Review: Luc Besson's 'Valerian' Wastes Visual Splendor on So-So Storytelling
by Adam Frazier
July 21, 2017
Written and directed by Luc Besson (of Léon: The Professional, La Femme Nikita, and Lucy), Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on the Valérian and Laureline graphic novel series by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières. First published in 1967 in the French comics magazine, Pilote, the seminal science fiction series paved the way for Heavy Metal, and informed George Lucas' Star Wars and Besson's 1997 film, The Fifth Element, for which Mézières contributed concept art. The live-action adaptation, independently crowd-sourced and personally funded by Besson, is supposedly now the most expensive independent film ever made, but does it live up to its influential source material?
Set in the year 2740, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets follows Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan, A Cure for Wellness) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne, Suicide Squad), special operatives tasked with upholding the law throughout the human territories. Under assignment from the Minister of Defense (Herbie Hancock), the duo must secretly infiltrate a bustling intra-dimensional bazaar and retrieve the last surviving Mül Converter — an adorable creature with unique abilities that could save a civilization on the brink of extinction. After rescuing the tiny, dragon-like organism from the criminal mastermind Igon Siruss (a CGI alien voiced by John Goodman), Valerian and Laureline take the precious cargo to Alpha.
An ever-expanding metropolis known as the City of a Thousand Planets, Alpha is where beings from all over the universe have converged to share knowledge, cultures, and technology with one another. In the film's stunning opening sequence, set to David Bowie's "Space Oddity," we see footage of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission (the first joint US–Soviet space flight) before leaping forward in time, showing the progression of our species over seven centuries. During this montage, we see hundreds of spacecraft, from other nations then other planets, joining them to form the Alpha Space Station. Over time, the massive hub outgrows Earth's orbit and pushes off into space, a floating city-world home to 30 million beings living in harmony.
On Alpha, Valerian and Laureline are set to deliver the Mül Converter to Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) for safe keeping, but there's an attack, and a mysterious alien species abducts the commander. The space-cops give chase but are unable to follow the aliens into the Red Zone, the city's radioactive core. Complicating matters, the duo is separated during the skirmish and lost within the bowels of the massive metropolis. Laureline is taken prisoner by Emperor Boulan Bathor III, while Valerian ventures into Pleasure Alley, the city's red-light district, in search of information. There, he meets Jolly the Pimp (Ethan Hawke) and Bubble (Rihanna), a shape-shifting performer whose unique talents will aid Valerian in rescuing his partner and identifying the unknown marauders.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets speaks a cinematic vocabulary you're already well-versed in, babbling in spectacular science fiction imagery that recalls everything from Star Wars, Blade Runner, and The Fifth Element, to Avatar, John Carter, and the Wachowskis' Jupiter Ascending. And while the visuals are striking, it's nothing you haven't seen before. It's odd that a film can, on its surface, appear to be wildly imaginative, yet feel completely unoriginal, but that's Valerian. Besson has created another dazzling universe, filled with exotic planets, futuristic cityscapes, and gnarly creatures, but unlike The Fifth Element, the humans at the center of this story are bland, entirely unconvincing in their roles, and lacking the charisma and chemistry necessary to make us invest in them.
Major Valerian is written as a square-jawed hero with a sense of humor – the kind of amusing character you might expect Channing Tatum or Idris Elba to play. Dane DeHaan, on the other hand, is known for playing unlikeable loners like Andrew in Chronicle, Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Lockhart in A Cure for Wellness. Casting DeHaan as a dashing rogue is so preposterous that it almost makes Francis Ford Coppola's casting of Keanu Reeves in Bram Stoker's Dracula seem like a stroke of genius. Perhaps Besson thought DeHaan had a "young Leonardo DeCaprio" vibe that would benefit the movie, but his performance here is more Critters 3 than Romeo + Juliet.
As for Cara Delevingne, her performance as Laureline is light-years ahead of her turn as Enchantress in Suicide Squad. The model-turned-actress ably navigates Besson's flat dialogue, evading the potholes that trip up DeHaan at every turn. Unfortunately, she has zero chemistry with her co-star, with whom she's to be romantically involved. Watching DeHaan try to flirt with Delevingne is awkward – his constant attempts to propose marriage feel hollow and forced, and lack all the charm and humor they're intended to have. Their on-screen love affair has about as much sizzle as Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman's in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.
Aside from the film's opening sequence, another highlight is the introduction of the Doghan Daguis — a trio of shifty, four-foot-tall aliens that speak over 8,000 languages and sell information to the highest bidder. The trio share one mind, so one will begin a sentence, and the next one will continue it, and the third one will finish the thought. These long-snouted abominations are part-duck, part-gargoyle, and their presence is a nuisance to pretty much everyone on Alpha, but no one dares kill them because they need their information. They're sort of like the Annelids in Men in Black, pests who are so grotesquely cute they can't help but be endearing. I'd love to watch a 75-minute cut of this movie that excised all the human bits and focused solely on the film's various alien species and their cultures. Oh, and Rihanna. She can stay.
Overall, Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets certainly looks spectacular, with eye-popping special effects, top-notch production design, and mesmerizing cinematography by DP Thierry Arbogast, but suffers from uneven pacing, incomprehensible plotting, and underwhelming performances. Besson's latest offers a few pulpy thrills, but like 2012's John Carter, it's a movie that is so preoccupied with world-building that it forgets to fill its fantastic setting with characters we believe in.
Adam's Rating: 3 out of 5
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