Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets
OK Luc Beeson, let’s try this again. The French visionary’s last effort – the not all that great Lucy, a film whose pretentious display of pseudo-scientific quackery undercut anything else the director was trying to accomplish – was a disappointment, and one could be forgiven for fearing that a man once responsible for such gems as Leon: The Professional or The Fifth Element was entering a nadir. Until suddenly, one day ahead of a different film, I caught a trailer for this, a movie that made it seem like Beeson was going for that Fifth Element vibe all over again, only this time with the kind of budget previously denied to him. Seemingly iconic source material (more on that in a bit), a decent cast, and a premise to hook you in good and proper: if Luc Beeson couldn’t make something out of this, then I was very much betting on the wrong horse. So, were the American critics right, and was Valerian a narrative-less spectacle? Or was it something that would get Beeson’s filmography right back on track?
In the 28th century, cocky, brash Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and confident accomplished Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are the best of an interstellar human police force, tasked with keeping order in an increasingly disorganized galaxy. When Alpha, a travelling space station of innumerable alien species and environments, comes under threat from a shadowy menace, the two agents are tasked with uncovering the root of the problem, inadvertently stumbling on a decades old conspiracy in the process.
The comics this is based on are supposedly some of the most famous and influential for their genre, or so I am apparently supposed to believe. I’ve never read them myself, and in truth I’d barely heard of them before the aforementioned trailer flashed up in front of my eyes. I suspect that a language and national barrier exists between the French-speaking world and everyone else in that regard, and I take a dim view of the idea that, for example, there wouldn’t be a Star Wars without Valerian and Laureline (George Lucas has never been shy about his influences, and Flash Gordon and Akira Kurosawa are much higher up that list). And, being brutally honest, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is not the kind of film to make me rush out and start reading.
You can talk about a multitude of problems with Valerian, and I will, but perhaps it would be fairer to say some kind words first. The film opens on a high, a prologue that depicts the expansion of a rudimentary space station in Earth’s orbit, through continued cooperation with other nations and, eventually, other species, into this behemoth named Alpha, that eventually sets off into the stars. It’s shiny happy people here, an ode to peaceful cooperation. To the strains of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (an obvious choice, but a good song is a good song) and with an unexpected cameo from Rutger Hauer, the scene is set for a trip through the kind of universe that The Fifth Element hinted at so effectively, full of diversity and neat science-fiction ideas. Beeson can world build, and world build he does here, between his inter-dimensional marketplace, gaseous and water-based beings living side by side and Pearl lifeforms that shoot slime out of light guns. Yeah.
That’s always the rub when you go into the cosmic depths isn’t it? You stand the risk of going so far that your inventions make progressively little sense, and start being easy targets for ridicule. Like the plot McGuffin here, an alien rodent with the curious ability to replicate anything that it eats (how? Would have loved to have seen Beeson tackle that). It does this by, ahem, “expelling” the copies from its undercarriage. So, in essence, the plot of Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is literally covering itself in science-fiction shit.
Didn’t take long to go negative there, so I might as well continue in that vein. I could handle problems in the world and in the details if there was a story and characters to prop it up, as The Fifth Element had, and as Lucy didn’t. But the central duo and their relationship falls utterly flat in this film, in both writing and performance.
For the title character, from the way that he is written and from the way that other people treat him, you would expect him to be a sort of space-James Bond, mixed with a little bit of Han Solo roguishness. He’s an effective secret agent with an apparent penchant for womanizing, who isn’t afraid to break some of the rules now and then, just as quickly as he likes to break down walls. You would expect the resulting portrayal to try and feed into that, a little bit of Sean Connery-esque suaveness with a little bit of Harrison Ford-esque cockiness. Women want him, men want to be him, etc.
But instead, we get this remarkably dull performance from DeHaan, playing Valerian with a complete lack of enthusiasm, with the mannerisms of something approaching a douchebro, or a bad Bill and Ted impression. Beeson and DeHaan seem to think that if Valerian acts as if absolutely nothing phases him, the audience will take as some kind of enthralling charisma, instead of as a guy who doesn’t seem to notice the kind of adventure that he is in.
And then there is Laureline. The problem with her is a little different. Delevingne, last seen on here struggling through Suicide Squad as the Enchantress, actually plays the heroine fine, with plenty of moxy, the right kind of verve in the comebacks, with enough room left over for a drop of comedy. But the issue is that, on occasion, the character’s personality does a 180, and she becomes screechingly erratic – screaming at aliens, punching people near to death, etc – or numbly ineffective – like in a healthy portion of the second act, where she becomes a very generic damsel in distress. It is part of an ongoing strain of subtle sexism running through the film (the only other named female characters are a stripper and primitive queen, and there are several “Women go crazy for shopping” jokes). Valerian doesn’t seem like it really knows what to do with Laureline outside of being the love interest, and tries a bunch of different things in consequence. And, whatever about her being left off the title (I suppose I can understand, to an extent, Valerian And Laureline And The City Of A Thousand Planets is one too many “ands”), she is essentially a co-lead.
That romance angle is the other complete failure, with DeHaan and Delevingne having the kind of chemistry that made Focus a sure-fire disaster in the love stakes. Laureline is, apparently, the woman that is making Valerian want to settle down after a life of building up a female “playlist” (a literal list of pictures of the women he’s had sex with that he keeps on holographic call, not creepy at all) and she does the whole “I’m not interested” thing to his face while giving the furtive glances when he’s not looking thing, but I just don’t buy it. The back-and-forth is limp, there isn’t a trace of genuine sexual tension or romantic interest. This is supposed to be the driving force of this relationship, but one feels that the two of them, and the film, would be better off as just friends.
