Archive for the ‘science fiction’ category

Ready Player One

July 29, 2018

rpoI lasted about two pages into Ernest Cline’s geek-friendly novel Ready Player One. The book’s voice was just too obnoxiously steeped in trivia, with nothing really to say about the pop-culture landmarks it referenced and/or used. I remember thinking “There are so many good or great books yet to read, and I’m going to spend my dwindling sentient time on this?,” and back to the library it went. The movie version, directed by Steven Spielberg, promised to be the same only flashier and louder, yet Spielberg has performed an act of alchemy similar to the upgrade he administered to Peter Benchley’s Jaws. The voice is still there, but here it just serves to help Spielberg move the story along. As with the Jaws novel, Spielberg keeps what works and circular-files what doesn’t.

The result is a juicy wad of bubblegum entertainment, visually antic and immersive without feeling assaultive, fast-paced without feeling rushed. If Spielberg is using the pace so as to deny us time to think about the flaws, he certainly does it successfully. The many pop references from the ‘80s (and some from later, like the Iron Giant) are merely part of the background fabric; you can conceivably not be familiar with any of the cameos, callbacks and in-jokes at all and still follow the basic throughline, which is that young protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) seeks to win a contest that can buy him out of his poverty and prove he’s somebody. Reading that description, you wouldn’t know that the story is set in 2045 or that much of the action takes place in a virtual-reality game world.

Ernest Cline might be high on the underarm fumes of his childhood, but he lucked into one of the basic satisfying narratives, and Spielberg zeroes in on it. Of course, Spielberg is part of the pop culture that Ready Player One and most of its characters lionize. His perhaps unavoidable acknowledgments of this fact are limited to eyeblink images. Wade, aka Parzival in the game world OASIS, must find three keys relevant to the sad past of the late game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the cocreator of OASIS and author of the contest. Rylance files yet another ace performance as a man who speaks haltingly and has complex emotions and feelings of guilt and waste. Some have read Spielberg’s friend George Lucas into Halliday. I don’t disagree.

Most of what we’re looking at in Ready Player One is computer-generated animation mapped onto greenscreened bare sets, but Spielberg manages to suggest it all exists physically and gives it heft, the sound of weight. Editor Michael Kahn (assisted, as on Spielberg’s The Post, by Sarah Broshar) gets the constantly moving images and compositions to click together into action sequences with momentum and even poetry; cinematographer Janusz Kaminski drops his usual desaturated muck and helps the movie look like one of the sleeker examples of the ‘80s blockbusters it wants to be. I’m a sap, but Ready Player One won me over right out of the gate — Van Halen’s “Jump” ushered me back to the summer of 1984, to an age (thirteen passing into fourteen) at which I would most have appreciated the movie. (’84 was also the summer of Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.) The soundtrack is a mix of I-love-the-’80s Spotify playlist and Alan Silvestri’s sweeping score — Silvestri was around back then and knows what an ’80s fantasy should sound like.

Can nostalgia be trusted? It’s as valid an emotional response as any other, and you’re free to take or leave it. Steven Spielberg is still probably the most powerful director in Hollywood, but he’s lost a step or two — he almost couldn’t get Lincoln made. So Ready Player One is partly a trip back to the era where Spielberg was truly master of the universe. Back then, not many people questioned why the hero should be a white male and not a female (Olivia Cooke as Wade’s teammate and love interest Art3mis) or a black lesbian (Lena Waithe as Wade’s best friend Aich) or Asian (Daito and Sho). That aspect of the narrative makes the movie feel retro in annoying ways, but that’s also the cost of watching actual ‘80s movies.

Aich, Daito and Sho almost seem like Spielberg’s stab at atoning for The Color Purple (a movie he would not get to make today, and rightly so¹) and Short Round. Look at the movie long enough and close enough and you might start to imagine it’s as much about apology as celebration. The director who shot Jaws in the ocean because a studio tank would be too fake now makes movies almost entirely on a digital canvas like every other blockbuster director, and he’s partly responsible for why we’ve wound up in a place where our eyes no longer believe reality in movies. Tom Cruise risks his neck doing stunts, and we shrug now because it can just as easily be faked with CG. It’s really him, it’s not really him — who cares? This movie’s message, “Reality is real” (to be fair, a Cline-ism), comes to seem less a bromide than a plea.

