Milo Garner reviews Luc Besson’s summer sci-fi.
Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is more significant than it might first appear. The most expensive French – and so European – film ever produced, it was financed entirely independently. Besson found himself, enviably, with access to a studio budget sans the studio itself, and might have used it to great advantage. As it turns out, Valerian is an ambitious and unique film, and one it’s impossible not to marvel at: it is, however, ultimately a misfire.
The one film Valerian might be compared to is another of Besson’s, The Fifth Element. The 1997 cult hit was also the most expensive French film upon its release. Besson had apparently been working on the script for that film since he was sixteen (and – frankly – that much is clear), but it was not a work of total originality. He took liberal inspiration from various graphic novels of his youth, including Moebius and Jodorowsky’s The Incal, and Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ Valérian and Laureline. Moebius and Mézières were both production designers on The Fifth Element, solidifying this connexion. As such, when adapting Valerian from the graphic novel, many elements Besson had borrowed for his earlier film returned in their original context. Some are background features of production design, but others are carried over wholesale – for example, towards the beginning of their films, Dane DeHaan’s Valerian and Bruce Willis’ Korben both make reference to waiting for the “perfect woman”. The Fifth Element, while not a great film itself, is also instructive in considering Valerian’s various flaws – both films often attempt similar things, but Besson’s latest invariably comes off worse.
Valerian’s best scene might well be its first. To the sound of Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ we are shown the development of human space travel. We see the various human nations ascending to the stars, how these humans meet various other lifeforms, and eventually coalescence around the former International Space Station, which becomes the sprawling megacity Alpha. The aesthetic variety first evidenced here is one of Valerian’s greatest assets, and consistent throughout. While the camera sweeps through various locales the audience are treated to sights and sounds not quite matched in any other film of this kind; the scale and ambition is palpable. The best description of the production design might be a mash-up of Mass Effect and Star Wars, with a dash of John Carter, but in a manner totally distinctive. The effects bringing these strange vistas to life are not quite as impressive as they could be, appearing dated by a few years, but this is by no means a significant issue – only the computer-generated terrain of Mül, a beachy planet, suffers here, with its overly clean look betraying a video game cinematic from the early 2010s. Thierry Arbogast’s cinematography, aided by excellent 3D, comes into its own in these moments of exploration and discovery. A much-maligned format (often rightfully), the 3D of Valerian, applied in post-production, is well done and very effective. While (thankfully) the images on-screen rarely poke at the audience, a sense of depth is created to give the already exuberant frames a further sense of immersion.
But though the visual splendour is impressive, it is built on poor foundations. The plot of the film itself is fairly standard – the usual space opera fare including obscure energy sources and a mysterious alien race, it fails to generate any particular interest. This is due, in large part, to the characters. Valerian is the prime culprit, not helped by a particularly poor performance by DeHaan. Early in the film he is presented as some kind of womanizer, yet this never feels true at all – perhaps if DeHaan’s Valerian was more like Willis’ Korben it might have been believable, but DeHaan only seems juvenile and uncharismatic. This is made worse by his character’s arc with his partner Laureline, played well by Cara Delevingne. From their first introduction it seems a romantic connexion between the two had developed some time earlier, but it is never justified during the film itself. This isn’t helped by the anachronistic manner in which Valerian continuously attempts to propose to Laureline before so much as an on-screen kiss. Perhaps when the graphic novel came out in the 60s this kind of romance-fantasy throwback made sense, but in a modern context it just seems bizarre, and isn’t helped by a sexism that might also be leftover from the source material – throughout the film Valerian continuously tries to keep Laureline out of the firing line. A nice romantic gesture? Or just Laureline’s ability as a high-skilled officer undermined by a wannabe Romeo? She might rebuke him each time, but it feels very out-of-place. This isn’t the first time Besson has had trouble with his female leads – in The Fifth Element Leeloo is a passive force for almost the entire film, before becoming Korben’s lover with very little justification toward the conclusion.
Another problem-character is Rihanna’s Bubble. This character exposes more than just poor writing, however, and suggests some major tonal issues at the heart of Valerian. She is introduced at some kind of seedy strip joint by Ethan Hawke’s Jolly the Pimp (who is probably the film’s highlight), whereupon Valerian watches as she performs a sort of cabaret poll-dance. As she does this, her outfit constantly changes – Bubble is actually a form of shapeshifting alien, and this is how she pays the bills. The entire scene is a little racy, as far as a 12A can manage, but mere minutes later Bubble transforms into her alien form (a weird blob-looking thing that makes Flubber look state-of-the-art) and becomes a kind of Disney side-kick, blurting out one liners during action scenes. Does Valerian want to be a gritty sci-fi like The Fifth Element, or a fun space adventure for all the family? Even Besson seems unsure, and flits between the two far too often across the runtime. Bubble’s character in particular is made even more questionable by the fact her entire subplot, which must take up around twenty minutes of the film, could be completely excised without losing anything from the main plot. The entire excursion, in which Laureline is captured and Valerian must save her, has the feeling of a filler issue in a series of comics. Perhaps Besson is trying to be very true to his source medium?
This raises a further issue – of the dialogue. It’s atrocious. I don’t know whether it’s an attempt to reflect the cheesy tone of comic book dialogue, something lost in translation for French-born Besson, or basic inability, but the lines in this film are of kin with the writing of latter-day George Lucas. That bad. Their only saving grace is they’re so unmemorable that it’s impossible to shame them outright, though if this film does become a cult hit (it has the potential), a quote-along at the PCC would be an inevitable (and hilarious) eventuality. One particular moment that stands out is, shortly after punching a commanding officer in the face, Valerian telling Laureline that he is a stickler for the rules and will only do things through proper channels. Hm, yeah. Worse yet, Laureline has to compel him otherwise through a ‘power of love’ speech (not so dissimilar to the Korben’s speech toward the end of The Fifth Element). Valerian and the Screenplay of a Thousand Eye-Rolls, perhaps.
With all that, the film is not a total disaster. Where it does fail, it’s often in an interesting way. The Bubbles debacle, in which she dies quoting Shakespeare in the guise of Cleopatra (why? We will never know), would never be seen in a Hollywood production, for example. This is an auteur going all out, and crashing in a fascinating blaze. His vision might be flawed, but that we might glimpse it is no bad thing.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is now showing in UK cinemas. Trailer below.