Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Valerian poster

Based on a French comic book, Valerian and Laureline, this movie sees these two Special Agents trying to save the titular City of a Thousand Planets – that is, a space station peacefully hosting hundreds of different alien species – from a mysterious threat.

Reviews have been pretty scathing about Valerian, and I would have to agree with most of them: the plot is both weak and convoluted, the acting is barely adequate, and even the title is insulting, leaving out the other main character who turns out to be probably more kick-ass than her male counterpart. Pfft. And as someone said: removing the painful attempts at ‘romance’ would have made for a far superior movie – it’s borderline creepy at points, tbh.

And yet, it’s still worth the watch. In fact, despite saying all of the above, I’d still go back to see it tomorrow – because it looks gorgeous. So yes, I can put up with a so-so plot and meh characters, and sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

Knowing this comes from Fifth Element director, Luc Besson, perhaps explains some of the visual marvel. I don’t think this is anywhere near as good – mind, I do love FE – but it’s definitely going to be one I leave on when it’s on the telly, purely to look at.

The one part of the movie I did think they nailed absolutely is the opening montage. Perfectly accompanied by the wondrous Space Oddity (David Bowie), we see the next 800 years of human space exploration encapsulated in a series of meet’n’greets aboard the growing ISS. It’s a hugely touching reminder than humanity can be non-jerks, at times.

The rest drifts off a little into a series of semi-random adventures for Valerian (a wooden Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne and her power eyebrows), including a subplot about a dream that feels like it’s from a different draft of the movie. Still, there are some fun alien species along the way, some well-realised (virtual) sets including a marketplace in another dimension (the future of Amazon, perhaps?), and a pretty good score to keep the feet tapping.

Go in – as I did – with low expectations, and have a little fun!

Released: 2nd August 2017
Viewed: 9th August 2017
Running time: 137 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10

Iain M Banks – Paul Kincaid

Iain Banks – with or without the ‘M’ initial to separate his sci-fi – is one of my favourite authors. Crow Road has the best opening line ever (“It was the day my grandmother exploded” – perhaps influencing my habit of collecting opening lines in fiction reviews here); Player of Games remains one of my favourite books of all time, and it was fascinating to get another viewpoint on it and the rest of the collection.

And here it is: a discussion of the man’s work, looking at themes and motifs in the novels, alongside briefer discussion about the political landscape and literary scene at times of writing, with the overall aim of showing the importance Banks had in the revitalisation of the sci-fi genre. Various interviews with Banks are used to add depth to the discussion, including a long reprint at the end.

Although Paul Kincaid mentions all of Banks’ books, the dissection-level is primarily aimed at the sci-fi – the ‘M’ – books. Given that these are sometimes multi-layered affairs, playing with structure and time lines, there were a few points of this book that had me going “Oh!” – and for that alone, I thank it. Perhaps not enough of those, as given the quantity of work to cover and fairly short length of this book, most are kept more to the overview plus a few random observations.

Also worth noting: this is a book for people who have already read Iain Banks’ work. There are a few of the later tomes that I am still saving/savouring (or, eking out so I don’t finish altogether!), and I did have to skip or at least skim the sections on those to avoid spoilers – obvious, given this is a book discussing those books, including the endings!

It was really great to read someone taking a body of work I love and looking at it with such care and attention. However, I’m not entirely sure about the tone: on the one hand, it’s very readable, but it tries to stay quasi-scholarly, whereas I think a bit more personal, heartfelt “I love these books!” (except for the ones he didn’t – no shying away from some being less than brilliant, if still always intriguing!) might have connected with the reader a little more. On the other, perhaps going a little more academic would have tightened the structure, maybe having topic sections instead of just a book-by-book approach with surrounding discussions feeling a little meandering.

Overall, this book is a great look at some fantastic works, and if nothing else has left me desperate to re-read most if not all of Iain Banks work – and quite possibly refer back to what was written here about it.

NetGalley eARC: 208 pages
First published: 2017
Series: Modern Masters of Science Fiction
Read from 18th June – 29th July 2017

My rating: 6.5/10

Colony – Rob Grant

“Eddie O’Hare considers himself to be the unluckiest man in the entire cosmos. And, bluntly, he’s got a damned fine point.”

After a computer error gets Eddie onto the radar of some unpleasant hit men, he’s more than keen to take the opportunity to swap places with a bloke who quite looks like him but is about to spend the rest of his life jetting off into space. Mankind is off to colonise the stars, you see, but it will take generations of onboard pioneers to make it.

Which is fine: Eddie’s lifespan is about to be measured in floors, vertically, if you get my drift, so just about anything is preferable.

