Valerian And the City of a Thousand Planets (2017): Unbridled Besson

Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets opens by giving us a pretty nifty standard to hold up to. In times of great turmoil such as now, the idea of humanity progressing to the point of achieving interstellar travel and finding peace with other culture and alien beings is pretty intriguing. The montage set to “Space Oddity” by David Bowie of us progressing is a wonderful one. It also leads into a dialogue/subtitle-less sequence of us seeing a prosperous alien society go about their daily lives… before their planet is destroyed. This 10 or so minutes of Valerian are so visually astounding, telling us about this world and these people with such gorgeous imagery. So, it’s a real shame that the rest of the film goes so downhill.

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It all starts to tumble when we’re introduced to our leads Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne). They’re time and space traveling agents for human governments. They’re also in love. Kind of? DeHaan and Delevingne are attempting to have a screwball back and forth throughout that never really works. And it’s really the crux of their scenes as characters. Right from their initial holodeck beach encounter, the chemistry doesn’t land. Each bit of dialogue between the two of them is honestly horrendous. They’re not charismatic or endearing enough as people to get behind, especially as DeHaan delivers a vocal inflection I can only assume is “bad Keanu.” And Delevingne’s character is hauled back and forth between being a one dimensional damsel and a one dimensional badass within the span of a scene.

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They aren’t believable as agents. Neither seem genuinely interested in each other emotionally. Even worse, at no point do they convincingly interact with what’s around them. Valerian hinges on the reality of this world feeling authentic. That we are stepping into this world and following these two on their journey. Trouble is… that journey feels so scatter shot. There’s a vague through line, but nothing that truly keeps us grounded in this elaborate environment. With Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element, there never seemed like an artifice because he felt entrenched in this world. A citizen of this neo future punk world with butt ugly aliens and Chris Tucker radio announcers, even if he was jaded by all of this. There’s no point where either DeHaan or Delevigne do the same here.

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The story also feels so convoluted. Valerian is based on a 1960s graphic novel. I haven’t read it, but much of what I’ve heard makes it feel like a 60s spy movie flip on a sci-fi premise. That’s a style that clearly appeals to a French auteur like Luc Besson. So – much in the same why 2012’s John Carter felt lagging behind thanks to production woes and 100 years of sci-fi – there doesn’t seem like much of a modern update beyond the effects work. Down to the crazy plot mechanics that honestly seem like they’ve been taken by other sci-fi franchises… and done far better. Even down to the character archetypes, like the three informative small aliens or the blobbing gangster villain from the opening. The tropes are there, but the detail in character or motivation beyond plot points isn’t there at all.

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Valerian is the key example of how far down a CG imagery treated film can go down. Besson clearly cares about the wide expanse of this world. We see bits and pieces of these varying cultures during these action moments. The most intriguing sci-fi concept is that of the interdimensional market, which people have to use VR glasses to see and pick up things as a hologram of sorts. This is such a fun conceit and a cleverly edited sequence of Valerian and Laureline. Yet, their interaction and the ultimate conceits from there are over convoluted and predictable, to the point of being brightly colored mind numbing doldrums. We know their characters, we know their lack of drive and their ultimate moments of sacrifice feel as artificial as anything about them. Especially as the film doesn’t seem to know which one they undervalue more. Though Laureline is more likely, which is such a shame given Besson’s better work with female leads.

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There’s a rich vibrant look to the world of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. But those thousands of planets seem hollow. Soulless. Aside from the translucent aliens we see during the opening, there’s no societal foundation that really makes the world of Valerian real. No person interacting with the CG characters or backgrounds seems to have a grasp on where they are or what they’re doing. Not just the leads. Every other people that populates the cast seem lost. Rihanna is some kind of shapeshifter with a main purpose that’s mainly fetishistic. Ethan Hawke randomly pops up as a pimp and plays it like a weak Elton John impersonator. Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock pops up to… badly give exposition. It’s so odd, but more in a confounding way than an interesting one.

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There’s something to encourage about Besson’s tact in getting Valerian together. Luc Besson worked for decades to adapt this comic he loved as a feature, getting $210 million to put the whole thing together. Valerian is a director driven, passion project that gives Besson total creative control. All of that is encouraging in a modern blockbuster landscape. That all being said, it’s also an awkward mess that shows the limited of such wide creative control. I can see a world where Valerian becomes well liked down the line for its daring. I’ll admit that’s commendable and could easily make this a cult hit. Like The Fifth Element. Which the central message of is ripped wholesale here and in a stunningly less thrilling fashion. Sometimes Besson reaches nirvana, but Valerian tries to go for more of a “more is more” style attitude. And it gets crushed by the megatons of weight of a thousand planets rapidly after the first ten or so minutes ware off.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 Pooped Pearls

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