REVIEW: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets [2017]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 137 minutes | Release Date: July 21st, 2017 (USA)
Studio: STX Entertainment
Director(s): Luc Besson
Writer(s): Luc Besson / Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mézières (comic)

“We can forgive, but we will never forget”

Sci-fi fantasy Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the most expensive European and independent (anywhere) production ever at approximately $200 million dollars—high enough that writer/director/producer Luc Besson pretty much leveraged his distribution shingle EuropaCorp before bringing STX on as a partner to defer costs and get it into theaters. Now questions are floated about whether it can ever turn a profit after “bomb” proved too weak a word to describe its reception by the American box office. The odds were always going to be steep: the property derives from French comic “Valérian and Laureline” by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières after all. Their saga ran from 1967-2010, yet infiltrating a present-day cinematic landscape monopolized by Star Wars and Marvel was always uphill at best.

The irony of course is that writer Christin and artist Mézières’ comic actually inspired George Lucas‘ magnum opus as well as Besson’s own The Fifth Element. The latter is what the French auteur hoped would drive Valerian‘s audience, it’s resurgence of late as a bona fide cult sci-fi classic a seemingly perfect segue into this new world promising to be just as imaginative. So the first teaser set to The Beatles‘ “Because” arrived with aspirations of blowing minds away. Unfortunately its sumptuous, Avatar-like graphics instead led to a quick and snarkily divided opinion about whether it would earn fringe support and a possible future reappraisal a la The Fifth Element or become a DOA-dud like 2015’s Jupiter Ascending (a film I personally hope does earn a critical renaissance).

Reality seems to put it somewhere in the middle with much of its praise stemming from the stellar graphics while derision comes for its plot. The consensus on its visuals is spot-on as Besson’s world-building is at an all-time high with the transformation of the International Space Station into a celestial entity of its own re-named Alpha (the city of a thousand planets) after eight hundred years of expansion due to steady arrivals of extraterrestrial beings from outside the galaxy shown in time-lapse to David Bowie as prologue. Add the technical wizardry of an action scene simultaneously taking place in two dimensions and it’s hard not to get excited about Besson’s ingenuity. And in my opinion the plot serves this aesthetic well. It’s the characters that sadly don’t.

Here’s the thing: Valerian comes at us with a story about love where trust is more important than allegiance. It’s one thing to believe in the moral and just nature of our species, but a complete other to pretend it exists because those in power tell us it does despite concrete evidence proving otherwise. In the grand scheme of the film’s plot, this theme gets full marks. We’re dealing with an alien race (the Pearls) that has lost its planet Mül to a war they didn’t even know was waging outside their atmosphere. Their sorrow underlines everything that happens whether its infiltration into Major Valerian’s (Dane DeHaan) dreams or the inexplicable appearance of their kind on Alpha as an enemy force risking the destruction of that interstellar sanctuary.

Besson shows the Pearls’ peaceful nature very early as a way to force us into questioning their role on Alpha as villains who’ve contaminated a portion of the city. This juxtaposition means we must also question human Commander Arun Filitt’s (Clive Owen) orders, especially since his latest demand was for Valerian and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) to retrieve a “converter”—something that plays heavily in the Pearls’ mythology—from a black market fiend (John Goodman‘s Igon Siruss). So when the Pearls inevitably kidnap Filitt, both halves of the argument about what to do next arise. Valerian, the ever-loyal and pragmatic soldier, seeks to find him without over-reaching his position to learn more. Laureline, the ever-questioning idealist, wonders about the weird machinations of what’s happening and craves clarity.

But while this is all well and good as far as propelling the story forward into multiple adrenaline-fueled sequences—spacecraft chases, human sacrifice, meeting new friends (Rihanna‘s shape-shifting Bubble) and enemies (Ethan Hawke‘s over-the-top pimp Jolly), or chaotic warfare pitting two innocent sides against each other with a regiment of robotic killing machines in the middle—it renders the leads cardboard. Valerian is predictable. Laureline is predictably unpredictable. He’s a ladies’ man who’ll do or say anything to get the woman he wants except disregard orders (“That’s not our decision to make”). She’s a no-nonsense romantic who knows doing the right thing always trumps authority. He’s an idiot and she’s a hero: two-dimensional traits that make it impossible to care about the ham-fisted wedding proposal looming above them.

He’s not endearing in the slightest despite Besson hoping the opposite. Maybe it’s casting or maybe it’s the script, but Valerian comes off as a cocky douchebag that’s horrible at reading situations with enough tact to not make things worse. He doesn’t earn sympathy or provide any reason to hope his love—which never seems honest—gets reciprocated. On the other hand, Laureline is completely relatable and deserving of our empathy … until we realize the film supplies nothing for us to believe she’d ever love him. We’re thrown into their relationship just as he proposes and she coyly ignores the question. Their “chemistry” is his being lecherous and her throwing it in his face. Whether their love is real doesn’t enhance the plot, it distracts from it.

And that’s what prevents me from fully endorsing Valerian as I did Jupiter Ascending. Neither reaches the heights of a Star Wars or Fifth Element, but both had the potential. While the latter’s cheese wasn’t fully embraced as it should have been, its characters were fleshed out in a way that allowed us to care about them and anticipate their actions. The former has a much better handle on its desired tone by spicing its self-serious drama with intentional humor, but we care more about the spectacle than anyone involved other than the Pearls (who are dismissed as props positioned for Valerian to redeem his one defining character trait—a flaw) and Sam Spruell‘s General Okto-Bar (who takes command in Filitt’s absence with heart and intellect).

Did I ever care if Valerian or Laureline lived or died? No. Their oil and water dynamic is mostly comic relief and drawn as an imperative rather than misunderstanding with room for solution—a direct contrast to the much more authentic and constantly evolving relationship between The Fifth Element‘s Korben Dallas and Leeloo. They become pawns to the plot, action figures engaged in the awe-inspiring visuals so that we have a reason to enjoy the adventure. He’s what we follow during the aforementioned death-defying chase spanning two dimensions that proves the film’s greatest achievement. She’s what we watch as the capitalist opportunists Doghan Daguis (known as Shingouz in the comics) lead her to a pirate fisherman (Alain Chabat) in search of jellyfish. These sequences would work with anyone.

So while I enjoyed my time in space (the 137-minutes are brisk), nothing that happened impacted me emotionally. I only cared about the pieces insofar as they upped the entertainment value. There was complexity to General Okto-Bar, the Pearls, and Rihanna’s Bubble (despite being a glorified cameo), but Valerian and Laureline were empty vessels. DeHaan was flat and Delevingne wasted as the plot consistently forces them into doing the right thing because one or both of their survivals depends upon it. For a film holding altruism paramount, that’s not the best look for your heroes. Han Solo works because Luke and Leia make him better. Valerian and Laureline are conversely like two halves of Solo’s rogue. They don’t make each other better; they just keep each other alive.

[1] (Left to right.) Dane DeHaan, and Cara Delevingne star in EuropaCorp’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
[3] KORTAN DAHUK The Kortan Dahuk were the first extraterrestrial race to dock with the Alpha Space Station in the year 2135. They hail from the planet of Kas-ônar, 5,000 light-years from Earth. Organized by the quest for harmony and beauty, they are a well-traveled race with great experience and interaction with other species. From visionary writer/director Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”.

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