Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
Luc Besson’s latest attempt to straddle the zones of European and Hollywood film styles wields so much chutzpah it demands pause to admire before assessing his actual achievement. The spectacular first trailer for Besson’s adaptation of Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ comic book series promised a version of cinematic space opera restoring all the splendour, invention, and wonderment that’s been left so conscientiously out of the Disney-backed Star Wars films, when it came to creating bizarre life forms and landscapes for them to inhabit. Early signs are promising too: the opening sequence is a brilliant piece of purely visual storytelling that applies David Bowie’s eternal opus “Space Oddity” to a montage depicting humankind’s first tentative steps into space. The joining of the US and Russian space capsules gives way over time to further link-ups between each new nation of the Earth joining the space mission, and then attracting alien species, eventually turning a few tin cans into a colossal hive-like space station called Alpha. Besson not only casually tosses off an awesome piece of exposition here with no need for even a word of dialogue, but he encodes the sequence with multiple levels of wit. One level is humorous, specific, and socially observant – the aliens try to puzzle out the strange human custom of shaking hands. Another is aesthetic, utilising Bowie’s most famous yet ever-strange song to give the sequence an elegiac quality where another director might have gone for a more straightforwardly celebratory note. And yet another is metatextual, as Besson casts fellow directors like Louis Leterrier, Benoît Jacquot, Olivier Megaton as the human greeters, artists mediating between species. Rutger Hauer appears briefly as an earth official who sends Alpha off into deep space to become a self-sufficient colony and exploration vessel.
If this opening constitutes one prologue, we get a second in a lengthy sequence depicting the inhabitants of the planet Müw, a race of bald, stalk-limbed, quartz-skinned, ambisexual supermodels who harvest and live off a native species of pearl that gives off powerful energy, a species the Müw people are able to endlessly replenish by utilising the miraculous talent of a cute critter they keep as pets, known as converters. The Müw people are a race of aboriginalamerindianafrican walking metaphors about balance with nature and the inevitability of colonial exploitation that make Avatar’s (2009) Na’avi look subtle, living in a land that suggests a 1990s CGI showreel gone amok. Eden is despoiled right on schedule, as a space battle erupts overhead and the wrecked ships crash down upon the surface. When finally a really big warship is downed and explodes, the Müw people take shelter in another wreck, allowing some of them to survive the planet-shattering holocaust, although the Emperor’s daughter is trapped outside and killed. But the Müw people also have a gift for sending out their soul in the form of pure energy, and the Princess’s soul latches onto Valerian (Dane De Haan), a Major in an Alpha-based law enforcement corps, who’s on his way to a mission with his partner, Sgt Laureline (Cara Delevingne). Valerian has a long history of conquests with former partners and as a consequence Laureline is resisting Valerian’s romantic overtures, so he goes for broke and asks her to marry him, kicking off perhaps the least riveting would-be screwball-inflected romantic subplot since Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010).
Valerian and Laureline quickly swing into action, retrieving the last known example of the Müw converters and one of the energy pearls from a black market rogue (John Goodman) in a tourist Mecca called Big Market, a place that happens to exist in a different dimension and so requires trans-dimensional gadgets and eye-wear to interact with. This sequence sadly signals the way the rest of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets will play out – frantic rather than fleet, at once needlessly complicated and cluttered and yet also childishly straightforward. The imaginative underpinnings of the film possess an almost endless allure and sense of possibility, especially as it makes Alpha itself the focus of the tale. Alpha, after centuries wandering in deep space, has grown from a collection of tin cans into a planetoid replete with zones filled with liquid for aquatic life-forms, and many sequestered areas where various alien races live according to their own mores. Alpha is a place at once carefully realised and tangibly entangled, but also invested with a dreamlike aspect, an instinctive surrealist’s creation where various bubble-like worlds directly abut one-another, as if a sci-fi-writer's mind has been surgically disassembled and all its free-floating concepts housed in adjacent rooms.
And yet somehow through Besson’s handling it merely becomes an adventure theme park stocked with caricatures and bland acting, and what seems at first an embarrassment of riches slowly proves eventually to be just an embarrassment. It feels almost unfair to pan a film like this, so good-looking and uncommon, such a product of personal elan and big-thinking. And yet Valerian is also one of the most beggaring times I’ve had of late in a movie theatre, so utterly does it fail its own premise and misuse its plethora of fine elements after a great start. Certainly, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a pure product of Besson’s eye and imagination, but that’s a double-edged sword. Ever since his debut with 1983’s Le Dernier Combat and developed through films like Subway (1985), The Big Blue (1988), La Femme Nikita (1990), Leon: The Professional (1994), and The Fifth Element (1997), Besson has been both an impressive graphic artist and more often than not a floundering, even torturous dramatist. Part of the reason for this this certainly lies in Besson’s desire to push himself out of native climes and traverse a language barrier, but it’s also because he has a tendency to lean on the broadest and clumsiest ideas on hand. His best film to date, Leon: The Professional, was a truly odd but heartfelt blend of buddy comedy and action-thriller, one with a balance of elements Besson has never come close to repeating again. After his virtually unwatchable Joan of Arc (1999), Besson all but retired from directing for a time, preferring instead to try and build his own, internationally-focused but French-based production outfit, but his directing career eventually sputtered back to life with works like Angel-A (2005) and the overrated but admirably lunatic Lucy (2014).