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¹But in 1985 it could hardly have been made by a Cheryl Dunye or even an Ava DuVernay, so Spielberg at the height of his powers got the thing made, to the joy of some and the dismay of others, and he didn’t do all that bad of a job of it, considering he was not many readers’ first or hundredth choice to adapt it. But in 2018 there’d be no excuse not to give a new film based on the Alice Walker novel to a gay woman of color to direct.

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A Quiet Place

July 8, 2018

quietplaceJohn Krasinski proves with A Quiet Place that he has the chops to direct a tense horror movie — his previous two films as director were more indie ensemble drama pieces — but please, please don’t insist that he now make nothing but horror. It’s clearly not what he’s interested in. A Quiet Place is a family-values fable and a slightly elongated Twilight Zone episode in which, as in Signs and parts of War of the Worlds, the mind-blowing and epic reality of an alien invasion of Earth is whittled down to the experiences of one family surviving out miles away from everything. The ferocious, carnivorous aliens here are blind but have hypersensitive hearing, so any humans hoping to survive have to listen hard and keep quiet. Fortunately, this family already knew American Sign Language — the eldest child and daughter is deaf (and played by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds).

Krasinski rewrote a script by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, and maybe we have him to thank for the softer touches, when the family — father Lee (Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), daughter Regan, and son Marcus (Noah Jupe) — try to maintain some moments of leisure and normalcy in this post-apocalyptic world of enforced silence. The kids play Monopoly with crocheted game pieces that won’t make noise; Lee and Evelyn dance to Neil Young via shared earbuds. If you can’t play and dance and hear music every so often, the movie seems to say, what’s the point of survival? This puts it one up on grimmer dystopias whose motto might be Talking Heads’ “This ain’t no party/This ain’t no disco/This ain’t no foolin’ around.”

There certainly has been some foolin’ around, since Evelyn is pregnant and soon to deliver. How this is supposed to work in a defensively soundless world, where the usually loud exertions of childbirth and the shrilling of a newborn would spell death, is best left unpondered. Wikipedia informs me that Lee is an engineer and Evelyn a doctor, neither of which identity is pointed up very much in the movie proper, although we have to assume Evelyn has some medical knowledge and Lee knows his way around electronics. (Most of the film takes place over a year into the alien occupation, yet the family home still has electricity, thanks, we assume, to Dad the Gyro Gearloose.) A Quiet Place is a combo of a fable about a family banding together and a technical exercise that works the nerves, and it worked mine while it flickered in front of me, but it has left me with sense-memories of being jostled and worked over and not much else.

At least M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs had a subtext (loss of faith) and some juicily tormented acting by Mel Gibson. A Quiet Place is technically superb — although Krasinski doesn’t make as much use of sound design as he could have — and its storytelling as well as acting is pared way down. This is, I guess, The Family persevering against The Threat, whatever The Threat is, and The Threat can be whatever you want it to be in these bifurcated times. The movie is as apolitical, finally, as Get Out was political, which is fine, or would be fine in times that didn’t demand that people of conscience take sides. A Quiet Place just takes sides against The Alien, and when you consider to what depressing metaphorical use that could be put by some viewers in this particular atmosphere, you may sigh and conclude that Krasinski has, perhaps shrewdly, made his Threat readable emotionally as something either side of the divide fears.

Krasinski thinks A Quiet Place is “an allegory for parenthood,” and it seems to run on trust that we, collectively, have raised our children to make good decisions and to know what to do when the monsters come. Let’s all hope so. Despite the cathartic tragedy during its climax, the movie has unwavering faith that brains and bravery will win the day. Bonus points for presenting a disabled character who is not “inspirational” but complicated, unhappy, self-blaming — a typical teenage asshole in a lot of ways. That’s not nothing, but it’s not everything, and A Quiet Place has been overpraised by those who see more in it than is there. Ultimately it operates on the old homely Hollywood bromides that have been sold to us as jes’-folks values since there have been movies. Work the land. Keep to yourselves. Keep your head down. Keep quiet.

Annihilation

June 17, 2018

annihilationThe legitimately unnerving sci-fi horror film Annihilation is, of course, about more than its events. It uses alien life and mutation to reach a sidewise view of human alienation and depression. Which may not make it sound like a hoot and a half, and it isn’t — the movie is humorless in a way that tends to inspire either derision or protectiveness. I fall on the protective side: Annihilation is the real deal, doing what science fiction and horror are supposed to do, speaking dark truths about our condition while planting seeds of dread in fertile imaginative soil.

