At The Movies: Dunkirk; Valerian

Two very different movies open this weekend and both are worth seeing in a theater with a really big screen and glorious, glorious air conditioning.

Dunkirk

Writer/Director Christopher Nolan delivers an unconventional yet impressive war movie  with “Dunkirk.” He avoids traditional storytelling techniques to present a film that puts the audience in the center of the action.

The year is 1940, and in the early stages of the Second World War, soldiers from Britain, France, Belgium and Canada find themselves trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk, France. The German army is closing in and their only hope of survival is to board a boat that will take them across the English Channel.

dunkirk-posterThe film takes place on three different fronts, each with its own time frame. The main story takes place on the beach and centers on a British army private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead). Tommy goes through several grueling trials while attempting to get out of Dunkirk.

The second story takes place at sea, where Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) takes his private boat into the channel with plans to bring back as many soldiers as he and his son can fit on board. Along the way they rescue a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who has no intention of going back to Dunkirk.

The third tale takes place in the air, where a pair of Royal Air Force pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) fight off German aircraft intent on bombing any ships at sea or soldiers on the beach.

The film veers back and fourth between the three stages. It is told with minimal dialogue and maximum attention to detail. Everything takes place in the now and on the front lines — there are no flashbacks to happier times, no scenes of loved ones back home, no moments with world leaders making plans. This is a “you are there” story in its most visceral and basic form.

Valieran and the City of a Thousand Planets

“Strong visuals, weak story.” I bet I’ve typed those words more than a thousand times over the years since I got in the movie reviewing biz. And nowhere is it more true than with Luc Besson’s science fiction epic, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.”

Based on a French comic book series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, the movie features a variety of weird, wonderful, colorful and surreal planets, places, and creatures. Then the plot comes along and gets in the way.

The film begins with a montage showing how a small Earth space station grows over the decades as new life forms show up to visit. Eventually Space Station Alpha becomes too big to be in the planet’s orbit, so it is sent off into deep space. As Alpha travels it continues to grow as other beings latch onto it and craft their own worlds on top of it. And so the space station becomes the City of a Thousand Planets.

Cool, huh?

From there we are whisked off to a beautiful blue planet with gorgeous beaches and tall, thin people who spend their days gathering colorful pearls. It’s all lovely, peaceful and surreal until alien spaceships come crashing down on it.

It’s very cool.

valerian_and_the_city_of_a_thousand_planets-241302562-largeBut then, alas, we have to kick into a story. Meet Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), two top cops working for whatever government there is that regulates outer space. In addition to being the best law enforcement agents in the universe, the duo are lovers. Valerian has a history as a ladies man, but he seriously wants to marry Laureline.

If it seems odd that characters we’re meeting for the first time (unless you read a lot of French comic books, and I’m assuming you haven’t. I’ve read a lot of comic books and even I don’t know who these people are.) are acting like we’ve been watching their movies for years, well, that’s far from the oddest thing about this movie. But it is on par with how odd this movie is.

Val and Lar get called to Alpha Station where a pocket of radioactivity has been discovered at the station’s core. Attempts to investigate have failed, so the galaxy’s top officers have been brought in on the case.

“Valerian” is a feast for the eyes, best observed on a very large screen. The story is nothing to write home about but the visuals make up for it. The first half of the film is a wonderful hodgepodge of scenes full of clever, creative bits. But by the end it gets bogged down in a bog-standard tale involving corrupt military leaders and accidental planetary genocide.

The leads appear way too young to play the worldly, experienced people they are supposed to be. It doesn’t help that DeHann sounds distractingly like Keanu Reeves.

“Valerian” will no doubt be compared to “The Fifth Element,” the director’s previous sci-fi fantasy film. It looks and feels a great deal like that earlier effort. “Valerian” has a grander scale and better special effects, but I think “The Fifth Element” was a stronger film overall.

 

 

 

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