Why you should watch Valerian even if it’s offensive

Valerian is a vivid sci-fi spectacle and creative, flawed expression of Luc Besson’s unusual mind. The new film sets a high-water mark for world building, but is also stitched together by problematic stereotypes.

I should state up front that I’m a fan of Besson’s 1997 film The Fifth Element. I’ve seen it several times, and my friends regularly quote its quirky dialogue. (“No, no, no, no, no, no… yes.”) The grimy vision of the future featured some brilliant performances by Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman, with prominent roles given to Chris Tucker (astoundingly inventive as an intergalactic DJ) and a surly DJ Tricky playing a mob henchman.

Chris Tucker’s brilliant performance in The Fifth Element

Mila Jovovich was spritely and nubile in a way that would seem outdated and sexist today — I mean she runs around in a duct-tape bikini for most of the film, and is unhealthily thin — but since she spoke an unintelligible language and saved Earth from destruction, much was forgiven. The Fifth Element owed an obvious debt to Blade Runner, but so too do a lot of films, and its comedic take on high-future technology was refreshing. I remember wanting to see more of the corrupt society that so pained and frustrated Bruce Willis (“Corbyn, my man!”).

Tricky was surly-cool in The Fifth Element

Moderate spoiler alert.

Twenty years have passed since the release of The Fifth Element, so I was thrilled to see what would spring from Besson’s imagination. Valerian is a complex tale based on a comic book that involves two special forces soldiers on a galactic mission to save an endangered species. Along the way, they uncover a more sinister conspiracy to exterminate a really beautiful and peaceful alien race called the Mül. One of the soldiers is named Valerian and the other is Laureline — you’ll hear Valerian’s name spoken aloud a lot in the film. Like, a lot.

Valerian features world building on an almost unimaginable scale. Every set piece is rich with exquisite detail — space ships and stars sailing past; vegetation swaying in the breeze; a menagerie of wonderful creatures; and a multidimensional shopping district. The two main opening sequences absolutely dazzled me: one depicting the tropical world of the people of Mül; and another showing the construction of the giant space station Alpha, which featured, notably, Africans and Indians and Chinese collaborating together in space. It’s worth paying the price of a 3D ticket for those scenes alone.

But it gets better. There are so many creative elements that demand rewatching, especially on the space station Alpha, which teems with technological marvels and weird biology. And like The Fifth Element, the weapons the soldiers use are highly original — magnetic b-b’s that lock you in place and slime capsules that force you to hibernate. The fact that bullets don’t cause people to bleed helps make the film feel like a trippy, fantastical ride.

Valerian relies heavily on the culture and ornamentation of the Masai

World building is hard

World building in science fiction is very difficult, because the creator’s imagination is shaped here on Earth with terrestrial biology. So it makes sense that we often imagine creatures that look like peoples and animals we already have here on our planet. But what makes world building so noticeable in Valerian is that Luc Besson is also making a satirical film that plays with scifi tropes. So he wants the creatures to behave differently and provoke a laugh, or maybe a chuckle.

Satire’s slippery slope

Sadly satire’s best friend is stereotype. You see this in the royal feast in which the soldier Laureline is nearly fed to an alien king. It’s a classic colonialist image of cannibals feasting on lost explorers. You see this in the three, bat-like creatures who scheme to make money, which could be easily interpreted as anti-Semitic. You also see this in the multidimensional market, which is quite similar to a Moroccan souq. It’s as if Luc Besson went on a bunch of trips to exotic places (former European colonies) and fed them all into the story.

And yet, somehow I found myself laughing through all these scenes and enjoying them immensely. I would watch them again, because I’m willing to think that Luc Besson either didn’t know any better, or that he did know but managed to blunt the sharpest edges of these stereotypes. I smiled, chuckled, and laughed — I’ll admit it.

The Masai are one of the most popular depictions of African culture

The Mül may be the most problematic culture in the film, mostly because they are so clearly modeled after the Masai people from East Africa. Their jewelry and ornamentation are nearly identical. And if you want to take it further, they worship the little “converter” creatures, which can replicate any source of matter, sort of like the reverence of the Masai for cattle, which play a crucial role in their culture. Beyond that, Besson seems to be alluding to the noble savage, that the Mül are a mythical culture unsullied by civilization that run pure until space ships (Western culture) drop into their midst and annihilate them.

And yet, once again, I loved watching the Mül. They are beautiful to look at. They blush with anger in a charming way, their brows flooding with dark color. They’re not blue-skinned like the creatures in Avatar, but they have a pallid glow to them. I didn’t think of the Mül as white washing the Masai — I thought of them as alien-washing the Masai. I loved their Swahili-like greetings and the subtle affection they expressed for each other. They spoke poetically, yet directly — I suppose much like Isak Dinesen’s depiction of the Masai in Out of Africa. 

So yeah, I’m conflicted about the Mül.

Well, there’s that

Just so you don’t feel hoodwinked, I should mention that excellent critics have observed the lack of chemistry (and acting ability) of the two main characters played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. DeHaan’s pokey line delivery merely underscores how good Bruce Willis’s assured performance was in The Fifth Element. Other writers have also criticized the stilted dialogue. Maybe it’s not too late to overdub the whole thing in other languages when it debuts in other countries — the Chinese and French and Germans would stand to enjoy a better film.

There were also other aspects of Valerian that felt dated. The Fifth Element seemed avant garde and creative in 1997  with its casting of Chris Tucker and Tricky. It was surprising that there were still only two black supporting actors in Valerian – twenty years later. And Jovovich’s extraterrestrial innocence and nudity worked before, but it feels somehow exploitative with Cara Delevingne. You would think that, four hundred years into the future, two of the galaxy’s most decorated soldiers would not still be making jokes about women being weak, or treating traditional marriage as the ultimate prize when they don’t seem to like each other all that much.

On  the whole, I enjoyed Valerian and think it’s a must watch for any science fiction fan. It sets a new standard for visual complexity and sheer whimsicality. You might not agree with all of Luc Besson’s creative choices, but it’s hard not to find something redeeming over the course of the sprawling film’s two hours. Go see it.

Future Perfect – takeaways from a fascinating event on sci-fi and policy

On Friday, I joined Data & Society’s Future Perfect conference, which aimed to explore “the use, significance, and discontents of speculative design, narrative, and world-building in technology, policy, and culture.”

This seemingly broad and ambitious agenda took shape through several fascinating presentations and conversations with writers, academics, critics, technologists, and academics.

For my part, I spoke about the apparent contradictions I encountered when writing my new novel After the Flare (Unnamed Press, September 2017) in a country where nomads and space technology co-exist. I also delved into how my work as a digital rights activist at Access Now informed the technology and questions I pose in the thriller, which is mostly set in the U.S. and Nigeria.

Here are some takeaways from the conference, in random order:

  • Ada Cable, a trans scholar, spotlighted several pioneering trans creators of games and narratives. She argued that trans people, by their experience, can break boundaries into new realms of thought and creativity, particularly with respect to the body. Nonetheless, she observed that trans people are often paid to explain their work to non-trans audiences, but are rarely paid to present to trans audiences. I think this criticism applies to African literature and Africa-based science fiction as well.
  • Joanna Radin presented a fascinating paper about how Michael Crichton’s influence on science and technology is under appreciated, not just within fiction but upon the development of science. I nodded throughout her talk as a Crichton fan — I wrote an extensive essay that was published in The New York Review of Science Fiction entitled How to Create Your Own Jurassic Park.
  • Farai Chideya discussed her explorations at Harvard and MIT Media Lab on how speculative fiction informs science policy in the Trump era.
  • Jillian Crandall analyzed the architectures of the video game Horizon Zero Dawn, featuring a matriarchal society thriving in a planet infested by A.I. robots. The game visually depicts a computer virus as a red, ropy infestation. (In After the Flare, I visualize a zero day attack through the use of a biomimetic machine.)
  • Alexander Huggins presented a very interesting analysis of the musician Brian Eno and Muzak, noting how music can shape our experience of physical environments. (Again, music plays a big role in After the Flare, with a lead character who is a vibroacoustic engineer.)
  • Ava Kofman gave a thoughtful analysis of the films Robocop and Minority Report, and explored how these seemingly dystopian films have actually inspired the Taser company in the design of its offices and also its stun-gun and wearable body camera technologies used by police.