Its writer-director Alex Garland, liberally adapting a novel by Jeff VanderMeer with elements of Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space” and other works, also gave us 2015’s Ex Machina, which probed artificial intelligence and the lack of humanity of the humans who develop it. One might conclude Garland doesn’t like us as a species very much, but I think he values our flaws, which make for good drama. Annihilation is informed as much by the disease-sympathizing ethos of David Cronenberg as by anything else; in Cronenberg, a disease that kills a human is only trying to live and thrive. The alien atmosphere, a rainbow barrier known as the Shimmer brought here by a meteor, makes odd and colorful tangles of the landscape and mutates the local wildlife. “It’s not destroying,” says biologist Lena (Natalie Portman). “It’s making something new.”

Lena’s soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has come back from the Shimmer seemingly an empty husk, soon hemorrhaging badly. Kane has been MIA for a year, and Lena volunteers to accompany a group of scientists into the Shimmer. The mission is to reach a lighthouse struck by the meteor and come back — if they can come back — with some data. The team, led by psychologist Jennifer Jason Leigh, is all-female; much has been made of recent distaff reboots of sausage-fests like Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 11, but Annihilation sort of gives us a stealth all-woman The Thing. (Gina Rodriguez’s paramedic, Tessa Thompson’s physicist and Tuva Novotny’s geologist round out the group.) Some of the wild and elaborate redrawing the Shimmer does to humans rivals the taffy-pull aesthetic of Rob Bottin’s groundbreaking effects for The Thing with a side order of H.R. Giger’s tortured biomechanics.

So, yeah, Annihilation may be made out of used parts, but it’s Garland’s thematic emphasis that sets the film on its own track. Lena has spent a year wallowing in grief, deflecting the advances of a colleague she eventually sleeps with. The inclusion of this man (David Gyasi), from the strict perspective of “moving the plot forward,” seems extraneous, but emotionally it feels right. Portman’s Lena is sometimes prickly even in the relatively happy flashbacks we see of her with Kane; she isn’t a natural hero or an easy one, and all her teammates also have demons — addiction, self-harm, bereavement, cancer. Annihilation is partly about self-annihilation and all its forms, and what this means for the cast is that they all get to tear into complex, wounded female characters. Needless to say, the film also passes the Bechdel Test eight ways to Sunday.

Is the movie also anti-human, casting us metaphorically as invaders who deform everything around us? (Remember The Matrix and its humans-as-virus speech, or countless others.) As I said, I think Garland prizes us warts and all; you can’t tell stories about the intersection of humans and AI, or humans and alien life, without the humans. Garland, though, also wants us to consider the hopes and dreams of the interloper, the tumor, the invasive depressive thought, the non-belonger who shapes its surroundings until it belongs. The movie illustrates the difference between xenophobia and understanding. It is human, I suspect, to fear the other, to the point of kidnapping and jailing the other’s children, perhaps. Annihilation and its themes appear loudly relevant right now, but in truth its concerns will always apply and it will be evergreen.

Black Panther

May 13, 2018

blackpantherThe entire bloated, interlinked, resource-eating Marvel Cinematic Universe may have justified itself by having made possible Black Panther. It’s a rich and shining tapestry, in deep African reds and golds and purples. Being a Marvel movie, it is unavoidably corporate and Manichean — might makes right in the eternal war of Good and Evil. Fortunately, the artists behind Black Panther are interested in how one defines good and evil. Is it that hard to be good if you’re a royal, a member of the warrior elite of a technologically advanced society (Wakanda)? And if you grow up the resentful, brutal product of living in a much poorer society that resents and brutalizes you, can you truly be described as “evil”?

Director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole make Black Panther a battleground of philosophies — isolationism vs. generosity, revenge vs. justice, even vibranium (the element that gives Wakanda its power) vs. Jabari wood. It is never at any point black vs. white, or African vs. Caucasian, even though one of the villains is white (he is shown to be an equal-opportunity slimeball who will ally with and then betray whoever can most benefit him in the moment). Unlike the unredeemable adversaries of the DC universe — the unreachable anarch the Joker, the megalomaniacal Lex Luthor — the rogues’ gallery at Marvel tend to have some shading, some humanity, even if appalling humanity. And the heroes are often impeded by guilt, doubt, hubris. Thus, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), newly crowned king of Wakanda, represents a kind of naïvete born of privilege; his opposite, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), came up outside Wakanda’s embrace and has a more bitter view of the world. Erik often makes good points, and T’Challa sometimes sounds fatuous.

Wakanda represents what the whole of Africa might have been without colonizers — an African-American’s warming daydream of a black Shangri-La, unmutilated by whites. It’s a dream of superiority, too; Coogler and his artists take command of a medium that has spent far more of its history demeaning people of color than not, and they make sure this example of the medium gives us people of color who are demonstrably smarter and tougher than anyone else. (There’s a white CIA agent, played by Martin Freeman, who is generously made a brave and competent fighter.) That an empowerment fable on this level — a $200+ million sci-fi fantasy opening in 4,000 theaters nationwide — is only thinkable due to its association with a larger, otherwise pretty pale-skinned corporate concern is probably not the sort of irony Marvel fans would appreciate. Yet Black Panther may ultimately stand apart from its wider mythos the same way Wonder Woman did.

Considering the strain he must have been under — here you go, a massive blockbuster all your own; try not to disappoint Marvel or the black audience; no pressure or anything! — it might be too much to have expected Chadwick Boseman to manage anything other than a noble performance, with occasional brushstrokes of rage and grief and one or two fleeting bits of humor. (I look for the sequels — don’t worry, there’ll be some — to let T’Challa and Boseman have more fun.) Michael B. Jordan, on the other hand, knows he has a juicy wounded-martyr role and rips into it with gusto, thoroughly enjoying playing a large-scale villain on an enormous canvas. Boseman more or less gives the movie to Jordan and to the many beautiful, brilliant women surrounding him: Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright. The Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female special forces, could give the Amazons in Wonder Woman a rough time of it.

Wakanda is heaven, a dream of unity and equality of all kinds — though I imagine we’d have to wait for Black Panther 3 or 4 to find out how LGBTQ people or the disabled are treated there. Wakanda feels like the perfect land we all should have had, a utopia (though one ruled by a techno-warrior class). The place has great beauty, but it doesn’t look like much fun, truth to tell; it looks like a stolid land of solemn traditions and tests of strength, its loyal subjects pledging to defend its borders from the outside world. (And a benevolent monarchy is still a monarchy, no?) In a much-discussed quote at the end, T’Challa tells the United Nations, “In times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” It’s hard not to hear in that a rebuke to … well, you know. Somebody.

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

April 1, 2018

jediSo much happens in these new Star Wars films, and at such a ferocious clip, you’d think Lucasfilm had enough material for another whole trilogy. (Many stand-alone “Star Wars stories” are planned, including Solo in May.) Star Wars: The Last Jedi is also, at two hours and thirty-two minutes, the longest of the nine movies thus far, and deep into the second hour it can feel a little draining. There’s some stuff that feels extraneous (the whole Canto Bight sequence, which seems to exist to set up a new Lando-like character played by Benicio del Toro), and the cycle of attack and retreat — mostly retreat — gets a bit monotonous. But writer/director Rian Johnson pulls it together for the finale, unfolding on a planet with white salt coating red soil. The tracks of vehicles and feet scoring out crimson marks in the ground, as if slicing and drawing blood, has a poetry that matches the binary sunset of Tatooine, an image stirringly echoed here.

In The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) returns, only to tell us and his student Rey (Daisy Ridley) that he and everything he once stood for deserve to die. This is a real “there are no heroes” movie, although not in a nihilistic way. I was amused to see that Luke, all these years later, is excoriating himself for the hubris — the smugness, really — he showed in Return of the Jedi. Hero myths of the sort that fed Star Wars in the first place, we are informed, are lies. There are only flawed people (or aliens, whatever) trying to resist tyranny. Luke says to us, in effect, “You grew up looking up to me. You were wrong, but I was more wrong to accept that reverence. The fact is that I am a failure.” He’s wrong there, too — one of the movie’s gentler points is that someone who fails (meaning all of us) is not a failure. A failure is a failure, and victory proceeds by small and not always satisfying degrees.

The plot has what’s left of the Resistance, led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher in a moving swan song), running from the relentless forces of the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his soul-divided apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), son of Leia and Han Solo, one-time student of Luke. There’s an awful lot of back and forth, people hopping into ships and revving off for here and there, a good amount of pew pew and lightsaber hum, but the meat of the movie is a young man torn between good and evil, a young woman who feels he can turn to the good side, and an old man who has been there, done that, and takes a lot of convincing that any of it means anything. Johnson and his team (cinematographer Steve Yedlin, editor Bob Ducsay) stage the action cleanly and sometimes with a cathartic swoop of exhilaration, but a good deal of it is the same pew pew and hum we’ve been seeing for forty years.