Of course, he’s got absolutely no idea who he’s trying to pretend to be, and as it turns out the package is not exactly as sold. Finding out he’s a bit of a nasty, unliked sod is only the first of Eddie’s misidentification problems…

There’s a lot of fun and things to like here, at least in the beginning. Eddie’s bad luck is indeed atrocious, and he manages to get into worse and worse scrapes through misheard conversations, not understanding who he’s pretending to be, or knowing a thing about the mission he’s signed up for. The first hundred or so pages are a fun little farce.

However, part three opens some nine generations on – in a 5-generation journey, so quite the feat – when Eddie is awoken from a kind of stasis (did I mention this was penned by one of the Red Dwarf writers?) to discover all sorts of things didn’t go to plan. Luckily – well…! – the population of the ship has forgotten how to read, giving Eddie a priest-like power to decipher the strange hieroglyphs, like “Exit”, “Airlock”, and the like. He’s also able to see the effects of the first-generation policies, such as family-inherited careers – leading to a religious fanatic of a science officer, the least holy priest ever, and a teenage captain who gets to name the planet they might just be about to fly into, “Thrrrrp”. And that’s the polite one 😉

Things do start getting more than a little ridiculous from this point, but what’s been a fun read is hugely let down by a rather abrupt and unsatisfying ending. I’m not sure if the author didn’t know where the story was going, or if he’d just hit either his wordcount or his deadline, and scurried to wrap things up. Either way, disappointing.

Hardback: 290 pages / 47 chapters
First published: 2000
Series: none
Read from 8th-10th June 2017

My rating: 5.5/10 – disappointing ending, but before that it’s very easy to read if very daft

Colossal (2016)

When alcoholic party fiend Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is kicked out by her boyfriend, she has little choice but to move back home. Old school friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) takes her under his wing, offering a job and social circle – perhaps a little unfortunately in a bar. Waking up with yet another hangover one morning, Gloria is shocked to see a godzilla-like monster has been terrorising Seoul – and even more shocked when she starts to realise that she may just be connected to the creature…

While there’s some fun to be had with the link discovery scenes, Colossal very quickly turns out to be a much darker beast than the premise and the trailers had led me to believe. In fact, the whole monster thing is almost a red-herring, as the tone takes a swift downturn into the more psychopathic human monster territory.

With themes of alcoholism, abusive relationships, obsession, and perhaps a more overt than usual example of facing the consequences of your actions, this is not a light and fluffy movie, and it’s actually a bit of a shame that the trailers portrayed it as such as it did leave me a little jarred rather than enjoying what was actually presented. The odd mix of tones is a little strange, but I applaud it all for trying to do something a bit different. Just, ignore the trailers and go in with some more realistic expectations.

Released: 19th May 2017
Viewed: 31st May 2017
Running time: 109 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6.5/10 – probably deserves more, but was a bit mis-sold

Alien: Covenant (2017)

The Covenant: a colony ship, heading to a remote planet to allow its cargo of 2000 sleeping colonists to start a new life. When it hits a damaging neutron field, synthetic life form, Walter (Michael Fassbender, once again the only interesting character in the whole piece), wakes the crew to help deal with the disaster. Shaken by tragedy, a mysterious signal leading them towards an even more habitable planet than the one they were aiming for seems like a dream come true. But given this is a sequel to Prometheus (2012) and a prequel to Alien (1979), the audience is more than aware that the dream is far more likely to be a nightmare…

I had low expectations and yet somewhat high hopes for this movie. I thought Prometheus was a horrible mess, confusing in its attempt to come up with some (un)godly backstory to the classic franchise, and executed sloppily from start to finish. Covenant surely couldn’t be any worse, right?!

Well…!! It seems like a lot of attention has been paid to the complaints from last time, so sure, this story is a bit less mystical and vague, and ‘woo’ – we have the classic xenomorphs back (I wasn’t *that* fussed, tbh!). Alas, every single other problem seems to have been ported across wholesale: crew I don’t care about in the slightest, thus making the peril they face less than gripping? Check. Clunky plot holes and/or events that fit the joining up of narratives more than logic? Check. Drippy Ripley-wannabe utterly failing to impress as Sigourney Weaver’s successor? Oh, triple check. Excuse me while I roll my eyes.

Set 10 years after the Prometheus went missing – although while the crew all seem aware of this fact in retrospect, they still all do the “It’s impossible that there’s human life out here!” without a single ‘what if…’ crossing their tiny brains – there is still a bit of a gap to explain what happened between the two. A few flashbacks attempt to bridge this, but I was still left with a sense of “Hmm, is that really likely?!” – even in fiction as wild as this, you still expect people to act like people, unlikely random coincidences to not happen every time, and a whole extra stage in a creature’s lifecycle not just to crop up because the first prequel skipped it but it needs to come back!

