Burn the Map

...and the atlas and the guide book and the GPS and everything else that thinks it knows where you're going. 'Cause I'll tell you a secret, friend: They don't have a clue.

Welcome, traveler!  Is it a new world you're looking for, or perhaps a very old one?  Either way, your journey begins as soon as you click one of the links to the left (or up above, if you're inclined to the mobile devices).  Think of them as portals to other times and places... I mean, you could think of them as simple navigation buttons, but if you're going to do that, there are zillions of websites you could visit.  But you didn't.  You came here.  So saddle up, suit up, buckle up...  Grab your blaster, your sword, your spellbook...  Basically do whatever it takes to feel ready for adventure and dive into stories where no explorer or mapmaker has dared set foot.  Oh, and I almost forgot...  Where you're going, you might as well burn the map. 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Cool Name...

***Note that there are some potential spoilers toward the end of the review, depending on your definition.***

I wanted to like this movie, I really did. Unfortunately, the best thing about this movie is the title (which is still pretty awesome).

An argument could be made that I should have expected to be disappointed; I’d seen the poor reviews, though I chose not to read any of them in detail. I often don’t click with critics, and numerous reviewers eviscerated The Fifth Element (Valerian director Luc Besson’s 1997 space opera). Unfortunately Valerian fails where Fifth Element succeeded. The older film certainly wasn’t for everyone, and on the whole it wasn’t necessarily my style either, but it dedicated itself to an over-the-top, silly tone and played it to the hilt without shame. A viewer willing to get on board and accept the ride was in for a hell of a time, and the consistently lighthearted feel opened the door for some entertaining, comic-book-style action and a little bit of heart.

In Valerian, Besson fails to pick a tone and stick with it. The visual style is certainly appealing to a bizarre, Farscape-esque sensibility (which I do mean as a compliment), but nothing else is consistent, with the feel ranging from traditional action to camp to moralizing in un-blended, jarring transitions. The broaching and sustaining of the romantic subplot is particularly abrupt and forced. The interactions between the male and female lead are dull at best, and while some critics have ascribed this problem to the actors, the writing does not give them much to work with. (Nothing as egregious as the “No, I love you more” scene at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith, but still…)

Unfortunately there are problems with pacing and story structure as well. The first sequence post-credits is beautiful but too long. After this, things improve for a while, and the protagonists' initial return to the titular city is compelling. Things quickly go off the rails, though, as the plot devolves into little more than an excuse to explore the varied corners of The City of a Thousand Planets, and the audience is soon reminded that all that glitters is not gold. I was still tenuously on board until the appearance of a weirdly-costumed Ethan Hawke, as the owner of some kind of brothel, in a sequence that could have been entirely cut from the film with no impact on the actual story. (Here I must note that the sequence in question includes a quick-change, non-striptease act performed for the title character that seems to go on forever, uncomfortably, and shatters the supposed urgency of the situation at that point in the film.) This points to the more general pacing and structure problems: The movie might have given tighter focus to the central conflict and invented intermediate challenges relevant to it, and this would have been great. Or with smarter editing the intermediate challenges as-written might have been built into an epic journey structure, something reminiscent of a space-opera version of 1983’s Krull with better writing and production values. Instead the film takes a middle-of-the-road approach that fails to satisfy on either front.

Just when the central conflict coalesces and is about to win me back from the Ethan Hawke-inspired separation, the story corners to a moral tale landing somewhere between Avatar and recent refugee crises. The preaching isn’t too heavy-handed, but it’s there. This culminates in an unprecedented and stilted speech from the female lead about love being the greatest power in the universe…or something…that shoved me out of the story for good. Ultimately the central conflict is resolved with no meaningful input from the protagonists – save for a consequence-free moral decision, giving up “the MacGuffin” of the plot which had no real value to them anyway.

I hate to be so down on a film, and Valerian certainly had its fun scenes and entertaining moments. Even there, however, the best shots were all in the trailer. Unless you have an extreme brand loyalty to Luc Besson, I’d find a better way to spend a couple hours. Even if you do, you’re probably better off just watching The Professional again.

