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They just can’t quite carry it.

So I was very in for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. There’s a bunch of reasons, but foremost among them is that I fucking love this kind of whiz bang, go for broke science fiction. Throw me all the weird tech and weirder aliens. I am down for the French comic book sensibilities, especially the ridiculous fashion, and I’ll even put up with the clunkiest dialogue this side of a Syfy Original. This is my kind of movie and if there’s any kind of nested audience for the Valerians of the world, it’s me.

However, this is no Jupiter Ascending situation. It’s safe to say that if you didn’t like that movie, you will loathe this one. In most ways, they are dissimilar, but it’s hard to not be reminded of the slightly more serious but also more coherent and well-plotted Wachowski Sisters’ foray into manic space opera. The same genre DNA gave birth to both films, though Valerian is a direct adaptation of a seminal French comic while for Jupiter, the comic Valerian and Laureline was just one of many influences it wore on its sleeve. Many might also compare this one to the Guardians of the Galaxy films, but I’d caution against that since kicking this movie while its down (it really bombed) to that extent just seems cruel.

If you like imaginative space opera and come for just the visuals, world-building, and literally hundreds of weird and wonderful aliens, you may be able to put aside this movie’s narrative problems and enjoy it. I mostly did. Valerian is dizzyingly ambitious, so it’s tempting to brush aside that it doesn’t really work. And while the story is nothing special, it plays out in an offbeat way and is packed to the brim with worthwhile diversion. There’s hardly a frame in the first half of this movie that won’t light a scifi fan’s mind up. It has that same special quality Jupiter Ascending had where every five minutes, there’s a new idea that you could make a whole movie out of. For example, the concepts and mechanics of Big Market, a virtual bazaar in another dimension, are just a set-piece here, but the whole of the upcoming Ready Player One will deal with somewhat similar ideas. Valerian has imagination to spare but suffers from an overindulgence in its own poorly executed dramatic core, which aggressively sucks, and also fails to trust its own plot enough to avoid a third act recap sequence that, frankly, was where the movie really fell apart for me. I love Luc Besson, even when he makes a bad movie (Lucy) and while I might summarize Valerian as “The 5th Element for kids” and while that might sound good… it’s only really two thirds good. That said, the opening ten minutes are straight up wonderful and honestly worth the whole movie. Read the rest of this entry »

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The few shots that actually take place in space are nice.

I follow a few rules when I set out to review a movie. One of them is that I try to review the movie I’ve seen and not the movie I wish I’d seen. The big difference is that, when you go into something with expectations (sometimes very clear ones), you wind up missing the forest for the trees. On this hook can be hung a lot of unfair reactions and reviews for movies, either positive or negative. It’s a kind of easily avoidable bias and avoiding it raises the caliber of a review. Or at least that’s what I think. Feel free to disagree.

Anyway, that notion is why I’m going to get something out of the way before I dive into this review. I was hoping for a Star Trek movie that finally did something different than the plethora of action-adventure movies we already have, especially in the scifi genre. Star Wars is back, so why does Star Trek need to be so similar to it? Maybe because studios like to make money. I didn’t like this movie very much, and at least a little of that is because it consistently felt like wasted potential. But if you take away my expectation for a more wonder-driven, thoughtful third entry to this reboot franchise, what is left? Hopefully something more fair to the movie. You’ll have to let me know.

My argument is that the movie I saw (as opposed to the one I wished I’d seen) is as fundamentally flawed, shallow, and messy as the previous two. My disinterest in Wrath of Khan helped me appreciate Into Darkness more than the majority of the audience, but this time around I feel like if I were a fan of the Original Series, I’d have appreciated this movie more. It certainly panders to Original Series fans yet again, but asks way less of them (unlike Into Darkness and the ’09 movie). Because I don’t have much feel for what is meant by “it was like a movie length version of an OS episode”, I don’t have to consciously avoid the nostalgia-based bias that comes with that. For what it’s worth, I do think I’ll like this movie more as time goes on (much like ’09) where I like Into Darkness much less.  Read the rest of this entry »

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This movie manages more astonishing visuals in 5 minutes than many big budget Hollywood tent-poles manage in 90.

Sometimes I can feel it when a movie has the potential to be something I’m going to have to defend over and over again for the immediate future. A lot of the time, these are movies that are declared dead on arrival due to rumors, production difficulties, negative early reviews, and so on. Sometimes, they are movies that are totally misunderstood and eviscerated on release. Too often, it’s a combination of both. That is the case for Jupiter Ascending, a movie that many people do not “get” to such an extent that I’m baffled.

The reviews for Jupiter Ascending make little sense to me when coming from people who grew up in the age of video games, anime, comics, and really wild speculative science fiction (I’m talking Charles Stross, Neal Stephenson type of stuff). There is stuff in Jupiter that we’ve read about, or seen in static images, but have never seen in motion. There’s so much shit going on here, that the only way I can understand the misgivings is that there’s some sort of weird reflexive warding of the most incredibly creative and nerdy shit. If you had an existing superhero attached to this movie, it would have been a sleeper hit.

Even the older critics who may have missed out on that stuff have no excuse, due to the debt that this movie owes to the colorful, ridiculous science fiction books and movies made before Star Wars came along. Speaking of Star Wars, there are too many people out there who will praise the Cantina scene as a masterstroke of small details, cool creature design, and subtle world-building while ignoring how well Jupiter Ascending populates itself will the same kind of thing throughout its running time. I’m talking Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers type of stuff. I’m talking Jodorowsky’s plans for Dune, at least in terms of design scale and bold insanity, and I hope he sees this movie because he will truly get it. For more recent points of comparison, I’d say that Jupiter Ascending is the closest thing to a Saga movie that we’re likely to get. It’s nearest cinematic cousin is The 5th Element, from the vibrant design to the cheesy lightness that informs its plot and characters.

