Director: Luc Besson
Screenplay: Luc Besson
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer
Runtime: 137 Minutes
Luc Besson’s eclectic career of misfires and quiet successes as a producer should never undercut his ability as a filmmaker, as both writer and director his virtues as an industry outlier over the years have allowed him to maintain his place as one of the most prominent voices in European cinema. His unique manner of handling the worn-out tropes and clichés of genre cinema have led him to experiment with new methods of presenting his stories through a converse use of imagery and sound, while also smuggling into mainstream theatres his own brand of contemporary commentary alongside his more broadly entertaining and off-kilter eccentricities.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens on what might be the single greatest stretch of cinema Besson has ever produced; a wordless montage in which space-age optimism and progression overcomes the barriers of language, race and ultimately species over the course of hundreds of years, and the evolution of the melting pot 'Alpha' space station that is central to the story as it is constructed before our eyes. Followed immediately by a wonderfully simplistic prologue on the planet of a genderless race who live in harmony with nature, it’s a pure and beautiful piece of science fiction brilliance that harks back to the works of Roddenberry – sadly, it is also the film’s absolute peak.
That’s not to say that Valerian is a poor exercise though, just a flawed and hopelessly enthusiastic pulpy space adventure that kind of lacks the narrative push to make it truly great.
Besson is clearly in love with Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ original 60s comic series Valérian and Laureline; a series which inspired the likes of Star Wars and Besson’s own spiritual predecessor The Fifth Element. Like 2012’s ill-fated John Carter adaptation though, its ambitions outreach its grasp and its resonance is somewhat lessened by the fact that so much like it has been absorbed into the popular consciousness and current blockbuster spectrum.
Thankfully, what that film lacked in resourcefulness, Besson’s film revels in with a purity to its inventive visuals and world designs. Presented without a hint of irony or sarcasm in the treatment of its multitude of species and worlds it’s a delight to see Besson in such a flow with a material that he is so clearly at one with. All the while the strong anti-imperialist messages regarding tolerance and the sanctity of life and victims of colonialism wait in the wings, ready to emerge and consume the audience in the final act.
From creatures fishing for humans in the bowels of the ship with glowing butterflies, to a marketplace in which loss prevention is achieved by holding the stores in other dimensions, there’s more imagination in single sequences of Valerian than there is in most movies – even when the design of some of the aliens arrive as an obvious analogue or of questionable ethnic origins.
What lets the film down is that its space police storyline is very much a non-mystery that feels very simple to unravel given the extended opening sequences, and some thudding dialogue that feels like it’s just there to fill in the gaps between sequences and narrative beats. It doesn’t help than most of the main performances come across as rather flat, with Clive Owen just hitting his mark and Dane DeHaan’s Valerian and Cara Delevingne’s Laureline sharing shockingly little chemistry beyond the one-liners and flirtatious remarks. Delevingne is better under the circumstances of her role, but DeHaan really struggles to sell his roguish character with none of the cosmic charms of Harrison Ford or Chris Pratt. It’s actually Rihanna who comes out with the most enjoyable character and performance outside of a few cameo roles from other stars.
The good that’s on show with Valerian is so encouraging that it’s worth the slog of the characters and plotting just to experience its odd foundations, Besson’s inflicted arthouse paraphernalia and the beautiful all-the-money-onscreen set pieces, costumes and environments (when it isn’t restricted to spaceship corridors). It’s very clearly going to lose a vast amount of its enormous independent budget because of its lack of ties to other reputable franchises, but it’s a gamble that may win out if it succeeds in finding the same base who made the resurgence of The Fifth Element such a phenomenon.