Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Luc Besson is a director I’ve been keeping an eye on for years, going back to the first film of his I ever saw; ‘La Femme Nikita’ (1990). After being taken in by the gritty-but-ridiculous story of a former drug-addict street punk-turned-sexy assassin, I made a point of checking out his acclaimed ocean-set free diving story ‘The Big Blue’ (1988), which further drew me to his work, eventually bringing me to what is arguably his best film, 1994’s ‘Leon The Professional’. Three years after that mini-masterpiece, he gave us the title that most people easily associate with him, ‘The Fifth Element’. Everyone fell in love with that one on release and, being a sci-fi nerd, I also found a lot to like about it. HOWEVER…I didn’t fall head over heals for it like many other geeks out there did. I found the ‘silly’ element overruled the ‘cool’ and diminished how drawn in I was. I like my science fiction flicks to be a little more ‘grounded’, gritty and tonally-consistent than what ‘The Fifth Element’ gave me. But I did still have fun with it the first time I caught it on The Big Screen, after accepting the juvenile under-current. But it was after that, that the quality of Besson’s output began to be called into question. He’s been consistently putting product out there, from blockbuster wannabe’s like ‘The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Ark’ (1999) to teeny art-house curiosities like 2005’s intriguing ‘Angel-A’, and on to French-centric endeavours like 2010’s charming ‘The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc Sec’ (I really enjoyed that one!). He’s never stopped, but a lot of the media he was putting out seemed to be aimed at a largely European market, as opposed to us folks here in North America. Then word hit the street that Besson was going BIG for his next movie, a near $200 million life-long passion project adapting a beloved French comic book series (that influenced many designs in ‘The Fifth Element’) called ‘Valerian and Lauraline’. When we saw the first trailers, it was obvious that ‘Valerian’ was going to be a stylistic successor to ‘The Fifth Element’, and remembering that I had enjoyed my initial viewing of that movie, I had hopes that Besson would deliver a rousing new Science Fiction adventure that would take me to far-off crazy worlds populated by interesting and engaging characters. I had every intention of checking it out when it hit our local Movie House but alas…it was not meant to be. And when the reviews began hitting the air waves…my heart-rending grief over not making it to the theatre began to rapidly diminish, and I moved on with my life. A good buddy of mine eventually caught up with it and he had some hilariously scathing things to say, insisting that I HAD to see it, based on a ‘So Bad it’s Good’ merit. So last night, he fired up the grill, we sparked a spliff and cracked several beers, diving headlong into ‘Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets’.
The film starts off promisingly, with a slick montage sequence (appropriately set to Bowie’s immortal ‘Space Oddity’) in which we are shown the start of ‘Alpha’ aka ‘The City of a Thousand Planets’, beginning with the International Space Station and growing over time, eventually giving rise to our first contact with a civilized alien species…and then another…and another. And so on. Over a long period of time, ‘Alpha’s grandiose size begins to pose a physical threat to Earth and as a result, is pushed out into space to continue life as it’s own, free-floating entity. After this set-up, we meet our two special operative protagonists, ‘Valerian’ (Dane Dehaan) and ‘Lauraline’ (Cara Delevingne). They are tasked with securing a ‘converter’, a small, cute merchandising-friendly creature who literally exists to shit out valuable space pearls that have some kind of large, cosmic significance. As they navigate various cartoonish action set-pieces and a horribly forced (and creepy) ‘romance’, they encounter various aliens and shady humans along the way as they race to save ‘Alpha’….or the universe…or…something.
