By Jack Dignan
I really tried to like this movie. I did. It’s exactly the type of film that should be up my alley: a big bombastic sci-fi extravaganza relentless in its ambition. That initial teaser trailer, the only trailer I believe I saw, was mesmerising. The visuals matched with the music was to die for, and had me glued to the screen, but when actually sitting down to watch the final film, the odds stacked against me. For as hard as I tried to find enjoyment in this movie, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets did everything in its path to ensure I didn’t. And it worked.
While the idiocies this movie presents are plentiful, most don’t arrive until much later into the game. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I found myself enjoying this movie for the twenty or so minutes that was able to last. We open in space, David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ eloquently and fittingly played over the top of a plot-establishing montage. What will go on to be called Alpha is in the midst of creation. It’s a space station above Earth, slowly gaining colonists from all over the galaxy, until it reaches the point where housing it above Earth proves detrimental to the planet’s people. So, it moves. It travels to the far reaches of space, and here it stays, serving as a port and point of origin for all extraterrestrial life.
But Alpha is in trouble. This once peaceful station is under threat from an unknown alien species, who have invaded the area seeking something they claim belongs to them, and taking the station’s Commander (Clive Owen) as collateral. Enter Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne). The space explorers and government-employed heroes for hire are given the task of rescuing the Commander and uncovering the truth behind this mysterious alien race, all while trying to resolve personal issues and romantic feelings that have been stemming from their partnership for quite some time now.
The story is grand and epic, fitting for a film of such scale. Being based on a long-running French comic allows for plenty of creative freedom and inspiration, and writer-director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy) makes the most of it. He takes his famous, or infamous depending on whom you ask, approach to sci-fi and creates a vibrant, colourful world full of eccentric characters and the most creative of aliens. It’s a world well lived in and constantly evolving. He attempts to bring realism into the mix, setting the stage with an Earth-based 60s opening (for all of thirty seconds) and transitioning through the development of our intergalactic expansion. It starts with a scene that feels like an ending, before cutting forward to the actual story at hand.
Or at least the scene he cuts to should’ve been where our actual story begins. Alas, it doesn’t. It’s a false start, teasing us with the potential for alien-centric fun, only to have it serve as a scene that plays little relevance until you’ve already forgotten it was in the film at all. The post-montage opening moments should’ve been where this film focuses on. It’s sprawling and fun. There’s a real world at play here, with alien life forms continuing out their daily routine, but Besson cuts it short. He tries bringing it back in throughout, but the plot detours from its auto-piloted course and drifts off into unknown regions, where anything goes and what does happen is a bloated, repetitive mess.
So many moments are fun and exciting in their own right. There are plenty of little missions throughout, where characters find themselves in dangerous scenarios, but it makes the film feel more episodic than the comic series it’s based upon. Plots come and go. Characters make brief appearances. Then, as if no time’s passed at all, we return back to the main plot at hand, completely ignoring the last 30 minutes that took place. The entire middle hour of this movie could be removed and we’d still reach the exact same conclusion, but at a mercifully shorter runtime than Valerian’s bloated 137 minute one. It did allow for a cowboy hat wearing, strip club owning Ethan Hawke cameo though, so without that middle hour, those moments wouldn’t have blessed my eyes.
Valerian and Laureline’s first mission sees them robbing an object that’s necessary for the plot to come. The scene itself is a fun and exciting heist sequence, setting up the goofy, self-aware tone this film presents all throughout its runtime. I enjoyed it. It’s Besson showing to us how capable of a filmmaker he is, but he focuses too much on the excitement and visuals of one particular moment that he forgets about the bigger picture. We’re not introduced to the titular city of a thousand planets until nearly an hour into the movie. Granted, once we’re there and these characters explore and interact with the environment, it’s fun, but there’s never enough time with it. It comes too late and leaves too soon.
Visually speaking, however, and the same goes for all of Besson’s filmography, Valerian is a masterpiece. The occasional visual effect can look a little goofy from time to time, but this is a very CGI-heavy movie. All the characters and worlds put in the main focus look absolutely divine. Then there’s Rihanna’s character, and holy crap, whenever she reverts back to her alien form, I couldn’t believe that what I was watching was real. Not only is her performance stale, but also the characters effects were abominable. Even when in her human form, she’s at one point given blonde hair (she’s a shape shifting alien, in case you were interested) and it’s one of the worst looking wigs to ever haunt the silver screen. You’re meant to care for her character, especially in a more heartfelt moment towards the end, but it’s impossible.
Even the film’s core relationship falls flat. DeHaan and Delevingne can act. Just recently, DeHaan proved himself in A Cure For Wellness, but he suited the character. It matched his weirdness. With the character of Valerian, he feels embarrassingly miscast, and consequently his lines don’t come across as heroic or cocky as they would in the hands of a more suitable actor. It’s not necessarily that his performance is bad, as it isn’t, but it doesn’t suit the movie at hand. Then, as for Delevingne, she works. To my surprise, she may even be the best part of the film, excluding whatever the hell Ethan Hawke was doing, but again, the Valerian and Laureline relationship doesn’t feel authentic enough to care for, and it’ll have you rolling your eyes during the film’s final scenes.
While Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is, for the most part, a critical and commercial failure, it’s still managed to find an audience. If it goes down as a cult classic amongst its fans, I wouldn’t be surprised (it does feel like a Fifth Element remake structurally so they could both go down the same path). Sadly, it wasn’t for me. I’m envious of those who enjoyed this, and wish I enjoyed the rest of it as much as I enjoyed a ridiculously over the top Ethan Hawke.
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