To tie all that together, it is probably best to think of Jupiter Ascending as a highly creative and visually-masterful take on a classic Disney fairy-tale… except re-imagined through the prisms of technology so powerful it borders on magic. Jupiter Ascending is a movie that almost carelessly inflicts creative new things, or new spins on old ideas and images, on its audience. There’s a type of person who will get lost in contextual terminology, all the various cool gadgets and vehicles, etc. But this is a movie for the genre savvy, and it is extremely rewarding for those of us who can immediately go with the ridiculous assortment of science fiction tropes that it depends on. Like Pacific Rim, it’s a weirdly misunderstood love letter to all of us who wished desperately for a movie like this when we were kids. Not only that, but it’s Disney-style plot and themes (which are mixed with trademark Wachowski social commentary) make for an inclusive feel that offers something for everyone. Except the people with confirmation bias and weird hang-ups about Channing Tatum’s ears.

If nothing I’ve written so far does it for you, consider this: Jupiter Ascending is the movie about a toilet scrubber and the badass avatar of Tumblr Otherkin battling the Walmart heirs for the freedom to fly around on anti-gravity boots and actual fucking wings. If that doesn’t sound like something you want to see, try to remember that Channing Tatum fist-fights a fucking dragon in this movie. It’s as cool and ridiculous as it sounds.  Also remember that I have biases too. I have liked everything the Wachowskis have done, and I am exactly the target audience for this movie. But I went into it with diminished expectations and came out in love.

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What a bunch of a-holes.

This is the best Marvel movie. It’s funny how each has been better than the last. It’s amazing that you can actually subcategorize each one to say what they’re best at, because it isn’t simply a matter of hierarchy. Each of these movies is after something else. This is why The Avengers can be the best out and out superhero movie and The Winter Soldier can be the best proof of concept that Marvel movies can and should be genre movies alongside being superhero movies. But as a complete, self-contained whole, Guardians of the Galaxy is by far the best. It’s no contest.

But why is Guardians the best? Because it’s got it all. It’s fun, exciting, action-packed, heartfelt, and so well executed that you get that awkward feeling about other big budget movies where you sort of want to pat them on the head for trying. Guardians makes being a blockbuster look easy. Maybe it’s the love affair with the 80’s that James Gunn (writer and director) infuses in the movie. The 80’s was the time of the fun, high concept blockbuster with heart. The 80’s was the time of Star Wars and of Steven Spielberg, really.

And, well, Guardians has Spielberg and Star Wars beat too. Hyperbole? Maybe. But if you’ve seen this movie, you’re probably thinking hard about whether that claim has some merit. Especially these days. If you haven’t, you’re probably shaking your head. Go see Guardians. Don’t read this review until you have, because I’ve got to gush. I mean it when I say this is a definitive blockbuster movie. Every now and then, a movie comes along that makes you believe in the awe and spectacle possible if more filmmakers and studios put real love into their creations.  This kind of shit is the reason blockbusters exist at all. How wonderful, then, that it pays the debt it owes to Star Wars and Indiana Jones by surpassing them? It is the bastard child, the space-faring orphan, of the precious movies that influenced its creators and us. All parents exist for their children to surpass them and that’s why it’s beautiful when they do.

THINGS ABOUT TO GET SPOILERY IN HERE.

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One of the many ways this franchise mimics Conan the Barbarian.

After almost ten years, here comes the third Riddick movie. I think it would be a bit of an overstatement to say this was a highly anticipated threequel but Riddick has always had a fanbase and the recent resurgence of Vin Diesel has made this movie possible for them. I count myself tentatively among the fans of Riddick, and enthusiastically among the fans of Diesel (check out that video of him singing Rihanna, it’s astonishing). I’ve also always been easier going on the much-hated Chronicles of Riddick than most people. I liked it for what it tried to be more than for what it is, I guess. The idea of a misanthropic Space Conan is one that has legs. Pitch Black didn’t have that idea coded into its DNA, but Chronicles certainly did. Riddick, the self-titled third album, remembers that idea even as it does its best to recall the more successful and more focused Pitch Black.

Part of me wishes they would have gotten the budget to do the movies they originally wanted to do. David Twohy and Vin Diesel have created a slapdash mythology around this character and they have big eyes for where it’s all going. Unfortunately, the failure of Chronicles and the non-blockbuster status of the character means the money isn’t exactly flowing for the grandiose fantasy epics they wanted to make. So we get this, a much more stripped down and raw side-story that feels like a one-shot bridge movie that self-consciously acknowledges the need to get things back on track. There are bits of monologuing in this movie that feel like they’re breaking the fourth wall, commenting indirectly about the franchise, character, and even Diesel himself. This goes together with the strange sexual psychology of the movie and its characters to elevate the subtext of Riddick to an interesting, probably unintended place.

It helps that the film is rather good. Especially the first half. It’s also much grander and more beautiful than the early trailers suggested. It’s far from the B-movie lowfi of Pitch Black and even farther from the saturated, Star Wars-lite of Chronicles. It exists somewhere between the grit and the glamor, and it feels like (visually at least), Twohy has really gotten his stride. The world-building is as slippery as ever, the character is still the sly dangerous antihero (with some soft spots) that we remember, and so on. All this is packaged in a lean, robust action movie masquerading as a creature feature. Even when it gives up on its best parts to focus on the secondary characters, Riddick keeps you engaged. When it turns into a buddy movie about honor and relying on others, you can’t help but feel like they’ve really made good with this one. Read the rest of this entry »

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