Reviews

Movie reviews: Valerian a dazzling space adventure, To The Bone

A secret agent's sidekick, a protagonist travelling in a lawless zone and an artist with an eating disorder come out swinging

Women who fight are front and centre this week - you can pick from women who fight space monsters, those who fight cannibals in a post-apocalypse wasteland and some who fight themselves.

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets (PG, 137 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4/5 stars) is a visually dazzling, grin-inducing space adventure featuring the exploits of the secret agent in the film's title, but his sidekick Laureline gets as much screentime as he does.

Laureline and Valerian are space operatives working to keep peace in the galaxy and are played by Cara Delevingne and Dane DeHaan as a sourpuss-and-slob odd couple working in close quarters, in the manner of Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen (1951).

There is something old-fashioned in how French director and screenwriter Luc Besson, returning to the science-fiction realm he left after The Fifth Element (1997), has framed this work.

If the Star Wars saga is about empire and democracy, mirroring its American roots, Valerian is more European in its lower-stakes preoccupations with solving mysteries, mocking dumb tourists, wooing frosty women and picking the perfect vacation beach in a galaxy with a million sandy shores.

Valerian and Laureline have to root out terrorists hiding in the middle of a teeming ant colony of a space station, home to dozens of intelligent species, each with anatomical quirks that Besson exploits to the fullest.

Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne (both above) play a sourpuss-and-slob odd couple in Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, while Suki Waterhouse stars in The Bad Batch.
Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne (both above) play a sourpuss-and-slob odd couple in Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, while Suki Waterhouse stars in The Bad Batch. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

Clive Owen plays their hawkish commander, while Ethan Hawke and pop superstar Rihanna take on major supporting parts as the pimp Jolly and his shape-shifting singer-dancer Bubble.

Rihanna does a lot more than reprise the crowd-pleaser role of the blue-skinned opera singer in The Fifth Element; her part is meaty and she does a fine job with it.

Besson, adapting from the treasured French comic-book series Valerian Et Laureline, strikes a couple of false notes. The protagonists' bickering-couple shtick is handled without care for language or pacing, for instance, but he seems to have eased on his more annoying French quirks, such as casually racist jokes (remember the giggly Japanese schoolgirls in Fifth Element?).

But really, even in the French-est of possible science-fiction futures, surely there must be rules about co-workers - least of all, the only two workers in a spaceship - making amour with each other. George Lucas would never allow it.

Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne play a sourpuss-and-slob odd couple in Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, while Suki Waterhouse (above) stars in The Bad Batch.
Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne play a sourpuss-and-slob odd couple in Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, while Suki Waterhouse (above) stars in The Bad Batch. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

The Bad Batch (M18, 118 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5/5 stars) skips across more genres in its first hour than most directors over a lifetime of work .

It begins as dusty-wasteland science-fiction in the style of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), before becoming body horror a la David Cronenberg (Naked Lunch, 1991), with a quick trot to revenge-flick land, then ending with romance.

And all that comes after a detour into the trippy neon fantasy of Harmony Korine arthouse a la Spring Breakers (2012).

In other words, this hugely ambitious work from talented writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour (the award-winning horror work A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, 2014) will divide viewers, who will either applaud it for its ambition or slam it for its lack of focus; this reviewer falls into the latter camp.

It has its moments, but this work's wild and ineptly handled tonal swings make for frustrating viewing.

Arlen - played by British actress Suki Waterhouse, looking slightly lost throughout - travels into a lawless zone for reasons not fully explained. A cannibal tribe, led by Miami Man (Jason Momoa with an unsteady Hispanic accent), captures her.

Keanu Reeves makes a large cameo in this low-budget indie as party host-tribal leader The Dream, who runs his community as if it were the Burning Man art and music festival all year round.

The messy narrative, short on details and long on broad, vague strokes, begins to make sense if read as a version of a Little Red Riding Hood metaphor for a woman's sexual awakening, or perhaps as a fable about women's relationship with food.

But even the loopiest of fairy tales must have internal coherence; this one falls far short.

To The Bone (NC16, 107 minutes, showing on Netflix, 3.5/5 stars) flirts with ideas of body horror and food too, but with the veil of metaphor ripped away.

To play the lead role, Lily Collins looks as if she must have fed on only celery and water for weeks (i.e. the gimme-an-Oscar diet). She is Ellen, a woman with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa.

The acerbic artist has been through all the usual treatments and, in a last-ditch try, her family have booked her with the maverick Dr Beckham (Keanu Reeves again, this time as a tough-love psychologist).

What follows is part social discourse about the disease and part character study of Ellen and her fellow patients at Dr Beckham's facility.

Writer-director Marti Noxon, whose last outings as director includes television's cult comedy Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), keeps the tone light and cutely funny (sometimes, much too cute). Ellen is a keen observer of absurdities in herself, her fractious blended family and her fellow patients.

There is journalism here in the slang ("rexies" is what patients call themselves) and the tricks the patients employ to outsmart caregivers (calorie-burning by sit-ups in bed and vomit bags in hidden places).

But Noxon is more interested in showing off Ellen's disease as something of a superhuman power. With shades of Buffy, the young woman uses her illness as a sword that slices through layers of family and social hypocrisy.

Controversially, Ellen is not seen as a figure of tragedy or a victim for much of the film, but that is a smart call. An hour and a half of standard disease-of-the-week moaning might be hard to take; this work, however, with its ensemble chattiness and good humour, makes a horrifying syndrome sound almost fun to watch.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2017, with the headline 'Women spoiling for a fight'. Print Edition | Subscribe