Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Luc Besson
Stars: Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Dane DeHaan, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, John Goodman, Kris Wu, Rihanna, Rutger Hauer
Released: August 2nd, 2017
It’s all about context, people. As an individual who thoroughly enjoys and kind of revels in the imagining of what’s beyond our own solar system and, by default, creating something unique and fascinating out of that imagination I am always intrigued by something that looks like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Intrigued being the key word here as there is always the potential for such an experiment or endeavor of such imagination to go off the rails in ways that it can’t maintain or doesn’t think through. With Valerian, director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy) has adapted a French science fiction comic series that is no doubt close to his French heart, but while Valérian and Laureline (which would have seemingly been a better, simpler title) was first published in Pilote magazine in 1967 and went on to become one of the top five biggest selling Franco-Belgian comics titles for its publisher, Dargaud, one has to wonder if Besson’s vision is what original creators Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières imagined their imaginations becoming some fifty years later. I’ve never read the source material and this may very well be in line with exactly the kind of style and tone Christin and Mézières utilized in their original stories, but one has to wonder about the purpose of style and tone then and the purpose of as much now. Is the more irreverent and frankly, rather goofy tone in response to other science-fiction adventures being more serious or was that how it was originally intended to be read? With something of a farcical quality to it? I’m sure someone on the internet will be more than happy to oblige my curiosity with a detailed answer, but the fact of the matter is it doesn’t really matter what the original intent was or how well or not well Besson has adapted the material because we’re here now-in a post-Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets world that just so happens to exist in the same world that is post-Star Wars, and post-Guardians of the Galaxy, and hell, even post-John Carter so what is it about Valerian that differentiates itself and does it differentiate for better or worse? For me, Valerian is a step in the wrong and a rather bizarre direction. Sure, it has some interesting visual ideas and some fun sequences, but with dialogue this bad, a rather hackneyed story that attempts to disguise itself by accentuating its bizarre elements, and a completely miscast Dane DeHaan I can’t help but to feel Valerian might have been better off left on the page than having come alive only to find itself dead in the water so soon after.
In adapting forty-three year’s worth of comic stories, Besson has put together a screenplay that for the first hour or so really brings one into the world the director is creating for the audience with the titular city of a thousand planets, referred to in the movie as “Alpha,” taking shape over the course of an introductory montage set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Beginning just a few years into the future and building up through hundreds of years to thousands of years into the future where, over time, more species have come to build onto Alpha and share in the community by offering their knowledge and insights around their worlds and civilizations. It’s a pretty spectacular opening that establishes both a unique and genuinely cool idea and that is kind of where the rest of the movie falters in that while Valerian may have a lot of neat ideas floating around in its head it doesn’t know how to convey them in a way that isn’t goofy and/or through a story that doesn’t do them justice. That story I’ve been referencing so much deals with the titular Valerian (DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) who are “spatio-temporal” agents AKA space cops who travel through time and space and the like in order to stop bad guys and bring them to justice; restoring peace and all that is right to the galaxy. This simple set-up works well enough in the first act as it provides just enough plot for Besson to execute his desired sequences around, but it is when a story becomes necessary that Valerian starts to stumble and more or less repeat itself time and time again before wrapping itself up in expected and what are conventional ways as opposed to everything else we’ve seen up to that point. After opening on the construction of this marvelous hub of co-existing species Besson then takes us to a planet called Mül where a humanoid race that looks like what might have once been a version of a character design for the Na’vi resides and seemingly breathes in little more than the beauty of their planet day in and day out. We are given some slight exposition via gorgeous visuals as a particular being, a princess of sorts we come to find, is singled out as having a reptile-like pet that one apparently feeds these valuable pearls to in order to get them to poop out more of said valuable pearls. Yeah, you read that right-it’s that kind of weird we’re talking about here. Not the so strange it’s kind of cool weird, but the so weird it’s kind of dumb strange. Seconds later these massive ships come breaking through the atmosphere of Mül, crashing down into the planet and essentially destroying the planet and all life on it save for a few of the royals that were able to protect themselves in one of the crashed ships. Years later, Valérian and Laureline are sent on a mission to recover one of the last remaining reptiles from Mül, which we learn is called a “converter”, from a black market dealer. This task immediately wreaks of something fishy, especially when they return to Alpha after a mess of a mission to find the conspicuous Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen) involved.
