A Cure for Wellness (2017)

Is it possible to love every frame of a motion picture and still think it amounts to a bad movie? A Cure for Wellness is a visually stunning, go-for-broke slowburner that somehow estimates a Hammer Horror by way of The Matrix aesthetic and still fails to succeed as a complete, satisfactory picture. It’s impressive that a major studio production directed by a man best know for helming the exhaustingly empty swashbuckling blockbusters The Pirates of the Caribbean could possibly be this deeply strange & willing to delve into exploitative cruelty. The problems that plague other major Gore Verbinsky projects persist here, however; A Cure for Wellness is too long, too dumb, and too disappointingly self-serious for how well crafted it is as a visual object. A filmmaker with this meticulously inventive of an eye should likely have much better taste when it comes to telling stories, instead of applying that craft to something so idiotically pointless at its best, genuinely evil at its worst.

Dane DeHaan echoes the same goofy Keanu Reeves impersonation he took to outer space in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets in his lead role as a laptop-addicted Business Prick. While climbing the corporate ladder at The Big Company (I honestly have no idea what his job details outside getting visibly frustrated with incongruous graphs on various computer screens), he is deployed on a mission to recover a member of the the board who has gone AWOL. This path leads him to a Swiss spa/health retreat, where the man he’s tasked to bring back to the Corporate World has checked himself in as an AWOL permanent patient. Like the commune in the back end of [safe], this sanitarium/cult is presented as a cure-all for the ills of modern living. “Diseases” like self-doubt & the “illusion of material success” are “cured” through sensory deprivation, “water therapy,” and mysterious droppers filled with special “vitamins,” leaving all patients essentially lobotomized & stuck in a limbo. The more times DeHaan’s Business Prick upstart declares “I am not a patient!” as he struggles to complete his intended mission, the further he loses himself in the daily rituals of the spa cult, discovering long-buried secrets of incest, murder, brainwashing, collusion with the law, and immortality-seeking science experiments along the way. By the time castle fires & monstrous ancestors are introduced in the mix, the film could easily pass for a Hammer production or an entry in The Corman-Poe Cycle (if it were half as long and half as dumb).

The most immediately apparent problem in A Cure for Wellness is its gleeful cruelty in its approach to sexual assault. This starts very early with an out of nowhere racist prison rape joke and culminates in a scene involving an underage girl that goes on way longer than necessary to gets its point across, easily slipping into exploitative cruelty. It’s a mean streak that has little, if anything, to do with the film’s core themes and likely should have been edited into oblivion, but it’s also a blatant flaw that doesn’t require much deliberation. What really drags the film down is unwieldy and underdeveloped it feels for a movie that’s nearly three hours long.

A Cure for Wellness‘s greatest strength is its absurdity as an overwhelming, bat shit crazy genre picture. Marrying high production values to a low trash premise that doesn’t deserve it, the film is loaded with weirdo imagery of slithering eels, steam punk machinery, medicine bottles, eels, ballerina figurines, soft naked flesh, eels, RoboCop action figures, and even more eels, sometimes all rapidly flashing on the screen in dream sequence montage. It just doesn’t contain enough of those visual pleasures to justify the massive weight of its runtime. In some respects, the weirdest choice the movie makes is withholding the answers to mysteries that are immediately apparent to the audience for several scenes, then treating their reveals like a big deal no one saw coming. Lies, accidents, past traumas, and untold motivations are kept under wraps in see-through gauze, essentially treading water instead of making the movie shorter or pulling the trigger immediately to make room for more oddities. For instance, why make a huge deal out of the mystery of what’s making DeHaan’s toilet tank rattle for three or four scenes if the reveal is only going to be that it was eels all along? We immediately knew it was eels. Everything in the film is brimming with eels. Delaying that reveal does not build tension; it just wastes time.

The ideal version of A Cure for Wellness is probably about an hour shorter and directed by Guillermo del Toro. On some level, I do very much appreciate the taste for excess that Verbinsky brings to the project, especially when it comes to his eye for over-the-top visuals. Framing shots from the POVs of magnifying glasses, fish bowls, and taxidermy eyeballs, the film is about as tastefully overachieving as Michael Bay’s Armageddon and I love that kind of go-for-broke excess in my genre films. The eel imagery is also impressively chilling, even if employed often & never thematically justified. Equipped with that same imagery, I’d trust del Toro to deliver a much more satisfying narrative, though. Not only would the sexual assault mean streak lightly be softened or diminished, but there’s a fairy realm element to the Swiss spa (especially in how you’re not supposed to drink the water) I could see being better explored in his hands. Verbinsky’s direction works very well when setting up individual scares gags (especially ones involving eels & dentistry), but his unwieldy, unending, thematically thin blockbuster approach to the Pirates movies has bled over here in a way that poisons what makes the movie enjoyable. A Cure for Wellness is an impressive visual achievement for sure, but not impressive enough to justify the enormity of its runtime or the exploitative cruelty of its ultimate destination. The resulting experience is endlessly frustrating, as it could easily be a much better picture with the right creative push, either towards brevity, away from sexual assault exploitation, or into another director’s hands entirely.

-Brandon Ledet

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

I was really expecting a lot out of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and while I wasn’t disappointed per se, as a great deal of it lived up to the expectations that I had, there was still enough to detract from its majesty to leave me feeling relatively cold in the end. This may come as a surprise to you, given that I was and am a staunch defender of Jupiter Ascending (going so far as to put it on my Top Ten of 2015 list), but it comes as even more of a surprise to me. Maybe it’s that the charisma score of the two leads in Ascending (Channing Tatum +10, Mila Kunis -4, sum total 6) was still higher than that of Valerian (Dane DeHaan, normally a +8 for me, comes in at a +1.5 here, and Cara DeLevigne at a surprising +4), or maybe it’s that Ascending was a dumb-but-pretty thrill ride that escalated over the course of the film while Valerian is front-loaded with a lot of greatness that peters out into a banal “love” story by the conclusion.