But, the bulk of the ‘now’ of the movie should make up for this, and while it’s not dreadful for a slasher-horror gore fest, I loathed the lazy ‘crew bonding’ device of making them all married to someone who gets picked off – so, oooh, we’re going to feel for them! Urm, no. Someone is killed off at the very start, but as we hadn’t even met the character at that point it’s really hard to care, and the hysterical spouse reaction is jarring until we get the explanation. Would the story have been any different if that character had survived? Not much. Yes, it changes the actions of another two characters but it just struck me as the laziest possible way to stimulate those motivations and ‘feels’. I don’t care for the obvious manipulation.

I will allow that this film looks gorgeous – the design has always been a very strong element with even the prequels. And, I will also allow that my own disappointment that this wasn’t better is leading me to be very harsh. But… meh. Something about this whole movie just struck me as reactive and a bit lazy, and overall desperately unsatisfying.

And yes, I will still go see the third planned prequel: I might be being harsh, but Covenant is better than Prometheus, so hope springs eternal! o_O

Released: 12th May 2017
Viewed: 12th May 2017
Running time: 122 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 5/10 – disappointing

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Following a terrible crash, Major (Scarlett Johansson) is rebuilt with the best cyber-enhancement tech available. Built and trained to be the perfect soldier, she is uniquely placed to help in the fight against a new level of cyber-terrorism: hacking into people’s minds. But, who is the mysterious figure behind it all, and what do they want from Major? She’s about to find out that perhaps nothing is as it seems.

Anime is one of the things that I think I should be more into, at least on paper. The original Ghost in the Shell (1995) was one of my first forays, partly to see the original ahead of this remake, and mostly because it gets raved about a lot. I’m afraid to say I wasn’t all that impressed – it’s definitely a genre in and of itself, and something you have to get your head around to really appreciate.

So perhaps slightly backwards to most viewers, my hopes for the live-action movie were that I’d be able to understand it a bit better – so yeah, it probably has been dumbed down, but that worked in my favour! And yes, I could follow the story a bit better, although having seen the original also made a lot of things make more sense. It’s an odd one. I completely get why fans of the original found this so disappointing.

I ended up really liking the look of the piece, transferred scene-for-scene at times from the animation, although again I might be alone with this.

Aside from all that, going in ‘blind’ you get a sci-fi-y action movie, with a futuristic Japanese setting, and a mildly convoluted story line that doesn’t quite click together.

Released: 30th March 2017
Viewed: 14th April 2017
Running time: 107 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6/10

Agents of Dreamland – Caitlin R Kiernan

“Here’s the scene: It’s Thursday evening, and the Signalman sits smoking and nursing a flat Diet Dr Pepper, allowing himself to breathe a stingy sigh of relief as twilight finally, mercifully comes crashing down on the desert.”

Mysterious meetings in small town desert diners, shocking photographs, secret agents, time travel, space fungus, kool-aid cults… for a short novella, there is a heck of a lot packed in here!

I’d previously read Caitlín R Kiernan’s novel, The Red Tree, following a recommendation based on the terrific House of Leaves (Mark Z Danielewski) – and while not quite as mind-bending as the latter, it shared that sense of disquiet and reality-breaking. Agents of Dreamland has quite a similar tone: unease and creeping levels of horror.

With such a short volume, we’re thrown into the action immediately and left to fend for ourselves a bit in terms of figuring out what’s what. Who is the mysterious Signalman, who is he waiting for, and why does he fear her? Perhaps knowing that ‘Dreamland’ is another name for Area 51 might give some clues…!

Chapters jump back and forth on the timeline a little – so you have to pay attention to the title dates, which is generally something I hate, although it does serve its purpose here – revealing slightly earlier events even more remotely in the desert locale, from the point of view of a young teenager saved from the streets and brought to a different kind of purpose. Even without the subsequent revelations, this would have its own kind of chill.

I did fear at one point that the ‘short’ would feel ‘unfinished’, but no: while there is a lot of scope for continuation, and a wider tale that is hinted at, this is an almost perfectly formed slice of story. It does perhaps take a couple of (short) chapters to get going, and it’s slightly unfortunate that the core idea is familiar to me from something I read a few years back – it would be more shocking otherwise, I imagine – but overall this is a great short fiction from an author I intend to read more of. Recommended for fans of Twin Peaks and The X-Files.

NetGalley eARC: 112 pages / 11 chapters
First published: February 2017
Series: none
Read from 24th-27th March 2017

My rating: 8.5/10