A film review by Craig J. Koban July 30, 2017

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS jj

2017, PG-13, 137 mins.

 

Dane DeHaan as Valerian  /  Cara Delevingne as Laureline  /  Clive Owen as Commander Arün Filitt  /  Rihanna as Bubble  /  Ethan Hawke as Jolly the Pimp  /  Kris Wu as Sergeant Neza  /  John Goodman as Igon Siruss (voice)  /  Aymeline Valade as Haban-Limaļ  /  Elizabeth Debicki as Haban Limaļ (voice)  /  Julien Bleitrach as Martapurai #2

Written and directed by Luc Besson

 

 

SCREENED IN
3D

The new science fiction space opera VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is one of the most visually breathtaking films that I've ever seen.  

Based on the French comic book series VALERIAN and LAURELINE by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres and directed by Luc Besson - whom previously made the 1997 cult sci-fi hit THE FIFTH ELEMENT - this new galaxy spanning action adventure film is a sumptuous feast for the eyes that proudly and boldly showcases its near $200 million budget (the largest ever for a European indie film).  Using state of the art mo-cap and cutting edge CGI, Besson makes bravura usage of every technological tool to make every planet, every alien race, and seemingly every set piece brim with boundless conceptual imagination.  

This is a film to be visually savored...without question.

Unfortunately, VALERIAN is crushingly dull beyond its drop dead gorgeous production design and is pretty DOA on a cohesive story level.  There's very little of a discernable plot here (also penned by Besson) that coherently goes from point A to B and finally to C, just a haphazardly arranged series of vignettes and action sequences that struggle to create some semblance of a meaningful whole.  Besson is clearly enamored with painstakingly envisioning and executing a richly textured cinematic universe that's as dense and lived in as anything George Lucas and James Cameron have conjured up before, but the screenplay holding up VALERIAN's evocative and spell-binding world is chaotic and messy.  That, and Besson and company have made one unpardonable and categorical blunder in hopelessly miscasting the film's two lead performers, which has the damning negative side effect of grinding the whole production to a screeching qualitative halt.  

 

 

To Besson's absolute credit, though, he lovingly crafts an opening sequence of staggering and breathtaking pageantry, which involves a flashback to 1975 as we see the American Apollo and Russian Soyuz spacecrafts docking together for the very first time, culminating with the respective astronauts from both countries shaking hands (and it's all pitch perfectly scored to David Bowie's "Space Oddity").  After this scene showing the thawing of Cold War tensions in the past, the screen opens up and widens to a panoramic frame and shows the development of the space station over the course of several centuries, during which time humanity comes in contact with a wondrously bizarre menagerie of alien life forms that come to visit (Besson excels at creating these extraterrestrials as beings of strange and bizarre idiosyncrasies).  As more aliens come, the space station grows unfathomably larger, which leads to the whole structure being sent off into deep space where all of its inhabitants from across the cosmos can live together in harmony.   

This is absolutely thrilling stuff.   

The film then flashes forward to the present - 400 years into the future - and we are greeted with yet another astoundingly realized sequence that involves an alien race on a distant planet (they look suspiciously like distant relatives of the Na'vi from AVATAR) that have these little pets that are capable of excreting (I kid you not) endlessly priceless pearls.  These creatures live a relatively peaceful life on their tropical world, but it's destroyed as a vast space vessel crashes into it.  This takes us to our introduction to the film's heroes, Major Valerian (Dane DeHann) and his partner Sgt. Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who both work as special agents of the Human Federation Government.  Their latest mission is to find and secure that little aforementioned pearl pooping creature and return it to Alpha (or "The City of a Thousand Planets), which is, yes, that vast space station that began ever so modestly back in 1975.  Their commander (Clive Owen) puts great pressure on them to complete their assignment ASAP, which leads to the pair facing many unknown dangers and coming in contact with potentially dangerous alien species.  On top of that, Valerian and Laureline have to deal with feelings of attraction to one another. 

I remember when I saw Besson's THE FIFTH ELEMENT for the very first time on the biggest screen that Saskatoon had to offer and recently revisited it on a stunning new 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray release.  I was frankly amazed at how well the 20-year-old visuals still hold up, but I'm nevertheless still somewhat perplexed with the film's infectious brand of overt weirdness that mostly won me over during the course of multiple re-watches.  I got similar vibes while watching VALERIAN, and this new sci-fi extravaganza from Besson is arguably more lush, vibrant, improbably eccentric, and imaginative on a visual level than anything else he's ever attempted.  Armed with the best modern filmmaking tech imaginable, Besson is now allowed free reign to execute his design work that would have been a crazy pipe dream years earlier.  Like another space fantasy from a galaxy far, far away, VALERIAN doesn't feature a single solitary shot that hasn't been augmented by some sort of visual effects; the screen is positively teaming with detail to make this universe feel alive.  If anything, it's hard to overlook Besson's unbridled passion for the material here. 

Mournfully, all of the ethereal magic of VALERIAN goes disappointingly out the window the first time we are introduced to DeHaan's and Delevigne's heroes and hear them...speak dialogue.  Rarely has an incredibly envisioned sci-fi film been populated by such relative charm-free performers, not to mention that both actors are never once credible as battle hardened, kick ass galactic warriors (DeHaan looks like a perpetually youthful 130 pounds soaking wet teenager, whereas Delevingne comes off like a model turned actress that's desperately trying to come off as a credible militarized action hero).  Worse yet is that the pair have not one iota of palpable chemistry, which is not aided by Besson's cookie cutter B-grade dialogue that perfunctorily goes from one predictable "will they, or won't they" beat to the next.   Now, DeHaan is a performer that I've admired in past films (THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, CHRONICLE, and A CURE FOR WELLNESS), but his dopey eyed and standoffishly smug demeanor erodes any level of cocky Han Solo rogue-like charm he was aiming for.  With a mostly emotionally vacant Delevingne - a charisma black hole here - by DeHaan's side, VALERIAN makes a strong case for how incorrect casting choices can capsize a movie.  Just imagine, say, a Chris Pratt paired with an Emily Blunt and how well that would have worked. 

Woefully inept miscasting isn't VALERIAN'S only sin.  Besson's screenplay is so busy, so filled with expositional particulars, and takes so many befuddling and nonsensical detours that you have to scratch your head and wonder how this relatively plotless film managed to balloon to the audience endurance testing length of 135 minutes.  Just when the narrative looks like it's about to generate some sustainable steam and momentum it gets derailed by clunky subplots and segues, like one extremely bizarre sequence involving a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Ethan Hawke as an intergalactic pimp that introduces Valerian to a shape shifting cabaret dancer (Rhiana) that can morph into seemingly anything, whether it be an erotic and seductive maid or an obese alien that looks like he was made of Silly Putty.  You can appreciate the audacious insanity of moments like this, but it's also easy to condemn them for how little they actually contribute to the plot building towards a climax we care about. 

Let me be clear about something in closing: I desperately wanted to love VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS.  I really, really did.  I love space opera.  I love films that have a boundless sense of imagination.  I love the painstakingly executed visual dynamism on confident display here.  I love Besson's giddy and unstoppable drive as a cinematic showman that's trying to design a film to inspire legitimate awe and wonder in its sights.  VALERIAN is a bravura piece of epic fantasy filmmaking on a level of its artifice, but beyond that it's a crushingly tedious and hollow work, and one with a multi-million dollar sheen that can't hide it's 10 cent scripting.  And this movie should have been great, but instead it's a real space oddity.  

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