Director: Luc Besson Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke, Rihanna, John Goodman Running Time: 137 mins
There’s a great chase sequence near the beginning of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets in which the characters exist simultaneously in two alternate dimensions. One a colorful, expansive and beautiful looking desert world filled with wide-eyed consumers; the other an over-packed, messy and dangerous market planet, where the possibility of adventure (or disaster) lies around every corner. Much like this inter-dimensional marketplace, the film seems to exist in two separate states at once. And, much like the characters, viewers will likely find themselves torn between the two. Valerian is awful. But it’s also kind of amazing. And damn if it’s not great to look at!
Set in the 28th century and based on a long running series of classic French comics, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets follows the adventures of the seemingly teenage, but not actually teenage, agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne). They’re special operatives under the employment of humanity’s highly skilled intergalactic peace-keeping force. Also, they’re dating. They bicker a lot. It’s “charming”.
After a series of no less than three admittedly entertaining and wildly inventive prologues, the petulant pair are assigned to investigate a vague, undefined mystery on the space station Alpha. This spectacular sprawling hub, where thousands of species from around the galaxy live peacefully together, is the City referred to in the film’s title. What follows is an endless parade of generally exciting and self-contained sequences exploring this wonderfully crazy world. The whole thing plays like a bunch of individual episodic adventures ripped straight from the pages of a comic book, loosely tied together with something vaguely resembling a plot.
As the most expensive independent film ever produced Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a fascinating, if overlong, viewing experience. The film is a passion project for French writer/director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element), who grew up reading the comics as a child. Besson has spent a lifetime wanting to make this movie; waiting for the technology to catch up to the demands of the story, and his love for the source material shines through in every frame. There’s no sense of studio interference or bland market-tested appeal here. Instead, you get the distinct feeling that Besson was able to do whatever the hell he wanted, for better or for worse. Not one single element feels like it wasn’t given his personal stamp of approval before being placed in front of the camera.
Despite his complete inability to string together a convincing line of English dialogue in the script, there’s no denying Besson’s vision and skill as a director. He definitely knows how to shoot an action sequence – there are some genuinely thrilling set pieces in the film – and aside from a few dodgy green-screen moments, the effects and design work are stunning.
Much like Guillermo del Toro with Pacific Rim, this is a film-maker embracing his inner child on the blockbuster stage and having the best time doing it. The result is a film with a sprawling singular vision. It’s refreshing and all too rare in this age of reboots, shared blockbuster universes and meticulously planned studio mega-franchises to see a film that’s so lovingly crafted and completely earnest in its desire to entertain. And for that, it has to be commended. That kind of enthusiasm can be infectious.
It’s just a pity Valerian is such as mess.
The dialogue is atrocious. The story is all over the place. The lead characters are bizarrely miscast. They come across as irritating cocky teenagers instead of the cool headstrong Han Solo/Princess Leia types the material wants them to be. Dane DeHaan, who has proven himself a more than capable actor in recent years, struggles to make sense of his character, and mostly just comes off seeming like a bit of a d**k. Delevingne fares a little better. She shows moments of real charm and presence amidst her copious amounts of eye-rolling and gratuitous eyebrow gymnastics. Perhaps a director with English as his first language could have coaxed a better performance out of both actors – one that amounted to more than simply “cocky swagger”. As it stands it feels like something (or everything) was lost in translation.
The confusing thing is though, all of this kind of works in a weird off-kilter way. Maybe more so if you’re prepared for it, but it makes the whole experience enjoyably nonsensical. It almost doesn’t matter if you like the lead characters (or the nonsense coming out of their mouths). Like everything else in the film they’re nothing more than cartoonish cut outs adding texture to this bizarre space-opera fantasy. The only promise the film really makes is that Valerian and Laureline are here to “kick ass”. And that, they do.
To go back to the metaphor of the opening chase sequence, it’s not simply a case of Valerian being “so bad it’s good”, or that it has some great moments and some terrible ones. It’s not that it’s simply a bad movie, or even a great one… It’s that it literally feels like both, simultaneously.
Valerian And The City Of A Thousand planets pulls off the bizarre feat of somehow being mind-numbingly awful and incredibly entertaining at the very same time. How you feel about the film at any given moment will depend entirely on your perspective. It’s about being willing to indulge the films incredibly high levels of well meaning but awkwardly misguided stupidity, while embracing the more outlandish excesses of the genre (cute energy-crystal-pooping alien critters and all).
If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing Besson’s The Fifth Element filtered through The Phantom Menace, mashed with Guardians Of The Galaxy and John Carter, sprinkled with a bit of Avatar, thrown in a blender and laced with copious amounts of LSD, this is 100% the film for you. If not, well, feel free to sample the result… just don’t say you weren’t warned.
[Oh and Rihanna shows up to dance, for reasons that have absolutely no bearing on the plot whatsoever, then spends some time running around as a gelatinous blue blob. So there’s that.]
Approach with extreme caution. Or careless wide-eyed optimism. Or both…?
Usual rating system invalid.