And to be fair, Besson retains a strong dose of the native spirit of European mainstream sci-fi here, a weird realm replete with oddball alien species that seem to have roots in medieval art by the likes of Bosch and the gargoyles decorating Notre-Dame. The conceptual splendour of the universe Besson melds out of Christin and Mézières’ raw material is often breathtaking. I kept detecting an unexpected proximity of spirit to the likes of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s great diptych of Français fantastique, Delicatessen (1992) and City of Lost Children (1995), and on at least one level Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is like Delicatessen essentially a tale of tenants uneasily sharing an apartment block, jostling weirdos trying to coexist in a retrofitted abode. On another level, the film reveals a subtle but nagging influence behind this Continental scifi mode, in contrast to the American genre’s constant reference point of the Wild West: here the likeness for constructing a fantasy universe is the French colonial experience, with Valerian and Laureline stoically enforcing laws and managing manifold oddball populaces whilst leaving each one to commingle or atomise according to their wont. There’s some conceptual similarity with mechanical McGuffin in another recent film based on a popular French comic book, Snowpiercer (2014), although Alpha never develops any coherent social metaphor, and the setting is never engaged with simple facility to make its many parts feel connected in a consequential manner. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets proves comic book in the worse sense of that phrase, and after proceeding on the emotional and intellectual level of a Looney Tunes cartoon, the film suddenly and garishly segues into a length sequence where Rihanna and Ethan Hawke play shape-shifting stripper Bubbles and her roguish accompanist-cum-pimp Jolly, the sort of moment I could all but feel necessitating some awkward conversations between the parents and young kids sitting in the theatre with me.
There’s a lot of agonising “adventure” as Valerian and Laureline find themselves investigating malfeasance and kidnapping as the last remaining Müw people steal away nasty human military commander Arun Filitt (a shame-faced Clive Owen) in revenge for his attempt to exploit them as well as his part in destroying their planet, forcing Valerian to give chase to their hideout in Alpha’s innermost precinct. The two partners alternate roles as saviour and endangered damsel. When Valerian crashes and vanishes chasing Filitt and his captors, Laureline is obliged to track him down, a process that involves sticking her head up a jellyfish's ass for some reason. Valerian is forced to enlist Bubbles’ aid to help get Laureline out of the clutches of some oafish aliens whose Emperor finds Laureline mouth-watering, but not in the same way Valerian finds her. Meanwhile there are occasional cuts back to Sam Spruell as Filitt’s pasty-faced subordinate Okto-Bar, who tries to hold a desperate situation together, and random glimpses of Herbie Hancock – yes, that Herbie Hancock – as the face of Alpha’s shifty governing council. Besson’s faith that we’re interested in what Alpha’s middle managers are up to whilst Valerian and Laureline are out adventuring would be touching if it wasn't also dull and clunky. Besson’s best attempt here, relatively speaking, at creating an unusual life form comes in a trio of snout-faced aliens who trade information for advantage but run afoul of Laureline’s quick temper.
There’s also an array of black-painted killer robots belonging to Filitt who might actually be the most menacing example of their breed since The Black Hole’s (1979) Maximilian, and we spend the entire film waiting for them do something badass. And then they do it and, well, that's that. Besson’s attempts to be humorous and offer relatable, semi-satiric sideswipes aren’t just weak but are criminally old hat, like Valerian and Laureline’s squabbling over their driving skills, and that hoariest of cliches from a European director, the squabbling pair of married Middle American tourists out of their comfort zones. This is offered without the slightest lick of sense in this conceptual universe, where the human characters are only supposed to be a few hundred years removed from Earth. The film can’t even be bothered staying true to its source material, where Laureline was a peasant girl from Medieval France rescued in a time travel excursion – in essence, Joan of Arc gone hyperspace. Here’s she nothing so distinctive: Valerian calls her an “Ivy League girl,” which again begs the question as to why the hell he’d be calling anyone Ivy League. As great a setting and as enjoyable the string of designs as Besson has harvested from the comic book, no semblance of an idea or a compelling drama came away with them. There are sequences that evince real conceptual imagination, like the scenes at Big Market with their multi-dimensional action, and the later sequence in which Valerian fights a mob of hulking aliens whilst “wearing” Bubbles, who has made herself the same size and shape as the aliens. But Besson makes such a hash of such conceits I quickly started wishing he’d stop.
Nor does the film credit its heroes with basic understanding of their own environment and their multitudinous fellow Alpha citizens, as Valerian and Laureline constantly reveal unexplained gaps in their knowledge, just convenient enough to keep getting them into trouble, as when Laureline falls for a lure sent out by one alien race literally fishing for any passing meal. Rihanna’s scenes as Bubbles do inject some much-needed heart into the proceedings, as designated helpmate and victim, and she only serves to highlight how much DeHaan and Delevingne seem miscast in their parts. Delevingne seems the more comfortable in her role as the flinty, fiery, sceptical Laureline, and she continues her run of films where she’s easily the most interesting thing about them. But neither star really emerges from this with much credit as romantic swashbucklers. DeHaan never comes close to convincing as a brave and ardent hero when he looks like a frustrated killer in a giallo film. Laureline’s supposed to be an ideal feminist heroine, but she comes across more like an armour-encased Lucy Van Pelt, crabby, sniping, and self-impressed. Meanwhile the storyline slouches along without effective stakes and villains, and Besson mistakes hyperactivity for actual, proper story propulsion. Apart from that mighty opening, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets lacks even the islets of inspired cinematic texture, like the shoot-out matched to an alien pop-operatic aria in The Fifth Element and the dynamic cross-cutting in the latter stages of Lucy, that can suddenly pop up in a Besson film and redeem his other passages of elephantine tread. I dare say this might one day find cultish redemption purely as a hunk of eye candy and lonely avatar of a style of sci-fi that too rarely makes it to the screen. But right now it only seems wearyingly witless, a proposed cure for a problem with pop cinema that makes the symptoms worse.