This all brings about the tricky line one must walk when crafting such a genre movie as it is the same conundrum that constantly faces those studios vying to be at the top of the shared cinematic universe heap. How silly is too silly? How serious is too serious? The secret to finding just the right place to land, like in life, is balance and perspective. With Valerian, it would seem Besson intends with both his direction and his screenwriting to want to create a mythic aura around these characters; to place them in a legend-like status where the adventures we’re seeing unfold will be talked about for centuries to come. Ultimately, the goal being to establish Valerian, Laureline, and their saga as something akin to those the comics originally inspired in the first place whether that be the phenomenon that is Star Wars or Besson’s own cult hit The Fifth Element. Still, Valerian is so bizarre and so…just…nutty that it never carries the necessary weight to go down with as much of a statement as those movies seemingly have. And when audiences do inevitably come around to a film that has been released over the past few years that was considered so bonkers and wacky that it was seemingly dismissed upon release only to be re-evaluated later and championed for “being ahead of its time” I hope that honor is bestowed on Jupiter Ascending or Warcraft before it reaches Valerian. Is Valerianever boring? Only when Besson doesn’t know what to do with his narrative and by default splits up his lead pair in order to allow them to continuously save one another, but other than stalling a few times in the second act I’d say no-it undoubtedly has its moments and can be rather entertaining. Is Valerian offensively bad? No, it’s fine enough, but could have easily been so much more. There are an abundance of interesting ideas going on here and even more creativity in the imagery alone-the chase sequence through what is known as “Big Market” is legitimately wonderful-yet Valerian for all its ideas and stunning imagery still doesn’t accomplish what it sets out to be from the beginning. It is serviceable sci-fi when it has the potential to be exceptional sci-fi and because of that clear line between what it is and what it could have been the film is more disappointing than anything. Again, I don’t know the source material and there could no doubt be arguments made, but based solely on what this movie in particular does there are tendencies throughout that make one believe Besson is shooting for more than just tawdry Euro cheese. There is this sense the director wants his film to be regarded as a genuine operatic space epic, but a lot of fun at the same time and has thus seemingly written the characters and much of the situational humor to mirror that of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Like I’ve said, I can’t speak to how faithful Besson is to his source material, but as far as what works well on screen in these types of films he certainly seems to be modeling his use of humor, pop songs, and attempts at real heart and the message of love and humanity that exists at the center of the film on that Marvel movie. The thing with Guardians though, was that it was written in both a more intelligent and witty fashion. The dialogue, especially the banter between DeHaan and Delevingne, is bad to downright terrible while the acting isn’t much better.
This sucks, it really does, for as much as I’m an individual who thoroughly enjoys and revels in the imagining of what’s beyond our own solar system and, by default, creating something unique and fascinating out of that imagination I’m equally disappointed when the kernel of an idea that sets these imaginings in motion delivers a reality that seemingly fails to meet the ambition it took to bring something like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to life. For that first hour or so it was easier to see how such ambitions might be met, but when the film devolves into a rather formulaic action/adventure film it also tends to lose a fair amount of the creative flourishes that separated the routine story from the inspiring storytelling. Of course, the entirety of the runtime is plagued by the rough dialogue and bad acting which brings us to the curious case of Dane DeHaan. I like DeHaan as an actor as he was perfect in Chronicle and has prospered more in supporting, character-driven roles such as that of his role in Place Beyond the Pines or opposite Robert Pattinson in the James Dean story, Life. I even enjoyed his turn in A Cure for Wellness as his overall energy as a performer matched what director Gore Verbinski was shooting for with that film, but as Valerian was originally written as more the typical square-jawed hero figure, who is strong and dependable as well as a charming ladies’ man DeHaan isn’t exactly the first actor to come to mind. Worse, DeHaan puts on this voice for the role that makes him sound as if he’s struggling to speak at all or, at the very least, like he’s trying to sound as stoic and cool as he possibly can, but it’s so out of whack with what the rest of the movie is trying to be that none of it melds. There is an effortless kind of charisma that is required to pull off a role such as Valerian and DeHaan simply doesn’t have that factor in his persona that allows him to inhabit the role in a convincing way that would have made his presence more effective. Coming off much more naturally is Delevingne as the beautiful Laureline who matches more what it seems her character was meant to be and the aura she was meant to embody much more so than her counterpart. It becomes evident quick that Laureline is a badass in her own right and doesn’t require much assistance from her partner-though there is naturally a love story forced between the two because, why not?- and in fact, it would seem Laureline more often than not is the one who ends up saving Valerian’s reckless self from some of the rather knuckle-headed decisions he makes. It’s nice to see old pros like Owen and Ethan Hawke show up for supporting spots in big-budget productions such as this and while I enjoyed the segment in which Rihanna is allowed to dance and emulate a handful of different styles from different eras (and sometimes different planets) it would be difficult to defend why her character’s presence is necessary beyond being a plot device that is disposed of as soon as it has served its purpose. Valerian can be fun when it allows time for its creativity to breathe and thus allow you to feel immersed in the world or worlds it is presenting and while I can’t say that I whole-heartily disliked the film or that I don’t admire what it wants to be it is still a ridiculous excursion that I couldn’t take seriously despite the fact I felt it very much wanted me to.