The lack of feeling permeates other aspects of the plot two, namely Valerian and Laureline’s interactions with other characters. One comparison may serve to make the point: early on, the duo team up with a group of human soldiers/agents as part of a heist plan. The group seems to get on well enough with the two, especially Laureline, with inferring of some kind of past interaction. Slight spoiler: the soldiers come to a bit of a bad end, while Valerian and Laureline make their breathless getaway. Not another word is said about the soldiers, not between the two and not to their commander (even though it would have been a perfect moment to have Clive Owen’s shady commander underline the central theme of his character, and remark that sometimes sacrifices have to be made for a greater good). They’re back to limp flirting within a few seconds. Later, Valerian gets extremely attached to shapeshifter Bubble (Rihanna, when in a human form) even though she’s in the film for somewhere in the region of ten minutes, arriving and departing in remarkable haste. The inter-personal relations are all over the place with the main two, with their lack of feeling at times bordering on sociopathy.
Perhaps just as bad is the narrative structure decision that the production team have made, with Valerian meandering off into side-adventures for almost the entirety of the second act, as Laureline searches for a missing Valerian and Valerian tries to rescue a kidnapped Laureline, while the main point of the plot – saving Alpha from an expanding radiation cloud in its centre – is completely forgotten about. This portion of the film comes well equipped with a number of unique set-pieces – a submersible fishing trip, a trippy psychic journey with the aid of a jellyfish, fishing with butterflies, Rihanna’s futuristic sex show, and a battle with the troll people, among others – but feels like a completely different film. Indeed, it feels more like a few episodes of a TV show than a coherent two hour movie. I caught myself thinking of how Return Of The Jedi sort of pulled this two, with its opening act largely divorced from the higher drama of the films main point, but that at least was at the start, not the middle, and did a better job in intereshing necessary characterisation with the sideways plot: Luke’s potential darkness, Leia’s hidden strength, Han’s relationship with Leia, Lando’s redemption, etc. Here, it just feels like Beeson wanted to make a different film about Valerian and Laureline’s wacky adventures in the middle of the already in progress movie.
The supporting cast could be given more of a chance to help prop things up, but a succession of notable enough names get shafted for screentime here, most especially Clive Owens, whose gruff Commander pops in and out of the narrative whenever Beeson needs to get his plot going (so, he vanishes for the second act) but also Ethan Hawke’s space-age pimp and Rihanna herself, a total stunt casting if ever there was one. For me, some of the actions of the others was bordering on distracting: like Sam’s Spruell’s General character, so like Robert Webb in appearance and voice that I couldn’t help but think of this comedy sketch whenever he flew off the handle, or the weird skulking trader character the Pearl’s bring up in a late montage that had me thinking “Gollum?” in the theatre.
Beeson’s script, much like the one for Lucy, is also not all that great, with the kind of lost in translation errors that he was never displaying previously. Characters, even the human ones, talk in unhuman language, saying things normal people would never say in tones they would never use, the romantic dialogue that I have already mentioned being a particular offender. Generals fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, Commanders cover up past sins with all of the nuance of a five year old, Elizabeth Debicki narrates things like Galadriel without the inner awe. Beeson avoids having the kind of glib quipfest that is part and parcel of so many big budget films nowadays, but still finds reason to include odd moments of slapstick comedy that fly in the face of the kind of tone the rest of the film has. A late monologue from Laureline on the nature of trust and love is so insipid that it rivals Anne Hathaway’s similar words from Interstellar, and as mentioned Valerian is written as if he was preparing for a day at the beach with his bros instead of being an intergalactic secret agent.
I suppose it is visually then that Valerian needs to soar, and I suppose that it does, only not quite as high as Beeson would like it to. Sure, the variety of locales and species is both eye-catching and, in most cases, a good reflection on the CGI and prop teams. Sure, Beeson still knows how to craft a set-piece, with the inter-dimensional marketplace chase/fight being probably the films best example. Sure, the Pearl planet was a beauty, and the differing environments of Alpha make it a really fascinating place to set such a story (if only the story was better).
But at other moments, I was surprised by how not great Valerian looked. Most of the action scenes are very humdrum – a kidnapping featuring aforementioned light guns shooting slime is a good example, as is a later chase where Valerian just starts slamming through walls and the very underwhelming finale shoot-out – and the CGI starts to let things down when the pace is picked up. One aches for the more basic stuff of The Fifth Element, with its overwhelming emphasis on the real physical props and costumes. Here, Beeson has the budget to indulge his imagination through the digital cipher, and something is certainly lost in the difference. Beyond that, there isn’t anything really stand-out about Valerian. This is the same director who talks about how the opening shots of A New Hope made him instantly want to be a filmmaker, but in a film where he has the perfect opportunity to pull something similar, he largely fails to.
That’s pretty much all I can say about it really. I was really hoping that Beeson and this kind of science-fiction, combining again, could produce something really great, just as Beeson and this kind of science-fiction did before. But gone are the days of Korben Dallas and Leeloo, of weird looking golden aliens and Gary Oldman chewing the scenery as the crazy over the top bad guy. Instead, we have intangible CGI, two main characters talking at each other in place of romance and a universe that thinks one more exotic looking alien will make up for the fact that there is nary an effective plot to speak of. Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets simply falls down on too many levels – general narrative, performances, script, character interaction – for even the best kind of visual stew to make up for it, and it isn’t all that spectacular on that score either. A really serious misstep then, one that is unlikely to kick-off any kind of franchise as I’m sure Besson and the studio hopes, and it might be for the best. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of EuropaCorp, STX Entertainment and Lionsgate).