Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Media Reviews: September 2017

Odd Couples in Space

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Directed by Luc Besson
EuropaCorp, Fundamental Films, July 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens with a shot of the Earth from space set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” I immediately rolled my eyes, and if I hadn’t been in a theater, I would’ve audibly groaned. Could anything be more aggressively cliché, more painfully on the nose? The subsequent montage charts humanity’s journey into space, beginning with footage of the Apollo-Soyuz Project, the first joint U.S.-Soviet space mission, then jumping into the future to show us the nations of Earth and a variety of alien species all coming together in peace on one increasingly gigantic space station. As the song reached its climax and the space station, Alpha, was released from the Earth’s gravity to find its place in the stars, a tear had welled in my eye, and I felt genuinely moved.

This reaction sums up my experience of the film as a whole. It is often cliché and very dumb, but still, it sucks you in. I could easily write a long list of all the things that didn’t work about the film, and it would probably be longer than the list of things that did, but it was still about the most fun I’ve had this year at the cinema. It’s certainly not the best movie, or even a good movie by most metrics, but it is a lot of fun. The film generated so much goodwill from me, I found myself wanting to cheer it on even when it failed. Nice try, buddy. You’ll get ’em next time. Good job. You did your best. Save for some dodgy racial and gender politics, which will be discussed a bit below, the film’s flaws never get in the way of having a good time.

The film is based on Valérian and Laureline, a long-running Franco-Belgian comic by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières which follows the spacefaring, time-jumping adventures of the titular agents. Like most American viewers, I didn’t have much awareness of the franchise before seeing the film, knowing of it mainly as the comic that The Fifth Element was sort of based on. I cannot speak to the differences between the original and the adaptation, but the film clearly draws deeply from its source material to create depth in its world, which features a multitude of strange and wondrous aliens inhabiting a more politically complex universe than we might expect at first.

Yet even as an adaptation, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is very much a Luc Besson movie, and the specter of The Fifth Element looms large. This film shares a lot with the ’90s cult classic, both in its strengths and weaknesses. Both make their mark with stunning visuals and amazing action sequences along with rich, densely imagined SF worlds. Dane DeHaan’s Valerian almost plays as a younger, more idealistic version of Bruce Willis’s Korben Dallas, though DeHaan is unable to summon up the same rakish charm. And like The Fifth Element, the plot of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets barely makes any sense at all.

The film revolves around Laureline, played by Cara Delevingne, and Valerian on a mission to secure a macguffin and save the Alpha space station from some bad stuff that is happening. It doesn’t really matter. Like many action movies, the plot largely functions as a way to set up the action. Movies like these depend more on the relationships between the characters than the machinations of the plot to maintain interest. Unfortunately, the film largely fizzles here as well.

The two stars don’t have much chemistry with one another, and the film never gives us much of a reason to root for the romance. At the start of the film, their relationship is established but on the rocks, and the in media res approach just makes it harder to connect with, giving us no reason these two might like each other. As I said, DeHaan does not bring much charm to the role, and while Delevinge is a bit better, neither is able to create any sense of a strong connection. The movie just assumes that because these attractive young people are near each other, they should be together in the end, not just dating but planning to get married.

Indeed, the fact that this story set hundreds of years in the future gets so invested in marriage between two heterosexual white people points towards my biggest issue with the movie: its provinciality. The movie often shows the age of its source materials, or perhaps just its creators. There’s a bit in the opening sequence where a group of Asian astronauts bow instead of shaking hands, momentarily confusing the white astronauts in charge of the station. It felt to me like a joke from another era. Look at these weird people and their customs that aren’t like our customs, which everyone agrees are universal. It was a little moment, and I might’ve forgotten it entirely if it hadn’t been so representative. While the movie’s visions of aliens are imaginative and full of wonder, its vision of future humans is tediously tied to white, heteronormative Western culture.

This is likewise embodied by Rihanna’s shapechanging alien, Bubble. Like Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod in The Fifth Element, she is both fairly problematic and also the best character in the movie. The sequence of her burlesque striptease is one of the film’s most interesting and imaginative, and the character is paradoxically the most human, an alien who wishes to perform Shakespeare but can only get by as a dancer, though she still manages to slip some poetry into her performances. Rihanna is the most charming and capable actor in the film, and she lights up the screen when she is on it. At the same time, the idea of a squid alien wearing the skin of a black woman as an erotic costume is at the very least problematic, if not just racist, and the fact that European culture is held up as the aesthetic summit feels, again, provincial.

I imagine that most people’s reaction to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets will depend on their affection for its genre, as its execution is unlikely to draw in any skeptics. The films feels like a big budget, post-Avatar version of the sort of things I loved as a kid: the schlocky space operas trying and failing to be the next Star Wars, the low-budget Canadian kids shows about traveling time and space in a cardboard box, the paperback novels and the independent comics. Perhaps the film’s biggest strength is its outlook. I can’t remember the last time I saw a science fiction film that presented the future as a fundamentally good place, barring a few bad apples. It presents a hopeful view not only of humanity’s future, but of science fiction cinema itself, a vision not predicated on the spectacle of ultraviolence. Alpha exists as a place of ideas, not as a backdrop to get blown up in the third act. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets feels like a cult classic waiting to happen. It’s really not for everyone, but it is a treat for a viewer looking for lush visuals and cool ideas and not necessarily much else.

