his beloved rose, wanders some asteroids meeting strange adults, then crashes on Earth’s desert where he trades wisdom with a stranded aviator. Surrounding this, in a more Pixar-like CG animation style, is a sort of Little Prince Expanded Universe, in which eccentric Jeff Bridges tells the story to a neighbor kid who’s being meticulously groomed to be a serious-minded adult. When Bridges is sick, the girl flies into space to find the Little Prince, who has been corrupted by adulthood. You think of the Little Prince story as a fairy tale and the grey-cube grown-up CG world as reality, so it’s fun when they merge into one adventure at the end. Life Lessons seem pretty uncontroversial: protecting your inner child and holding onto important memories, but it’s all told in a pleasantly unusual way. This movie was dumped onto Netflix, but we drove an hour to see one of its rare theatrical screenings, and it was worth it for the gorgeous stop-motion scenes alone.

I recognized the director’s name from the great animated short More, which also features lead characters with colorful inner lives trying to break out of conformist grey-box worlds. All-star cast but the best voices were the non-actor kids, except for Bridges, and I’ll give credit to Ricky Gervais as “the conceited man”.

Wing Commander (1999, Chris Roberts)

I played the first Wing Commander video game a fair amount, the second one a ton, and I think my computer was underpowered for the third (1994) so that one not so much. When the movie came out too-many-years later and I saw its posters splashed all over Barcelona, I ignored it. Looks like that was the right choice. Euro-accented spaceship crew is yelling the standard space-movie stuff about shields, then there’s a solo-flying Freddie Prinz Jr. with a cool monocole. I’ve got nothing against Freddie, didn’t see any of his poorly-received movies of the era and he was alright on The Brak Show. This movie is so full of jargon and effects, I doubt anyone knows or cares what is happening. Cool to see David Warner as the admiral, anyway. I don’t approve of the Kilrathi being slow-motion underwater green-tinted puppets speaking in subtitled death-metal voices. Appearance at the end by Saffron Burrows of Klimt. Why is Mark Hamill credited as “?” when he appears in all the games?


Star Trek 7: Generations (1994, David Carson)

I went back further than ten minutes because I didn’t want to miss Kirk dying. He and Picard fight Malcolm McDowell in the desert trying to get some magic remote control that makes a missile turn invisible. Doesn’t seem like a plot worth dying for, but Kirk gets crushed under a metal bridge, freeing up Shatner to do more important work, like that amazing Se7en parody in 1996. Epilogue: Data has emotions and a pet cat, Picard has a monologue about time being a flat circle and Frakes makes a sly joke about living forever (he will). Director Carson went on to make Unstoppable (the Wesley Snipes one, not the Denzel Washington one).


Congo (1995, Frank Marshall)

I don’t remember the novel, other than I hated it but it was the only book I had while stuck in a Costa Rica airport for six hours… or maybe that was Sphere… anyway, why are army people machine-gunning monkeys, and why is one monkey speaking English while wearing a nintendo power glove? Good to see Ernie Hudson, and weird to see Laura Linney blasting monkeys with lasers and oh now a volcano is erupting and burning all the monkeys. Do NOT watch this movie if you love monkeys. Joe Don Baker!! After all the digital motion-capture shit of recent years it’s nice to see one monkey played by an actor wearing a furry suit. Director Marshall went on to make a Paul Walker sled dog movie and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley was slumming between an oscar win for Moonstruck and a nomination for Doubt.


The Relic (1997, Peter Hyams)

I guess this is the one that wasn’t Species or Mimic. Apparently it stars Penelope Ann Miller (Big Top Pee-Wee) and Tom Sizemore (Dreamcatcher), but I can’t see a damned thing. Looks like figures running through a dark chemical plant. When we finally see the Relic and its gross long tongue, it looks like some Alien/Predator/Pumpkinhead/Krang mashup for the ten seconds before Penelope uses confusing editing to set it on fire, then she spits some weak Hellraiser catchphrase and it blows up. Was this movie about anything? Hyams made a Sean Connery movie called Outland 16 years earlier which I apparently watched (I gave it a 6). He also made Timecop and End of Days, which I would totally watch the last ten minutes of either of those if available, so get your shit together netflix.


Deep Impact (1998, Mimi Leder)

This was the asteroid movie that wasn’t Armageddon but came out at the same time. Sure enough, the asteroid hits the Earth and kills everyone. It kills the loving couple on the beach. It kills New York City. It kills everything. Elijah Wood and Leelee Sobieski escape, chuckling at the devastation. Meanwhile some crying astronauts led by Robert Duvall are saying goodbye and it gets real weepy before they crash into a second asteroid and blow it to bits then President Morgan Freeman gives a boring speech. This looks like it was a boring movie. Mimi Leder went on to make the movie that shook my faith in movies, Pay It Forward.


The Phantom (1996, Simon Wincer)

In today’s superhero-fueled world, it’s quaint to visit the superhero movies of yesteryear, which were medium-budget and starred Billy Zane. Billy is a fine actor as long as he never has to speak, so he’s always cast in major roles and given tons of dialogue. Some bad guy picks up a crystal skull and says “at last!” and someone else is accused of kiling Phantom’s father. All movies are basically the same, aren’t they? Phantom has a pathetic, sub-lightsaber effects-duel with the baddie, whoever he was, then everything explodes. Where is Catherine Zeta-Jones? Holy shit, Patrick McGoohan cameo as Phantom’s dad. Phantom’s girlfriend is Kristy Swanson, the lead in Mannequin 2: On The Move. This has kind of a Rocketeer / Sky Captain / Indiana Jones throwback look which I appreciate. It was director Wincer’s follow-up to Operation Dumbo Drop, and he’d go on to make Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles.

After each of these movies, netflix assumed next I’d want to watch their new Adam Sandler flick. That is either persistent self-marketing or a sadly accurate attempt to predict the tastes of people watching Congo on a thursday night in 2016.

Cool enough sci-fi/horror, but I can’t wait to watch the sequels to figure out how/why they built a franchise around the title scientist, a grumpy, arrogant guy who is poor at damage control. He sent three astronauts into space with nobody’s approval because he doesn’t enjoy paperwork or oversight. Two come back liquified, and the third is mute and insane, with mighty morphing abilities.

Nice landing:

Dr. Quatermass (QUAY-tur-mass: Brian Donlevy, Preston Sturges’s McGinty, also in Curse of the Fly) is soon joined by another terrible character, Police Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner of The Ladykillers) investigating the disturbance and deaths, who describes himself as a “plain simple bible man” with “a routine mind,” not a phrase that goes well with the melting spaceman mystery. Meanwhile things get weirder with the surviving astronaut Carroon (Richard Wordsworth, great-great-grandson of the poet), who’s admitted to the hospital where he smashes a cactus and his hand absorbs it, becoming a giant cactus hand, with which he kills and liquifies hospital people. Carroon’s wife Judith (Margia Dean, small roles in the first couple Sam Fuller movies) decides to free her husband from the hospital with help from a doomed private investigator, setting Cactus-Carroon loose on the city.

Carroon smash cactus with man-arm:

Carroon smash chemist with cactus-arm:

Finally the team follows the trail of smashed and dessicated bodies, none of which are blamed on Quatermass for conducting his space experiments irresponsibly, and discovers that Carroon has transmogrified into a giant octopus, which is something they know how to set on fire, thus ending the madness. It’s explained that an intelligent energy-based life form invaded them in space, a possible influence on Interstellar.

Helpless burning octo-carroon caught on TV camera:

Based on a TV miniseries from a couple years prior. Val Guest made over 20 movies in the 1950’s, and is not Val Lewton, producer of The Seventh Victim and I Walked With a Zombie, though I get them confused. Produced by Hammer Films a couple years before Curse of Frankenstein kicked off their monster-movie era.

Every year a new Jessica Chastain movie where Matt Damon’s left all alone on a planet. A Ridley Scott movie with screenplay by Drew Goddard, I was expecting the light tone, the relentless science (this movie loves science), the upbeat ending, the highly convincing Martian landscapes, but I wish the visuals were half as impressive as those in Prometheus. Maybe I needed to watch the 3D version.

Wounded Damon is left on planet by Chastain and Michael Peña and crew, NASA head Jeff Daniels argues with project head Chiwetel Ejiofor and something head Sean Bean on what to do, with further ground help from Kristen Wiig and Donald Glover and Eddy Ko.

I completely enjoyed this at the time, so not sure if it’s the movie’s fault or some other reason that I turned on it a few days later, deciding it was formulaic entertainment and that all movies look the same and I need to start watching new kinds of things before I start boring myself. I’m looking at showtimes for Crimson Peak and Bridge of Spies and Coming Home and Truth and Sicario and Beasts of No Nation and thinking “ugh, how awful” and pondering going on an avant-garde spree (or at least a Nagisa Oshima spree) instead. It’s probably just a phase. In the meantime, The Martian is my Birdman of the year: convincing in a theater, troubling immediately afterward.

After this and Like Someone In Love and Zero Theorem and Maps to the Stars, I feel like I’m watching a marathon of poorly-reviewed latest films by current (and former) favorite directors. Might as well follow these up with Burying the Ex, Amelia, Mood Indigo, Twixt, Sin City 2, Noah, Tomorrowland, Big Eyes, Queen of the Desert, Knight of Cups, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Blackhat, Restless, The Hobbit, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, Oz the Great and Powerful, Tusk, Tricked, and everything Kiyoshi Kurosawa has made since Tokyo Sonata… then get totally depressed and stop watching movies forever.