There were many more compelling conversations and presentations, so this is just a small sampling. You can watch the video of the conference here. Kate Ray also posted this excellent Tweet that compiles the books, games, and movies discussed throughout the day. (Click through to Twitter to read the full list of recommendations, since she replied to her own Tweet to compile the list.)

Thanks to Data & Society, and particularly Ingrid Burrington (author of Networks of New York), who hosted and curated this enriching, diverse event.

Featured image by Mac Rebisz http://maciejrebisz.com/.

Alien: Covenant is a horror film waiting to burst into a space opera

Despite mediocre reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, which I confess I regularly check, I decided to watch the latest film in the Alien franchise, Alien: Covenant. What drew me to the movie was filmmaker Ridley Scott. Scott directed the first Alien (1979) and took a long hiatus before directing the prequel Prometheus (2012) and now this installment. He’s directed some of my favorite films, such as the groundbreaking Blade Runner (1983), and also some of my least favorite films, such as Black Hawk Down (2001), which depicted Somalis as bloodthirsty savages. Then there was 2015’s The Martian, which was fine. Fine, I say. Fine.

Here are my brief takeaways of Alien: Covenant (the points below contain SPOILERS):

What the heck is going on and why do the aliens all seem to look different? This is probably the only major spoiler in this article, but the fact that I need to write it suggests that the answer is not at all obvious. (I’m not going to do a plot summary, which plenty of brave reviewers have already done.) If you’ve seen Prometheus and the first three Alien films, you’ll have noticed that the aliens are not at all the same. Specifically, there is the alien that we know and love and a bunch of weird ones that are sort of similar. The aliens don’t look different in Prometheus and Covenant because the sculptors and animators forgot what the alien looked like, but because they are different. Each of the different aliens has been created from a pathogen that mingled with another life form. That’s why some aliens look like flatworms, others like trilobites, and others like humans. What they have in common is that the mutants created by the pathogen grow and propagate quickly and seem to have a limitless capacity for eating and exploding out of human flesh. The way this pathogen infects biological specimens is really the crux of the entire franchise now, even if it wasn’t important when Alien came out in theaters nearly 40 years ago. The pathogen is also called Agent A0-3959X.91 and appears to have been created as a biological weapon for some nefarious purpose, created by the giant humanoid Engineers we met in Prometheus. You can rabbit hole down the Alien wiki to learn more. (Fun fact – the first Alien was played by a 7 foot tall Nigerian man, Bolaji Badejo.)

Ridley Scott is a master of layering. The film features enough mysteries, clues, and palimpsests to hold your attention. Giant stalks of wheat? A mysterious space wreck? As Scott has explained, his background in shooting advertising commercials allows him to pack lots of information onto the screen and tell a story quickly. This includes creating a defining color palette. His sets have a convincingly archaeological feel – when something in the film is meant to look ancient, it feels ancient — unlike some films which look like a set designer scrubbed some dirt on the wall to look old. Longshots and landscapes are richly detailed, and awe inspiring. Spaceships are relatively constrained by physics, and are scarred up enough to feel like they’ve actually been used. As long as Ridley Scott is involved, I’ll probably keep watching the Alien movies.

Swiss artist HR Giger

H.R. Giger’s spirit infuses the film. The late Swiss artist’s biomechanical art created the dark, brooding mood in the first Alien, which disappeared later in the franchise with Aliens 3, Resurrection, and the Alien vs. Predator series. Scott was wise to return to the dark aesthetic developed by the artist, which you see in the android David’s graphite sketches and sprinkled throughout the picture. Giger was a true genius, whose life is depicted in the excellent documentary Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World.

Alien: Covenant does not have to be a horror series. How about turning it into space opera instead? There are several moments in the plot where the film could have tilted towards a happy ending, or at least some kind of justice. But the writers seemed hell-bent on preventing that. I’m torn about this decision. Frankly, I’m a bit tired of the rampaging violence of the xenomorphs and neomorphs and whatever other freak show is created by the “black goo” pathogen, but very intrigued by the other civilizations that the humans encounter. How about giving the aliens a rest for a while (surely, they’ve eaten enough humans to deserve an interstellar snooze), and exploring some of the broader questions the series has posed?

Space opera is a genre that can be loosely defined as featuring space travel, long story arcs, and struggles for power between cultures or species. Star Wars is the most famous example, but there are darker varieties, such as The Expanse and Dune. In the Alien franchise, there is plenty to work with. The Engineers are a fascinating culture (they built us humans, right?), and if they had enemies, why? What’s it like back on Earth? What happened to the Weyland-Yutani corporation? Alien fan culture and wikis suggest to me that there is a rich trove of ideas to work from to create a viable space opera. Author William Gibson even wrote an unproduced script for Alien 3 — there are countless other creative artists willing to take on the challenge.

Alien: Covenant is a study in the dissolution of the human body. After watching Prometheus, I recall thinking that I would have liked the movie more if there wasn’t so much gore. That gore is amped up to 11 in Covenant, but I now recognize it’s part of the attraction of the series. Scott seems determined to think of how many ways to make a human body come apart, whether through aliens exploding out of people’s backs, mouths, or wriggling around in their mucosa. It’s disgusting, but also fascinating. The contrast between the advanced technological marvel of space travel and our utter mortality can be disturbing and intriguing at the same time. I still don’t think it’s an appropriate film for a 7 year-old to watch, and I bristled at the parents sitting behind me who seemed amused as their daughter complained that she was scared. I was scared too. For her upbringing.

Maybe stop relying on robots as a crutch. Robots and artificial intelligence are becoming devices for filmmakers and writers to avoid having to imagine more interesting characters. Granted, androids have appeared in the Alien series since the first installment, so Scott has every right to depict them, but given their successful exploration in other recent films and television series (Ex Machina, Westworld), I think the Alien series relies upon them a bit too much to drive forward the narrative. Michael Fassbender is such an accomplished actor that Alien: Covenant is still watchable, but maybe something else should burst from the creative chests of the writers.   

The things that suck in Alien: Covenant suck in any horror film. Going into dark rooms by yourself, looking into jars with weird things in them, traveling down to a planet without sending a probe, slipping on ejecta and spraining your ankle, trusting people who should not be trusted, and splitting up when you should stick together — these are tropes that have xenomorphed into clichés. Come on folks, we can do better.

Katherine Waterston in Alien Covenant.

Diversity can make it on big screen sci-fi. While the leading actors are all white, I was pleased to see interracial couples and a relatively diverse cast, which even featured an assured performance from a comedian in Danny McBride (surely a species unto themselves.) I liked that Katherine Waterston doesn’t have the amazon-like features of Sigourney Weaver, but still made for a convincing heroine.



Notes from my mind-blowing event at ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination

In April, I was invited to participate in a special workshop on the future of space exploration at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. This unique think tank was created on a dare after author Neal Stephenson complained that scientists today lacked the grand visions that inspired previous generations. Instead of scoffing at the idea, ASU’s President Michael Crow took up Stephenson’s challenge and within a few short years helped the Center get off the ground. Today the Center unites artists with scientists while inspiring and influencing public policy.

I have been following the Center for Science and the Imagination since its inception, when it created a blog site called Project Hieroglyph that aimed to foster online dialogue between creators, engineers, and scientists. While that effort didn’t succeed, the Center released Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, a unique compendium of fiction that explored what could be possible while avoiding dystopian modes of storytelling. The Center has since hosted scientists and artists from around the world.

The purpose for the gathering was to discuss a new book on space exploration, where I contributed an essay on inequality in Low-Earth Orbit. We met with NASA engineers, ASU scientists, artists, science fiction writers, and even the president of the acclaimed Planetary Society, Professor Jim Bell. I spoke about Nigerians in Space and my forthcoming sequel After the Flare, and also discussed my work at Access Now, where I fight to ensure that technology respects human rights. Below is a short photo tour of my experience at ASU.

I truly enjoyed the trip and I have been talking about it non-stop to whoever will listen. We need more risk-takers like the Center for Science and the Imagination. I just finished Joi Ito and Jeff Howe’s new book Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future (Hachette), and they argue that inter-disciplinary research centers — just like ASU — can model how people can thrive in our rapidly innovating, unsettled world.

I’ll follow up soon with details about the new book collection — it should make for a great read.