Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets Review
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) Film Review, a movie written & directed by Luc Besson, and starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, John Goodman, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, Sasha Luss, Aymeline Valade, Elizabeth Debicki, Pauline Hoarau, Barbare Weber Scaff, and Rutger Hauer.
Valerian & the City of a Thousand Planets was spectacular in ways you may have never seen; but mediocre in ways you likely have. A condensation of ground-breaking sci-fi vision that brings a whole lot to the screen; but will likely leave little mark on the genre, due to having more material to work with than writer-director Luc Besson could effectively sell with a single film.
The screen story followed the exploits of Ace Agents, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan), and Sargeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), as a (would be) simple retrieval mission escalated into a conspiracy of genocidal proportions. This was all decent, as set-ups go. Execution wise, some of the film’s missed marks will likely inspire indifference; but what Besson did get right, he got pretty right-on.
The introduction to the film’s setting was so optimistic it made me break into a silly grin. I don’t do silly grins. Not when films clearly try to evoke responses out of me. Well, this set-up got me going, anyway. Besson managed to cram in generations of international/ interspecific/ interplanetary bridge-building, with barely a word, a lot of mind-expanding first contact imagery, and – most impressively of all – without completely betraying the spirit of the David Bowie‘s Space Oddity.
The bad news is that perkin’ me up, like that, was Besson’s first mistake, right there.
Anyone who knows me (the parts that can come up in polite conversation, anyway… or not get my identity stolen) will tell you that of all the emotional states I’d rather not be in, disappointed is at the very top. Healthy doses of cynicism & expectation moderation keeps the disappoints at bay; but Besson went and got my hopes up, so Death writes film reviews, at the moment.
The good news is that it’s still Luc Besson. There’s a fairly decent body of his work to draw upon; and once you realize that you’re getting something familiar to that standard, rather than ground-breaking, the disappointment doesn’t enrage, quite as much.
Further suppressing the rage: not having too much affinity for the original material. Without getting too much into it, for the sake of gauging the film on its own merits, let’s just say that Besson drew a lot of inspiration from a graphic novel series called Valerian & Laureline. In fact, much of the Fifth Element was inspired by those books; so here, then, was Besson’s chance to realize the real deal.
Only, he sort of didn’t.
Casual viewers are likely to describe Besson’s adaptation of the material to be an update to The Fifth Element (’cause if you’re thinking of The Professional, going into Valerian, I question your own expectations management). Sure, pleading The Fifth could be considered a cop-out, but some similarities do appear – whether in ship design, high-density action sequences, or the principle of combining sci-fi shiny with real world grimy (never mind the Millennium Falcon prototype, check out the film’s take on the Magic Schoolbus).
The problem is that Besson does not tap enough of the source material to make Valerian the stand-out vision it should be, rather than coming across as just another reinvention of the wheel. Valerian & Laureline arguably inspired elements to everything from Star Wars to Star Trek; and without the source elements that remain relatively unique, all we are left with are familiar bits – regardless of whether they predate where we’ve seen them before, or not.
Given the amount of material he had to work with, however, I can understand Besson having to make for something of a compressed introduction. However, hedging bets, for the sake of kick-starting a franchise, is risky business. Consider Ender’s Game. Even casual viewers might get the sense that something was missing from the Valerian film.
Where the film’s lead characters are concerned, we were introduced to a relationship in progress. None of the source character history went into the film; so a great deal of context was missing from their dynamic. As such, the chemistry level barely got above office romance tension – making an early proposal something of a head-snapper.
Valerian wasn’t without character development; but not enough to keep the sci-fi spectacle from being the best reason to see it.
I suppose the draw of a Luc Besson spectacle got a lot of sign-up offers, from a lot of familiar names – given the number of thankless cameos. Some of these throwaway roles were upfront (Rutger Hauer signed off on the opener), while others were more obscure (John Goodman did voice work, while I doubt many Millennials even know who Herbie Hancock is). Ethan Hawke, however, probably would’ve gotten the Chris Tucker scene stealer award, had his role not been to merely introduce the real showstopper of the film.
I’ll tell you what, if Rihanna doesn’t do it for you, as the most extensive & useful cameo character, then I submit the conveyed idea of her character as arguably the most memorable special effect of the film. Rihanna will still be better known as a singer, after this role; but all the effort, that went into getting us invested in her Bubble character, likely only served to make her the best example of just how throwaway these cameos really were.
Mercifully, there wasn’t (much) of a cutesy CGI mascot, you’ll know a hard rain is in store for the film’s SFX Saints (you’ll also know them when you see them), and the comic relief trio (I forget what they were renamed, for the film – let’s just call them Huey, Dewey, and Louie) did have it’s (appropriately brief) moment.
The single best thing about Valerian, however, was the near symphonic blend of high-concept art direction, and tracking action sequence. I could only describe it as film made with Gamers in mind. There was the Cyberpunk element to the Virtual Market, some high-energy first person shooting (sort of), an imaginative ship controller chase, and even a multi-level run-through worthy of a certain Hedgehog.
As amazing as such sequences were, we still needed our core characters, to get through the film; and with so much of their backstory missing, much of these moments felt like cut-scenes, between game play.
I’d say runway fierce served Levigne well, here; but to a degree. There was a one note level of seething undercurrent, serving her more intense scenes, and giving her a formidable presence, as befitting her role. It did not serve her as well when more intimate touches were called for, however.
In keeping with the Fifth Element update theme, I feel the need to tell you that Levigne does not get the band-kini treatment. Her role was much too serious for that – her tactical gear only traded in for a hipster jacket-over-wedding-dress number, and the bikini moment kept only to her intro.
DeHaan managed to bring a little wicked charm to his role; but given that neither actor particularly look their age (DeHaan, especially), that charm could easily pass for immature swagger, while Laureline’s all-business outlook could pass for petty petulance.
The plot was less straightforward & simplistic than The Fifth, at least; but between the obvious villain, easily figured reveals, and the off-set courtship-in-progress dynamic, that’s not saying much. The plot will not be what you take away from this film.
I enjoyed the experience of the film more than the film, itself. I do have my doubts, however, as to whether Besson’s kick-start treatment will earn the material the respect it deserves – or at least a franchise.
Valerian & the City of a Thousand Planets makes for at least one decent escapist moment. Just be sure to curb your expectations, some, going into it.
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