Pilgrims
Written by Claire Kerchek, Directed by Jessica Thebus and Michael Patrick Thornton
Performed at the Gift Theatre, June 2017

In many ways, the central themes in Claire Kerchel’s new play, Pilgrims, are echoed by the ambiguities of its title. The main characters, a bubbly yet mysterious teenage girl and a former soldier struggling to keep it together, are on a life-changing voyage to a faraway planet. Are they lower-case pilgrims, travelers on spiritual journey? Or are they the Pilgrims, colonizers making their way to a new world, buying new lives for themselves with the blood of the indigenous people? The play invokes the latter explicitly, while the former goes largely unsaid. Still, the spiritual implications of the journey remain thematically at the forefront: At its core, this is a play about salvation, about being saved from one’s own past.

The soldier (Ed Flynn) and the girl (Janelle Villas) are traveling together onboard the Destiny, a huge starship transporting colonists to the moon. They are matched by chance, and the soldier is particularly upset by the arrangement, having requested a single room due to his unnamed but obvious PTSD, which is marked by an inability to sleep without night terrors and waking nightmares, along with a generally nervous, angry demeanor. The girl is kind and playful, though her behavior seems both immature and precocious for her stated age of sixteen. She engages the soldier in a series of imagination games, the only thing they can really do to entertain themselves other than drinking and arguing. The cast is rounded out by Jasmine (Brittany Burch), a robot with the affect and dress of a 60s stewardess assigned to cater to their every need onboard (and she does mean every need). Things grow increasingly tense as the days pass and a quarantine forces the characters to remain locked in their room together, leading to conflict, revelations, and a surprising amount of surreal horror.

The show has a hazy, indistinct quality that I enjoyed but which many viewers might find frustrating. While some of the story’s mysteries are unraveled by the end, particularly those involving the soldier’s backstory, many are not. Is the quarantine real or an attempt to force the pair together as part of some strange breeding program? How sapient is Jasmine? How much of what we see is real, and how much only exists inside the soldier’s head? Likewise, the direction by Jessica Thebus and Michael Patrick Thornton seems designed to keep the audience off-balance and uneasy. Even the performances have a vague quality to them, as each character desires to only show their surface self to the other. I appreciate a degree of ambiguity in art, and I found the mysteries compelling. Still, even I found the play too withholding of some of its mysteries, particularly the girl’s backstory, which is never fully elaborated upon, and what few details we do get are mundane and entirely overshadowed by the operatic science fiction in the soldier’s story.

Plays are, in my opinion, an underrated and underutilized medium for science fiction and fantasy. All plays rely on an act of imaginative labor on the part of the audience, and I would argue it’s as easy to imagine a drama taking place on a futuristic moon base as a nineteenth-century English manor house. The science fiction setting here enlivens what might otherwise be a theatrical cliché, two wounded weirdos trapped in a claustrophobic space for an act or two, slowly revealing their sad backstories to one another and the audience. In the beginning, I wondered if this might be as far as the SF elements went, an interesting backdrop for the drama. Fairly quickly, it is revealed that this is not the case. The aliens are truly alien, not just the metaphor, and the planet they live on is described as strange and unique.

I was particularly engaged by the pretend games that the soldier and the girl play with one another. I am a sucker for metafictions, and their little stories are like short, improvised plays within the play. While pretending to be other people, the pair are more honest with one another than they can allow themselves to be as themselves. However, honesty built on lies is pretty precarious, and the play develops this theme in very interesting ways as it develops.

The play is not without its issues. The setup is compelling, but the story stumbles as it tries to progress the main characters’ relationship past that setup. As it went on, I began to feel the play was repeating itself, at least until it was time to race to the ending. Additionally, while Jasmine is ably played, her role is largely confined to comic relief, notwithstanding a moment or two of possibly real, possibly imagined horror. Pilgrims gestures at the idea that there is more going on with her than funny sex robot, but she doesn’t do much beyond driving the plot, and she disappears entirely just before the play’s climax and does not reappear. Speaking of which, my most serious issue with the play was its climax. It goes to a very dark place, and the fallout resulting from it felt very unearned to me. While I don’t have a problem with art dealing with adult subjects, it felt to me like the play was creating the most intense moment possible, then retreating from it in order to get the characters where they needed to be for the ending. As the play finally delves into what is driving the soldier’s behavior, this very serious incident is almost forgotten, making it seem unearned and tonally dubious. I would imagine this is, at least in part, the playwright’s intent, but it seemed to me that the same effect could’ve been achieved without going to into such fraught territory.

Pilgrims is one of the best plays I have seen in Chicago. It is well-acted, well-written, and compellingly directed. The science fiction themes are refreshing and allow the material to stand out. It is an interesting meditation on how people construct identity and reckon with the past, although it does somewhat lose sight of the moral implications of its characters’ actions in pursuit of these themes. I look forward to future work by the writer and directors.

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Joseph Allen Hill

Joseph Allen Hill

Joseph Allen Hill is a Chicago-based writer and bon vivant. He has also spent time in Georgia and New Jersey. He has a marginally useful degree in Classics and enjoys making music in his spare time. He can be reached on Twitter @joehillofearth2.