(1.5 / 5)
The space opera is well on its way to becoming my least favourite genre; romcoms included.
Embracing a gaudily frenetic aesthetic may make for a great splash panel in a comic book but it rarely leads to satisfying cinema. Case in point: Luc Besson’s latest, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
Based on the comic book, Valerian and Laureline,1 the film is a classic sci-fi adventure, but one where self-indulgent world-building comes at the cost of character and plot.
A miscast Dane Dehaan2 plays Valerian, an intergalactic Federal agent3 and, 4 a cocky bad boy with a girl in every port. Cara Delevigne is his partner, Laureline, a self-sufficient Ivy League grad (apparently)5 with a flash in her eyes. The exact nature of their relationship is strangely ambiguous given he claims to want to marry her, which you’d assume intergalactic HR would have some feelings on.
After securing a converter – a sort of miniature dragon/armadillo and the last of its species6 – at an off-the-books sale in an inter-dimensional market,7 the two head to Alpha, the so-called City of a Thousand Planets – which is to say it’s essentially a sprawling, multi-levelled Disneyland; except instead of Main Street USA or Frontierland, there’s Giant Gold Transistor Tower Land or Basically The Underwater Bit From Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace8 and you’re being dragged through it all by a tour guide who wants to finish their shift as quickly as possible, and, I dunno, go hang out in the break-room.
The endless, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it imagination fails to distract, however, from the fact that the whole film is essentially a gloss.9 The world of Alpha is a complex and sprawling, but we never see any section of it more than in passing. Terry Gilliam’s films often suffer from the same creative hyperactivity, but at least there’s usually some cohesive allegory behind it all. The Wachowskis, too, have, in recent years, been given to sprawl, but at least they have grand themes at play. Valerian, meanwhile, has a half-arsed conservationist/anti-imperialist message, which comes courtesy of a species that, to return to the coupling, look like one of the Engineers (from Prometheus) fucked a Na’avi (from Avatar).10
There are pristine beaches, pearls of limitless energy, a great pink sea-snail – worlds upon worlds upon worlds upon worlds,11 but none of its amounts to anything. It’s all just tedious, brightly-coloured set dressing to generic action, lazy writing, and terrible dialogue. Rihanna appears in a supporting role as an alien stripper named Bubble; morphing through various forms of fetish-wear, in a scene that, besides from a conflicted Valerian, also includes Ethan Hawke as a sort of outre cowboy pimp. Clive Owen manages to phone it in through gritted teeth, a minor achievement in itself.12 He’s so obviously a wrong ‘un it’d more of a surprise to discover he’s just a bit of a grump. There’s Bob the Pirates (Alain Chabat), with his straggly beard, electric blue eye, and apparent love of (presumably) very, very vintage champagne,13 who hunts the aforementioned jellyfish in his steampunk submersible.14
This is playtime, not film-making, and it’s not even as wacky as it thinks it is.15 Even the design feels derivative of a thousand films that have come before.16 There are military robots that look like a coupling between a modern-day Cylon and the Geth from Mass Effect. There are aliens that look like Jessica Rabbit, like fish in mechanical diving suits, like the protagonist from Oddworld (only fat).17
Valerian is a film that demands visual description insofar as it scarcely awards deeper analysis. It starts off with verve and imagination, but never settles down. There are no characters as in Besson’s earlier space opera, The Fifth Element, or even the Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending, my least favourite film of 2015. Valerian is bad enough to be boring; not awful enough to be memorable. The only positive comparison I can make is that, unlike the hover-boarding sequence in Jupiter Ascending, Valerian at least didn’t make me physically nauseous.18 With no rhyme or rhythm, and at two hours and twenty minutes long, I also felt like much of it played out in Interstellar time – by which, I was the guy on the spaceship outside the black hole, waiting twenty years for my team to come back from a one-hour trip.
Valerian has too much world and too much time on its hands, prioritising flashy excess over simple inventiveness. Spend your latter somewhere else in the former, and give this one a miss.
- Perhaps it would have been better calling it Laureline and the City…; given, as Rob Daniel recently pointed out to me, all Besson’s good films begin with an L: Leon, Lucy, The Lady.
- In the comics he’s a square-jawed Dan Dare type. Wiry strength aside, here he looks like those weird Spy Vs Spy luvvie-Watto info-dealer things could probably collectively take him in a fight.
- Of unclear jurisdiction and authority.
- As the film is quick to establish in hilariously expository fashion.
- Like, Space Ivy League or regular old terrestrial Ivy League? The film never expands on this.
- It’s a very specific Macguffin that, for all its supposed importance, spends most of the film passing uncommented in a small pouch of Laureline’s hip.
- It’s only visible through a special visor and you need to run your purchases through, essentially, an airport scanner to bring them into this reality. One of the film’s few unique inventions, it could have made for a better defined playpark – China Mieville and not just a bull-in-a-china-shop.
- But with head-butting leviathans and luminescent memory-stealing jellyfish.
- And it all starts off so well, too, with an effective little sequence that shows the human space program progressing from multi-cultural to inter-species over the course of generations through a simple succession of handshakes. Then the film leaps five hundred years further into the future and promptly collapses into a rainbow-coloured hole.
- It’s possible they both took inspiration from the original comics, but there’s a lesson to be learned there in itself. There’s no point in adapting Flash Gordon after the fact and complaining that Star Wars beat you to it.
- If not a thousand then enough that no one will be complaining about false advertising. It’s like the so-called Dance of a Thousand Veils: tantalising sure, but after a certain point, you might as well just hang a curtain and be done with it.
- As is the fact that no one has ever managed to look less dignified in a military uniform – probably including various people hanged in them.
- Product placement, ahoy, Veuve Cliquot!
- Because of course he does.
- Compared to Rules Don’t Apply or Okja, two genuinely out-there films, this is positively staid in that it’s more or less what you might expect – if not, perhaps, have hoped for.
- The only award its likely to win is Worst Perfunctory Character Death: “I must have been injured in the fall”, in-fucking-deed.
- Though the film gets a bit of mileage out of its alien horde. There’s an actually inventive bit with a sort of salsa dip hat.
- Though not for lack of trying.