Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets (please don’t forget the city of a thousand planets) is a science fiction fantasy film written, directed and produced by Luc Besson (Leon, Fifth Element, Lucy I suppose) adapted from the French comic series Valerian and Laureline. It stars Dane DeHaan as the titular Major Valerian and Cara Delevingne as his associate/sidekick plus love interest, two special agents working for the space cops in the 28th Century who become involved with a mission to investigate a potentially life threatening situation within Alpha (the city of a thousand planets) that may have something to do with a 30 year old case of planetary genocide that has been struck from the records and a cute little alien aardvark that shits magic pearls. No really.
Rihanna’s also in it, I guess. Oh do I have your attention now?
Wow, that’s actually a pretty succinct summary of the plot. I’m very proud of myself.
I mean there is more to Valerian than that, ho boy, is there alot more to this movie than that. At times Valerian is a victim of simply too much movie. Which is both it’s main problem but also, undeniably, it’s appeal. This is a big movie with lots of ambition, lots of heart, a lack of cynicism which make it’s glaring flaws and plot holes fall to the side. Whilst it perhaps doens’t quite get there, at least it tries.
Luc Besson is probably France’s most prolific film maker working today. Shooting to the big time with movies like The Big Blue, Nikita and of course his greatest film, one of my all time favourites, Leon: The Professional. Over the last decade, Besson’s name has been attached as writer/producer for mid tier action movies with The Transporter series and most prominently, the Taken movies. Valerian, is the director going back to the world of pulp sci-fi he first ventured into in 1997 with The Fifth Element. A movie that bombed at the box offices but gradually grew to become something of a cult classic.
Valerian is something of a passion project for Besson having based on the comics he grew up as a child reading with his farther, whose memory the film is dedicated to. To date it is the most expensive non-US movie ever made at over €197 million. Now, of course it is probably destined to fail, but like the Fifth Element before it, Valerian is most likely destined for cult status. So come on in and become one of the first adopters before it’s cool to love this movie, and all the lesser nerds have collected all the obscure funco pop figures!
Valerian is cut from the same cloth as The Fifth Element, to the point it is basically being sold as a kind of spiritual successor. This is pulp science fiction fantasy taken from the pages of comic books and thrown up onto the screen. It’s a very colourful and imaginatively rich view of humanity’s space faring future, even if it is a bit wacky and offbeat in places. Just as The Fifth Element had inspiration from the free love movement of the 60s with it’s earth, wind, fire and water and the message that love will save us all.
Valerian depicts this vision of humanity’s space faring future founded on the ideals of compassion and tolerance. The utopian future as with the Star Trek universe did away with money and material wealth so humanity was better equipped to explore the cosmos. It’s a very progressive and idealistic future that’s hard not to fall for as you escape into the screen. Even if humanity and it’s fondness for war and destruction is rather disappointingly a big part of the movie also.
2001: A Space Odyssey depicted evolution of humans from apes to to the space age with a single cut. Whilst we don’t have this progression of time and technology, Valerian does opens with this very beautiful montage, depicting the growth of the International Space Station in orbit around earth. Over the years it expands and introduces new countries and cultures from planet earth. They all meet the incumbent members with a handshakes and hugs. Over the centuries humanity start welcoming extra terrestrials with the same sign of human friendship. Once the station gets too big, it is cut lose from planet earth and left to sail off into the great beyond. All sound tracked to David Bowie’s Space Oddity. It is easily the highlight of the movie.
From there Valerian becomes this bizarre often bamboozling spectacle. Guardians of the Galaxy brought back pulp comic book sci-fi in a big way. With this years Volume 2, knuckling down further into these wild and interesting concepts. Aside from the city of a thousand planets, Valerian includes a sequence within this inter dimensional shopping mall/bizarre, in which you walk around a desert with a VR helmet, where there is this whole other world of shops buying all kinds of alien wares. There are these levianthan esque space whales that start chasing our heroes in a submarine. Cara Delavingne wears a really big hat. Rihanna is a pole dancing blue octopus. Ethan Hawke cameos as her pimp pianist.
Like I said… there is a lot of movie. A lot of imagination, a lot of information. It all feels too much, some people may stand up in the middle of the theatre and cry “What the Hell is even happening?” Just when you think you’ve seen it all, there’s another thing that’s will just be thrown at you as if it ain’t no thing. Not even the excessive budget can clearly do the all the ideas and spectacle true justice. The computer animation is quite a bit below James Cameron’s Avatar, worse than that, it’s probably below the Star Wars prequels. Like the prequels, the presence of green screens are everywhere. Everything looks as if it has merely been added in during post production. There is a weak tactility to it.
Which is a shame, because I feel the human actors do their best within this crazy world. Especially Cara Delvingne who is doing her best to react against this alien and that alien… Dane DeHaan seems to be attracting a lot of criticism over being miscast as the role of Valerian. The role is your typical swashbuckling space rogue in the vein of Han Solo or Star Lord. At times he has that real creepy smile he had as the Green Goblin in the 46th spider man movie and your never quite sure why he is so insistent on marrying Laureline. He’s presented at the beginning as being this serial womaniser, with a lengthy ‘playlist’ or notches in the bedpost. But never throughout the movie does it feel as if he has had a relationship, meaningful or otherwise with another human being.
It’s a movie where the hero is basically flawless at his job, that the screenwriters only way of depicting him as ‘flawed’ is for his love interest to criticise him for that being too gosh darn unready for the kind of committment an adult romantic relationship calls for. There are ponderous dialogue scenes between DeHaan and Delevingne about how “relationships” work, the necessity of commitment. Yet this fucking movie with all the rest of it’s crazy ideas, aliens and sci-fi concepts that throw up even more insurmountable questions and we’re still stuck with dull uninspired screenwriting 101 about characters lacking commitment.
Why does Valerian love Laureline? Why does he suddenly think he has to marry her? Can’t they just start with a normal adult relationship before they talk of marriage? Does space copulation require you to marry first? Does this big wonderful space faring future of handshakes and hugs really suck like that? The lack of these starting points means that the romance is a little hard to buy into. Added to the fact, Valerian just comes across as a little obsessive, and borderline creepy with Laureline. Our first introduction to the characters is this beach simulation in which the two agents are sunbathing and start flirting with one another. Getting on top of each other before switching places, it just feels a little forced. One assumes the idea for Valerian was to have these two sexy beings go on a sexy adventure together. It just doesn’t really feel believable in any capacity, and I didn’t really care by the end whether Valerian was going to be accepted as a ‘worthy lover’, or the moment Laureline would just kiss the fool for God’s sakes.
People go to the movies for different reasons, but the biggest reason is spectacle. They want to see things they haven’t seen before. Such is the appeal of science fiction fantasy, with it’s brave new worlds, giant space ships, hundreds upon hundreds of alien species, and sexy adventuring protagonists. Valerian has all this and more, it’s absolutely stuffed but the execution never really grounds it as effectively as the likes of Avatar or Guardians of the Galaxy. In the end, I just started laughing at each additional ‘thing’ the movie was throwing up at me. There was no way of telling what you would see in the next scene. It’s earnest in it’s ambition, enough for me to give it a thumbs up. Unfortunately it never feels grounded or finds a meaningful way to cap all it’s ideas off. And for all it’s alien fantasy, the plot and characters are a little basic. That said, I cannot say that I unilaterally disliked Valerian. It’s a lot of fun, but I feel others would find it a little too dizzying.