I paused after the first few minutes to grab some food, wrote myself a note that the movie would have to try hard to overcome such a boring narrated backstory introduction. And it does try hard, with visuals and action scenes as crazed as the Wachowskis could muster, but it’s also absolutely overstuffed with British-accented galactic royalty speaking endlessly about a plot nobody could care less about, and line readings ranging from stilted to flamboyantly awful (it’s funny that Eddie Redmayne won an oscar for portraying Stephen Hawking the same year he deserves some sort of worst-performance award for this). The self-seriousness and plot overload was a letdown after the campy fun of Speed Racer a month earlier, but at least the action scenes were fun.

What’s happening: Mila Kunis has a shitty job, a selfish family, and is the reincarnation of the galactic queen, whose three kids are fighting over her destiny. There’s evil Eddie, and two others who act nicer but are basically also evil: Douglas Booth (Noah) and Tuppence Middleton (the DJ in Sense8). Ronin Wolfman Tater Channing tenaciously protects her (at one point holding onto the outside of an interstellar-travelling spaceship, which outdoes that stunt in the new Mission Impossible). Sean Bean helps Tater. Doona Bae and some others are crop-circle-creating bounty-hunters.

Matt Singer: “It’s hard to believe that a movie that contains this much exposition could also be this confusing, but it does and it is. Something went horribly wrong here.” And on our heroine, who is constantly being rescued: “Imagine a Matrix where Neo was repeatedly told he was destined for great things and then never learned kung fu or fought Agent Smith, and you begin to see the primary problem.”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw with giant mouse ears:

Probably my favorite Christopher Nolan movie. I have no urge to revisit Memento anytime soon, so I guess The Prestige would be my second favorite – I think that makes me a weird Nolan fan, since most are bonkers for Inception and the Batman movies. Anyway this was a very personal but still very epic time/space/dimension-travelling movie about keeping families together and saving all of humanity, a way-too-ambitious premise that was actually pulled off.

Pilot-turned-farmer Matthew McConaughey leaves his kids with Grandpa Lithgow since Matt’s the only maverick who can pilot NASA’s secret spaceship (hey you can’t make a movie this ambitious without leaning on a few time-saving cliches) through a wormhole to find a habitable planet, alongside Anne Hathaway (daughter of NASA head Michael Caine), David Gyasi (Cloud Atlas), Wes Bentley and two awesome robots. First landing is on the giant-waves planet, where Bentley dies, then on to the frozen-wasteland planet where crazy Matt Damon kills Gyasi, then into a black hole where McConaughey sends interdimensional coded messages to his daughter (who grew up to be Jessica Chastain, dating former scientist Topher Grace and fighting with stubborn older brother Casey Affleck), then is picked up, still the same age as when he left, by the human-exodus spaceship containing his dying, elderly daughter (now Ellen Burstyn).

I would’ve liked to see the 70mm super-imax version, but settled for at least going to the dumb local theater and not waiting for blu-ray.

Heard this three-hour Russian movie fourteen years in the making was something incredible, and oh boy is it ever. Loooong roving black-and-white takes (with beyond-Russian Ark choreography), torrential rainfall, everything bleak and ugly but masterfully shot. Sounds like Bela Tarr, but it doesn’t feel like Bela Tarr. Tarr ultimately focuses on individuals, and this one seems more concerned with lovely filth.

There is a story, or a premise at least, but if you miss the first five minutes you’d be forgiven for never figuring that out. Don Rumata is from present-day Earth, one of a team of scientists sent to “another planet, about 800 years behind,” on which the Rennaisance never happened because dumb thugs murdered all the educated and artistic types. The intro is the last time any of this is mentioned – the rest follows Rumata as he wanders the horrors of this place, through filth and hunger and murder. There are other characters, and a bit of a plot – a Wikipedia summary of the source novel reveals that many of its characters and events were adapted in the film, but weren’t explained. I’m not an avid reader of Russian lit so probably won’t pick up the novel, but I’m excited to see there’s a 1990 film version which may be more comprehensible.

Story aside, this is both a slog of a plotless beast and a technical and tactile marvel. It seems postsynched since we only hear certain sounds among all the chaos, but if so it’s done quite well. Also: a hedgehog and much bird tossing (including owls).

C. Marsh:

Hard to Be a God, by design, is not a dynamic film. Its consistency is intended to be exhausting. Over time, like Rumata, we’d rather be anywhere else. .. German seems less interested in the science-fiction dimension of the source material than in the central idea it poses: the Renaissance was a fluke. Cruelty and brutality are the default modes of existence.

I’m happy that Marsh mentions Monty Python and the Holy Grail in his review, since it was on my mind as well.

Intriguing Russian and German titles mentioned in Olaf Möller’s Cinema Scope article:
Khrustalyov, My Car! (1988)
Workers’ Settlement (1965)
My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1982)
Es ist nicht leicht, ein Gott zu sein (1990)
Days of Eclipse (1988)
The Fall of Otrar (1991)
Until the End of the World (1991, the 5-hour version)
The Ugly Swans (2006)
Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (1979)
Lenin’s Guard (1965)