This weekend brings us something rare these days: three new original mainstream movies, none of them tied to a deathless franchise! But there’s more: two of them feature key supporting roles filled by titanic pop stars. Pay attention and you may not miss Harry Styles in “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan’s IMAX-sized World War II saga, in which the scruffy One Direction god is just one of the 400,000 soldiers trying to escape a potential death. Meanwhile, wait long enough during “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” and you’ll get 10 solid minutes of Rihanna as a shape-shifting alien.
Which is better than the other? Ordinarily that would be a joke question. Cinema has a long history of burying pop star hubris, with singers trying to find the same success in a different medium and only embarrassing themselves. For every Will Smith or Frank Sinatra or Cher, there’s a Madonna or a Mariah Carey or a Keith Richards (who was bizarrely disappointing in the third “Pirates” movie). But both Styles and Rihanna are solid! That’s not to say it’s a close race.
Let’s start with Styles. Nolan’s latest has attracted even more attention than usual, thanks to all the teeny-boppers stoked one of their faves is running around on a French beach, trying not to get killed by German bombers. This may sound like faint praise, but the best part of Styles’ performance is that it’s not very special. Put it another way, he’s not distracting. He cut his long mane down to 1940s English soldier length, and he blends in with the likes of Fionn Whitehead, the newcomer who plays the closest thing the ensemble film has to a protagonist.
Styles is more than that, though. No cast member — apart from Mark Rylance’s civilian yacht owner, who drives across the Channel to bring our boys home — has much of a character to play, which is wholly intentional. That means everyone is defined by action — what they do in the moment, how they react, how they bring the pain and anxiety. And Styles brings it. His big scene finds his character leading a mob while everyone’s stranded inside a doomed ship, charging that the one French soldier is possibly a German spy. He gets worked up; he shows desperate people at their ugliest. The One Direction guy doesn’t care if he comes off well or even if you notice him. How many pop gods can say that about the big movie acting debut?
So respect to Harry Styles. But god bless Rihanna. Again, she only shows up for about 10 minutes, roughly an hour and change into Luc Besson’s beyond nutty, candy-colored space opera, which isn’t as out-there as Besson’s “The Fifth Element” but seems like an oasis of weird in a boringly franchise-heavy summer movie season. One of our heroes (Dane DeHaan) travels to far-off planet, attempting to rescue his partner/love interest (Cara Delavingne). This means catching up with a blinged-out pimp played by Ethan Hawke. (True story.) Before Hawke helps DeHaan, he asks him to watch a number performed by his finest lady. And out comes Rihanna.
At first she wears a top hot, looking very “Cabaret.” Then she repeatedly changes costumes at will. As we said, she’s a shape-shifting alien, and though she spends most of her time looking like Rihanna, she also at one point turns into DeHaan’s boss, who happens to be played by Herbie Hancock. (Speaking of musicians acting! For the record, Herbie’s just being Herbie, which is all you need.) Rihanna is charming, dazzling and, ultimately, very sad, playing a character who doesn’t meet a very nice end. While we respect Styles for trying something very much outside his comfort zone, even that’s no match for Rihanna being Rihanna, all while abetted by cutting-edge special effects.
The winner (by a nose or two): Rihanna!