The film opens on a magical and beautifully rendered sequence, set to “Space Oddity,” that shows the progress of the Alpha space station as it grows over time to include a multitude of different national space programs and astronauts, then to include delegates and additions from other space-faring races, to ultimately become so massive that it has to leave earth’s orbit and move into the Magellan Current (there’s no such thing that I know of, although there are dwarf and satellite galaxies near our own that are known as Magellanic Clouds). 400 years after leaving our solar system*, Alpha is home to millions of life forms from over a thousand races. Major Valerian (DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (DeLevigne) are special agents of the Human Federation (it’s unclear why the amalgamation of races is referred to this way, or if the humans merely administrate the station due to the fact that they built the original core) on a mission to retrieve a valuable life form from a Jabba-esque alien (John Goodman) at an interdimensional bazaar. En route, Valerian receives a soul-powered dream/vision from a young alien princess who died following a catastrophic disaster on her home planet of Mül, an event that destroyed her world and drove her people to the brink of extinction.

Following their success, Valerian attempts to research Mül, but all information about it is classified, even to their four-star general superior Okto Bar (Sam Spruell). Their attempts to further discern what happened to the planet are thwarted when General Filitt (Clive Owen) is called upon to give a speech to assembled member species about a radiation zone which has appeared in the center of Alpha, and from which no survey team or tactical party has yet returned. This assembly is attacked and the general kidnapped, forcing Valerian to pursue and Laureline to investigate further, leading her down a rabbit hole adventure of duck-like aliens with trunks and scrotal skin, a psychic jellyfish that feeds on memories, a steampunk submarine pirate named Bob, and nearly getting eaten. Meanwhile, Valerian’s misadventures lead him to enlisting the help of a shapeshifting alien named Bubble (Rihanna), and finding out what really happened on Mül and who’s responsible.

I was so on board for this film, and I was completely in the moment, despite some reservations, until the point when Laureline is kidnapped. I wasn’t a huge fan of Valerian’s creepy possessiveness of and desire for Laureline, but I was willing to forgive this transgression as a kind of blind deconstruction of the Han/Leia relationship (YouTube channel Pop Culture Detective has a pretty good video essay on this subject here) until it became apparent that their relationship was meant to be read as completely sincere. This was the biggest sticking point for me in the first half of the movie, but I was still along for the thrill ride through that nonsense and a belabored info dump. However, the film starts to drift when Laureline is captured by the languageless alien monsters that hate outsiders (a friend compared them to Jar Jar Binks, saying that they weren’t explicitly racist caricatures like he was, but their tribalism, cannibalism, and lack of higher speech functions smacks of “space ignorance”). Meanwhile, Valerian has to recruit Bubble to help him as a disguise to enter their xenophobic culture to save Laureline (after she saved him first, so she’s no damsel in distress). This, too, is pretty dull, give or take a PG-rated shapeshifting Rihanna exotic dance number.

If you’ll recall, when Avatar came out, there were stories about people who were so obsessed with living in the world of Pandora that they were getting cosmetic surgery and considering suicide. That seemed absurd to me then (and now), but while I have no desire to shuffle off my mortal coil, I’ve never before experienced such an intense desire to live inside a film’s aesthetic than I have when watching the delegates of fish people and mechanical men arrive on Alpha. Aside from an expositional infodump as Valerian and Laureline return to the space station, there’s too little exploration of the world that’s been created. Instead, the film gets distracted by plot cul-de-sacs that explore areas of Alpha that are far less interesting than those of which we get only a glimpse. I used to think that we would never again live in a world where the special effects in a movie would be the film’s biggest draw, along the lines of how the word of mouth about Independence Day revolved around the monumental destruction of landmarks, bringing in more audience members than could have been expected. That’s not really true, however; the effects in Valerian are so effective at rendering a beautiful world that you can’t help but get lost in it. It’s so engrossing that, when a supposedly emotional moment is happening between Laureline and Valerian near the end of the film, you forget to pay attention to the plot, such as it is. Combine that with some heavy-handed (and questionable) use of the Noble Savage trope, a dramatic “reveal” of the film’s villain that is anything but, and a notable lack of chemistry every time DeHaan and DeLevigne are on screen together, and you’ve got a beautifully imagined world captured in a fairly lackluster film.

*Except not really. The film states that Alpha has progressed 700 million miles from earth at the time that the majority of the film takes place, which is . . . still in our solar system. To put it in perspective, the earth is an average distance of 93 million miles from the sun (a distance referred to in astronomy as an “astronomical unit,” or AU), so this would put Alpha less than 8 times further from our sun than we are, or, more poetically, further than Jupiter but closer than Saturn. The furthermost planet, Neptune (please refrain from expressing your non-scientific sentimentality for Pluto in the comments), is 2.795 billion miles from the Sun. Of course, it’s absurd that the film (and I in this footnote) are charting anything in miles, since astronomy is a science and science uses the metric system. Even if I misunderstood and the film said that Alpha was 700 billion miles (or 0.119 light years) out, our closest stellar neighbor Proxima Centauri is 24.94 trillion miles (4.243 light years) away, so it really hasn’t gotten far, especially in four centuries. That’s a mere 43.435 light days from earth! If this were set today, August 1, 2018, that means that I could live on Alpha and pick up radio transmissions from June 19. But just because they think Chester Bennington is still alive and have no idea that Anthony Scaramucci has been appointed and deposed, they’ll know soon. It’s hardly a distance befitting the majesty of pulling Rutger Hauer out of his bed of mothballs to give a grand speech about travelling among the stars. But I digress.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond