Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – Film Review

Sci-fi fans have long suspected it was probably the French science fiction comic series, Valerian and Laureline that inspired Star Wars. At least, in part. The dates certainly suggests it could be so. The comics began in a magazine in 1967; more than enough time for a space opera to ferment before a fully-fledged Luke Skywalker took to the stars in 1977.

Whether the theory is fact is difficult to say, but in the new sci-fi action thriller, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, based on those same comics and graphic novels, director Luc Besson appears to have made his own Star Wars, complete with fantastic worlds, a Jabba the Hut-like villain, and a young hero and heroine who zip in and out of adventures at light speeds among the planets in some other galaxy far, far away. But there’s a difference. Imagine the whole film taking place within the Cantina bar with endless holographic possibilities and you get the idea. Valerian is a genuine space oddity, which is why hearing the David Bowie late sixties classic of the same name during the introductory moments may be more appropriate than Besson actually intended.

There’s a strong beginning. After a series of scenes that quickly, and humorously, reveal the development of the space race from 1975 to 2150, backed by a heavily re-cut version of the Bowie song – the lyrics and chorus are altered to accompany the beats of the visual edits – we’re off to somewhere idyllic.

The design of this peaceful, other worldly planet populated by scantily clad stick figures, is the kind you may have seen gracing the cover of an old fifties sci-fi magazine, or maybe an early Arthur C. Clarke novel. The tall, lean, alien race that lives this dreamy, peaceful existence, where clouds are a mixture of fluffy whites, soft pinks, and pastel blues, can’t know it but they are moments away from near obliteration. Explosive remnants of a raging space war fought above their planet will puncture through their atmosphere, crashing on the planet’s surface and destroying their world. What follows once the damage is done is hard to describe. How it read in Besson’s screenplay is unimaginable.

Though we’re never altogether clear of where or why things are happening, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are sent by their superiors on a hyperkinetic thrill ride throughout the galaxy, retrieving objects, battling a ceaseless array of aliens, and alternately rescuing each other every few minutes. Along the way they’ll exchange either conversation or gun fire with Rutger Hauer, making a brief appearance as the President of the World State Federation; musician Herbie Hancock as the Defense Minister; an almost unrecognizable Ethan Hawke hamming it up as Jolly the Pimp; plus singer Rihanna as an alien, blue, blob-like creature that shapeshifts while performing exclusively for men on stage. As with the overall design of the film itself, she looks great as her act creatively morphs from Liza Minelli’s Sally Bowles into a series of stunning, sexy, female characters, eventually circling back to Bowles again, but an actress delivering convincing lines she is not.

Somehow, whatever it is Valerian and Laureline are doing has a connection with that earlier planet destruction opening, but with so much adrenaline-fueled, dazzling, busy business occurring, and at such a non-stop, frenetic pace, with a running time of 137 minutes, the whole thing is exhausting long before the grand finale arrives. It’s Besson’s The Fifth Element overstuffed and on speed, if you can picture such a thing.

Surprisingly, during the final fifteen minutes or so, events actually fall into place with an odd sense of clarity. The human villain may be Clive Owen as a ruthless military commander, but the source of his villainy turns out to be greed, capitalism, the economy, and the open market, all in keeping with the spirit of the source material where left-wing liberal ideas backed by a strongly humanist approach peppered those original comic-book stories.

The real problem, however, are those two leads. One is a major, the other a sergeant, and both suggest years of military experience, yet they look fifteen. They’re kids. The actors themselves are considerably older, but their appearance on-screen is one of high-schoolers playing with lasers, and it’s what’s there, up on screen that matters. Perhaps in comic-book form there was an easier level of character acceptability, making the fantasy of two youngster heroes in charge appear the norm, but what works in drawings doesn’t always work on film with actors, and it certainly doesn’t here.

Worse, DeHaan’s title character, who will later admit, “All I do is flirt and joke,” is a stiff. When the film focuses solely on him, with his cavalier attitude and those annoying, smart-aleck remarks, things are never that interesting. Fortunately, when events are centered more on Delevingne’s Laureline, the movie brightens. She may look like a tenth-grader lost in space, but her smart, level-headed, logical attitude, coupled with a little sass, makes the whole thing tick, and the English fashion model turned actress is good at it. Considering her Enchantress in Suicide Squad was such a dud, her space-age sergeant is quite the revelation. Given a sequel, you might be happy to follow the further adventures of Laureline in any galaxy, just as long as she leaves the stiff behind.

MPAA Rating:  PG-!3     Length: 137 Minutes    Overall rating: 6 (out of 10)

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