Warcraft: High Fantasy on the Big Screen

Last Saturday I went to see the new Warcraft film.  Unlike most of the movies I’ve gone to see lately, I was really unsure of this one, and I suspect some of my readers might feel the same, so in a Burn the Map first, I’m going to review it for you.  Don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers.  In fact, I won’t say much about specific characters or plot points at all.

First, the short version:  I was impressed.

O.K., I’ll give you a little more:

To start with, I should explain, for the benefit of those living under a rock since the mid-90s, that Warcraft is a fantasy tale, originally a computer game by Blizzard entertainment, telling the story of a war between the mostly-human Alliance and the orcish Horde.  When the game was first released, the story was basically the minimum required to stitch together a bunch of real-time strategy levels into some kind of narrative.  As sequels were produced, though, the tale evolved, growing fairly rich for a video game of its time.  The Warcraft film starts at the beginning, telling the story that brings about the events of the original game.

By way of a disclaimer, I should say that I am not a dyed-in-the-wool Warcraft fan.  I do not play World of Warcraft.  I did play the original games, back in the day when you still had to know how to execute commands at a DOS prompt to install them, and I do enjoy the world that Blizzard has created (Azeroth) and the shifting tides of war between what turn out to be two reasonably sympathetic civilizations (though this was not really the case in the first couple of games).  I say all this only to make clear that if Blizzard messed the story around in a way that doesn’t do justice to the source material, I have no idea, so any hardcore fans, please direct your outrage to the nearest Blizzard website, not at me.

Going in with only a passing foreknowledge of the story and no expectations, however, I greatly enjoyed the film.  That said, I am going to present the cons first, so as to end on a high note.

Cons:

1.       Much of the film is computer-generated.  CG effects and characters don’t offend me as much as they do some film purists, but here the issue is that it felt like I was watching last year’s CG where it pertained to the computer-animated orcs.  I acclimated to it fairly quickly, with the exception of a shot or two later on, and it didn’t take me out of the story, but it was noticeable.  Still, I do want to be clear we were nowhere near the “uncanny valley” – the motion-capture Beowulf it is not, thank goodness.

2.       The movie suffered from a bit of a muddy start.  I can’t put it much better than that without going into more detail than it’s worth, but it felt like about fifteen minutes before I really had characters and events that I could get a grip on to start following the story.

3.       The characters feel very one-dimensional at first.  Over the course of the film this story-telling technique bears fruit, as we learn the various players’ personalities purely based on the action we see before us, but without the benefit of hindsight, the characters will seem pretty generic in the beginning.

 

Pros:

1.       Everything I said about the CG for the orcs you can reverse for the magical effects.  I found those to be bright and crisp and pitch-perfect with only one or two exceptions.

2.       Oh, yeah, there are magic effects!  It was very refreshing in a media world dominated by low-magic fantasy such as Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings to see a movie with wizards tossing fireballs and lightning bolts and teleporting across the globe.  I like the less fantastic stuff, too, but this was a welcome change of pace.

3.       The props and costumes were spot-on.  Don’t misunderstand, a historian would look at them and laugh…or even cringe…but Warcraft has always had a very specific aesthetic feel, and translating that to the screen without losing it or making it look cartoonish had to have been a challenge.  For my money, the filmmakers walked that line flawlessly.

4.       This is perhaps my greatest compliment.  The movie was not dark, and didn’t try to be.  This is important because the general backdrop is (not to put too fine a point on it) genocidal war.  Also, other franchises have been making money hand-over-fist lately by taking any subject matter they can find and shooting it through a darker, grimier lens than tradition suggests.  I’m sure the financial temptation was there to go darker and more amoral, but that would have been the wrong direction for this story.  What we get instead is not an immature, “happily ever after” tale, either, but rather a more epic saga, in the sense you can imagine if you remember back to when the word “epic” actually had a meaning.  Heroes and villains alike face tough choices, and while the consequences are often tragic, they never feel arbitrary.

Warcraft is a change from the recently-established norm for fantasy and adventure film on a variety of fronts.  Most importantly, we are rewarded with a refreshingly mythical world, a world where good and evil matter even though they aren’t always obvious.  Stick with it through the first reel, and by the time the credits roll you’ll be ready for a sequel.