The currency here is the people. Hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) taunting First Order General Hux (“Hi, I’m holding for a General Hugs”) is a risky but gratifying way to open the movie; returning stormtrooper-turned-rebel Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), zipping around trying to crack into a tracking device, make a fun team in perpetual motion. The Vietnamese-American Tran is one of many women and/or people of color taking their places at the foreground of these new Star Wars movies, upsetting racist fanboys but pleasing everyone else. A most welcome addition is Laura Dern as purple-haired Vice Admiral Holdo, whose command is gentle but firm — she bats away the indignation of hothead Poe without raising her voice. Whoever decided to bring the warmhearted, levelheaded Dern into the Star Wars universe deserves a good cigar.

Ultimately, The Last Jedi speaks for the strength of a united front against imperial aggression, and forget about elevating a few people to godhood — and that includes the villains, too. The final image leaves us with the assurance that young people tired of injustice will pick up the ball their elders dropped; the movie was filmed and released before the Parkland shooting and its subsequent students’ movement, but seems to anticipate it. The Star Wars universe is starting to mirror our own in that it is re-evaluating its holy trinity of heroes — Luke, Leia and Han — and advising their worshipers to look to themselves for rescue, redemption, and faith. The Force (whose power no longer seems to depend on the “midichlorians” of George Lucas’ doofus prequels) shares with Zen Buddhism a cleansing disregard for icons (foreshadowed when Rey hands Luke his father’s lightsaber and he tosses it over his shoulder): If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

They Remain

February 18, 2018

theyremainA slow-burn psychological thriller like They Remain requires patience. It seems to be more about mood and paranoia than about plot or easy scares — kind of like John Carpenter’s The Thing but more minimalist, if that’s even imaginable. Most of the movie is a two-hand exercise, showcasing two actors — William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson — as scientists and former lovers who spend several weeks in an isolated woodsy area, measuring this and that, reporting on their meager findings. The woods, precisely photographed by Sean Kirby, amount to a third character, although we meet a sardonic pilot who interacts briefly with the scientists while picking up some evidence. The area is of interest for two reasons: animals are acting oddly, and the site was once home to a murderous cult. They may have left unfound corpses in the woods; some of the cult members may still be out there somewhere.

Ah, yes, Out There Somewhere, that time-honored horror trope. They Remain, adapted by writer/director Philip Gelatt from a story by Laird Barron, takes pains to maintain its ambiguity. Aliens? Demonic possession? Minds cracking under stress and isolation? We’re kept in the dark for a long time, and despite the film’s small footprint on the afternoon, it feels like a long time. The pace is obviously glacial for a reason, and achieves what Gelatt is going for, a meditative freak-out that runs partly on the scientists’ experience of boredom and repetition. Its ornery long-take rhythm may attract a small cult audience that zones out blissfully on draggy sci-fi (2001, Solaris, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Blade Runner 2049).

Might this have been happier at half the length as an X-Files episode? The scientists, particularly the man, get more and more fearful — the story is told through his eyes, so the woman becomes more and more suspect. Given that these characters could be of any color (or gender — they could be former gay male or female lovers), are we to place much importance on the identities of the male as African-American and the female as Caucasian? One could engage in quite a chunk of racial theorizing if not for the possibility that, like Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead, the best actor for the role also happened to be black. Whether the various racial subtexts were or weren’t placed there, instead of cropping up on their own, we can’t quite help viewing the relationship and its attendant conflicts and rapid devolution through this filter, even though the text yields no drama about, or even acknowledgment of, the man’s race.

There sure is acknowledgment of the woman’s gender, though; at one point the man unleashes an existential howl of “Bitch!” The text, elusive as it is, doesn’t seem to disagree. But here I am, calling the movie a “text,” three times now. An artsy patience-tester like They Remain (named for some association with It Follows?) seems to demand to be read. The mood is all, and Gelatt is on point there, weaving a tapestry of curiosity and dread out of its Malick-esque visuals and its oddball score (by Tom Keohane) — he tries to make this underpopulated, one-location movie cinematic. The quietude is sometimes broken, too, by the characters’ nightmare visions of the cultists drifting around the trees and performing barely-glimpsed offenses to decency.

The land itself seems to be demonic, infesting its inhabitants with bad self-annihilating vibes. The soil contains secrets and mysteries, among them skeletons a hundred years old. We could say this cursed earth is America itself, built on the bones of the indigenous and the captured, and the text …. There we go again. Could They Remain be after something so banal as a built-on-Indian-burial-ground story, wrathful ghosts pitting black against white, woman against man, even in the hermetic context of a remote laboratory in a field? It’s worth asking why Carpenter’s Thing, which theoretically should attract lots of academic woolgathering, seems to exist completely outside of interpretation. Carpenter just said “These guys don’t trust each other” and that was that. The image of a black man and a white man facing each other with affable nihilism at the end of The Thing, with neither us nor them knowing who was human, doesn’t seem to mean anything outside of itself. That sort of thing sure seems to mean something in They Remain. But what?

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

November 19, 2017

Valerian-and-the-City-of-a-Thousand-Planets-(France)-1-FullI can’t quite bring myself to convince you that the entire two hours and seventeen minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are worth sitting through for Rihanna’s appearance some eighty minutes in. Soon enough, she becomes a blue blob and later turns to dust. But she’s fun while she lasts, as a shape-shifting performer named Bubble who helps the titular hero, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan), rescue his captured partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne). For twenty minutes or so, Rihanna is a suavely fierce nonactress adding some welcome grit and personality to a mix that includes far too many aliens and special effects, far too little humanity.

Valerian is great-looking but awful, a combination that has sadly become the stock in trade of the once-impressive Luc Besson (Leon, The Fifth Element, Lucy). Those who found The Fifth Element a jocular piece of futuristic excess but a bit on the empty-calorie side won’t find much to plug into here; the meaning of the movie is simply to get Valerian and Laureline from one hectic, shiny set piece to the next, barely stopping for a breath or even a scenery-chewing villain performance from the likes of Gary Oldman (who brightened Leon and Fifth Element). Here we get only the grouchy Clive Owen as our heroes’ commander, who gives orders to wipe out an entire species of alien pearl farmers, one of whom stows away in Valerian’s body after dying.

Look, I could go on discussing plot points to prove I saw the film, but you’ll just have to trust me. Valerian has tons of plot but no real story to speak of; our heroes hurtle to and fro to get justice for the aliens, and that’s all there is to it. The movie is so pointlessly eventful and convoluted, though, that it feels more complicated than it is. It doesn’t help than DeHaan and Delevingne have zero chemistry or presence; DeHaan has a gruff dudebro voice like Keanu Reeves’, only without Keanu’s soulfulness, and Delevingne often just seems vaguely inconvenienced, glassy-eyed with indifference for the material. (The two have matching hollow pouts, and they both have arrogantly unmusical voices.) DeHaan does bestir himself when trading lines with Rihanna, though that just serves to prove he has a pulse. Her boss, called Jolly the Pimp, is given a naughty twinkle by Ethan Hawke, but he’s not around for long, either. (I tend to think Hawke opened the script, saw his character’s name, and signed on just on the strength of being able to play a character called Jolly the Pimp.)

What we get here instead of interesting humans is a flock of CGI aliens (the one voiced by John Goodman is amusingly stern) and various scenes of the heroes’ spaceship streaking heedlessly through space, or through trippy environments, and for minutes at a time we might as well be watching animation demo footage unconnected to any context of any interest. Valerian may be welcomed as eye candy by kids and by aficionados of controlled substances, but it offers nothing for someone who merely buckles in for a good time at the movies. Besson also no longer knows what to do with interesting humans when he has them. Rutger Hauer is tossed aside after punching his time card for what our British actor friends call a cough and a spit role; Herbie Hancock is in it, mostly seen as a hologram scolding the heroes. An international cast mumbles stale dialogue in person or as the voices of aliens.

The overstuffed yet empty Valerian is nothing new, of course; we’ve been getting this sort of flatulent, pricey “entertainment” for decades, and it’s not going to end any time soon. Every so often a Get Out or a Wonder breaks out, because it scratches a previously neglected itch, or it speaks to people. Valerian and its ilk speak to no one, although they are engineered to appeal across continents, languages, cultures. Everyone understands things blowing up. Yet you have to drive out of your way for an hour to see, say, a French film for grown-ups (Valerian is based on French comics), while plastic junk like this blurts onto 3,500 screens in America — then slinks off after nine weeks having made back a fraction of its cost. Its failure in America (and in general, worldwide) would be encouraging if we didn’t still get a hundred movies like it every year.