Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets - Review: Ambitious but Flawed
People don’t forget, at least not when it matters. Even before we started capturing and uploading everything way too much online, people would not forget if you made something great.... because they’ll want you to do it again. If a musician writes an incredible song, the rest of their career could be garbage but people listen out in case lightning strikes twice. If you’re a film director that makes a classic, era-defining film, people will remember and with each new release will be waiting for something equally good. We watch Simon West deliver poor action movies in the hope he’s got another Con Air in him. We watch M. Knight Shymalan badly landing twists for just one more Sixth Sense knockout (and we may actually get it if his recent form continues). Then there is French director Luc Besson, the man whose science fiction miss-adventures we’ll still flock to see because he gave us the joy that was The Fifth Element. Now, 20 years later, he makes his closest ever return to that subject matter with the space odyssey Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (adapted from a long-running French comic series). While it will still leave you waiting for The Sixth Element (time is not important.... only life), it’s an eye catching shambles of a space romp that delivers some entertainment.
In a galactic 26th century, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan – Chronicle, Amazing Spiderman 2) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne – Paper Towns, Suicide Squad) are Federation special agents who must deal with a mysterious threat to their vast space station home, Alpha, The City of a Thousand Planets.
Now I’m not going to fault this film for ambition other than having too much of it. A lot of artistry and creativity have clearly gone into bringing the film’s vast scenery to life with some CG tracking shots being more detailed than a politician’s expense claims. However, there are some noticeable moments where it’s quantity over quality as some heavily-populated CG scenes do no not feel as polished as they should be. It’s like when you full screen a video beyond the limits of its resolution, losing its detail from a scale it can’t cope with. That said, the visuals the film gets right are at time genuinely breathtaking. The highlight is the opening act “Big Market” mission that sees the duo on a mission across parallel dimensions of space. It’s a completely fun and engaging early set piece that sets the tone for the film’s successes, just being bonkers in space. If it was the film’s entirety, it would have fared much better but it also incorporates more Trek akin deeper morality issues that require the film to take itself seriously, which is a major mission failure. Not only is the story’s underlying darker plot painfully obvious but it can’t find the balance between the gravity of its backstory events and translating their impact into the present story. The ending in particular is something of a letdown.
Ultimately, when this film is just being daft in space, it’s good and at times even great. Feature moments like Valerian taking a “direct” route through various zones of the space station or the final act shoot out are quite the riot. Neither the story nor script is amazing but focusing on the fun setting eases that for the welcome feeling of a fun summer blockbuster. There are plenty of enjoyable surprises from the various weapons and technology employed by the different characters and races. Not to mention a lot of colourful and entertaining aliens along the way.
The film heavily revolves around the central pairing of Valerian and Laureline yet they’re a very one-sided pairing because Daniel DeHann has been badly miss-cast here. He’s pledged as a smooth lady killer comes across like the guy whose Tinder dates never bother to show up. They’ve tried to make a quirky outsider into a lovable rogue and unsurprisingly it hasn’t worked. Yet by contrast, Cara Delevingne works great as his partner/reluctant love interest in her nonchalance parrying his advances with a witty overtone. So much so that through her lead, the pair even have passable chemistry together as the film builds the idea of their co-dependency through their adventures. As for the rest of the cast, Valerian shows considerable skills in the art of underutilising great names in supporting roles. The likes of Clive Owen (Sin City) and Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) are thoroughly wasted in confining single note roles devoid of anything memorable. Then by contrast, the heavily-advertised appearance of Rihanna as a shapeshifter is a feature role that really should have stayed a single scene cameo. Even ignoring the fact that they called her Bubbles and her blue blobby nature form looks ridiculous, she adds nothing to film by hanging round for another 15 minutes after her stage performance.
Luc Besson has reportedly already written the first Valerian sequel and is working on the second. Although the first offering was independently funded to reach its €197m budget (making it the most expensive European film and most expensive independent film in history), it looks like the film’s returns will struggle to match such ambition. It seems unlikely we’ll see this incarnation of Valerian flying again. While there is value in seeing its visuals on the big screen, I wouldn’t call this essential viewing for casuals or genre fans because a safer bet for streaming/DVD release. Despite Valerian’s flaws it does show that Luc Besson’s imaginative heart is still in the right.... and hopefully one day, the rest of his film-making will catch up.