This movie is a long, meandering shit-show of a flick. It’s not good. Most of what I heard in advance was correct…especially the gripes about a lack of chemistry between our leads. Holy shit! I don’t know what Besson was thinking, but he seriously fucked up when it came to casting his lead actors. Now this flick has a number of notable entertaining faces pop up, from a second-and-a-half of Rutger Hauer (‘Blade Runner’) to pimptacular Ethan Hawke (‘Explorers’) to often-CG-blob-of-goo Rihanna (of all people), plus a welcome turn by ‘Could’ve Been Bond’ Clive Owen ( ‘Croupier’), but what the hell was Besson thinking when he cast Dehaan as the lead?!! Even Delevingne, who I still haven’t figured out how I feel about (especially those intense eyebrows of hers!) was fine when she wasn’t sharing a scene with him, but Dehaan is terrible in the role! Just awful. Which isn’t to say that he’s an incapable actor…he’s perfectly serviceable, just check out ‘Chronicle’ (2012) or, better yet, ‘A Cure for Wellness’ (2016). He has the chops with the right material and under the right direction. But here? Actually verging on pathetic, I hate to say…though I’m looking squarely at Besson for that one. Right off the bat, they seem to have overlooked how the character is supposed to look. From what I gather (and I admittedly haven’t gathered much), ‘Valerian’ is supposed to be a muscular Man of Action type…which scrawny Dehaan DOES NOT resemble…AT ALL. Then there’s the…ahem….romantic sub-plot. For realz, it sucks. There’s a total lack of chemistry between the ‘Valerian’ and ‘Lauraline’ characters and as a result, he comes off as a creepy little shit who seems a step away from roofying ‘Lauraline’ to have his way with her. I get that the dynamic is SUPPOSED to be a ‘James Bond / Miss Moneypenny’ type of flirtation, but it’s handled so badly that it’s off-putting, especially in this age of the #MeToo Movement. Nothing indicates a mutual affection between them, aside from some ham-fisted dialogue that carries no conviction at all, so when they do inevitably ‘get together’, it rings out as completely forced. The fact that there is no development to the so-called romance is a serious narrative miscalculation. It would’ve made so much more sense if they’d begun the mission with some kind of animosity or complication between them that they overcome as the story plays out, resulting in a natural-seeming emotional connection. But nope. Right from the first scene of them, it’s clear that there’s one thing on ‘Valerian’s mind, where ‘Lauraline’ is concerned, and it’s not her mission capabilities. His feelings for her don’t ever develop, they’re just there from the get-go…and they’re not really feelings…pretty much just his boner doing the thinking for him. And despite her constant rebuffing of his stilted advances, he keeps it up…creepily. So the absolute lack of chemistry between them and his weird, seemingly unwelcome advances are my main issues with this movie…but not my only ones. There’s also the length, or illusion of. Though it’s run-time clocks in at 2 hours and 17 minutes, it felt a lot longer…as the pacing is a mess. Granted, I was pretty pie-eye’d by the time the credits rolled, so that maybe sorta kinda contributed to the flick taking forever to get to it’s point. It also felt like it wasn’t in keeping with the tried-and-true 3 Act Structure for movies. Often, you can subtly tell when a flick organically shifts gears from one Act to the next. Not here. It just kept…meandering. I even slurred that word out at one point as I was trying to put what was happening onscreen together in my foggy noggin. And then there’s the CG. Wow. You wanna talk about FX quality differences from scene to scene in a flick? Well…here’s the one for YOU!! While some of the CG does admittedly look cool, in a near photo-realistic moving comic-book kinda way, other shots are unbelievably bad. At one point, probably while exhaling a cloud of smoke, I compared the scene we were watching to CG elements in 1995’s ‘Mortal Kombat’. No bullshit! The backgrounds and digital lighting looked fucking laughable! And I say this because I (we) laughed! I couldn’t help but to wonder how the cast felt when they saw the Final Product. There must’ve been some serious head shaking at the premier from, you know…embarrassment. Maybe some angry phone calls to agents n such. But yeah…there is some ridiculously sub-par CG going on in this flick.
That being said, it’s not ALL bad. Much of the movie does look pretty…even if some of the FX sell it short at times. As with ‘The Fifth Element’, there are some quirky and inspired sci-fi / world-building elements in the production, which in turn occasionally yield a cool action scene; like when ‘Valerian’ goes all Juggernaut through a slew of metal walls or a gnarly ‘Revenge of the Sith’-inspired space battle erupts, all in with a crazy underwater chase sequence with giant monsters hot on their heels (think ‘The Phantom Menace’). There was also an inventive foot pursuit where ‘Valerian’ is trapped between two dimensions and needs to overcome some serious obstacles to survive. These aspects were just fine and, given my happily intoxicated mind at the time, were actually a lot of fun. It was when the lead characters opened their mouths that the movie took an unbelievable nose-dive.
All in all, ‘Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets’ is simply not good. Ambitious? Yes. Well plotted and acted? Hell no. But it’s one of those odd failures (like ‘Jupiter Ascending’) where MANY factors behind-the-scenes show so much promise, but the end result just doesn’t cut it. It may look pretty, with some cool ideas peppered throughout…but the final product just doesn’t pass muster, for one reason or another…or many. The main characters and their lack of chemistry is a serious detriment, the story feels convoluted and padded out, there’s a meandering quality to the narrative, and many of the concepts are silly enough to make you wonder what age group this one was aimed at. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be and tries to cover up it’s vapid core with a white-wash tidal wave of CG. HOWEVER…props to my bud for hounding me about seeing this one, as he was right. It really is ‘So bad, it’s good’! Especially if you’re rockin a skull full of good-time goodies and are in a vicious heckling mood. This flick is just begging for it! That’s the only level on which I can honestly recommend this Luc Besson failure…just see it to mock it. And by golly…have fun with it if you do!!

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