VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017)
Review by L.L. Soares
Director Luc Besson has delivered his dream project, a film based on the classic science fiction comic books series VALERIAN AND LAURELINE by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mezieres. He’s been wanting to make this movie for years, since he grew up on the comics (which began in 1967) in his native France. At $209 million, his film version, VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017) is the most expensive “independent” film ever made outside of Hollywood. Besson, you may remember, is the same filmmaker who gave us SUBWAY (1985), the original LA FEMME NIKITA (1990), LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994), THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997), and LUCY (2014). So, with all the passion and money invested in this movie, is it any good?
Well, I guess it depends on your mindset going in. In some ways, VALERIAN reminded me of another movie based on a French comic book, Roger Vadim’s classic BARBARELLA (1968). Like BARBARELLA, VALERIAN has moments of hokeyness and isn’t meant to be completely serious. And if you take it in that spirit, you might just enjoy the ride.
We begin on the planet Mul, where the elongated and beautiful inhabitants live a simple life and gather pearls. One day, that begins like any other, they see spaceships falling from the sky, casualties from a war being fought in space above their planet. It results in the destruction of Mul.
We then meet two agents of a human police force, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner, Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) who are spending some quality time on a beautiful beach, which turns out to be virtual reality. They are called into action to infiltrate a massive interplanetary marketplace (which also happens to be based in virtual reality) to retrieve a rare, black market item that turns out to be a “converter” from the planet Mul, perhaps the last of its kind. It’s not a machine, though. It’s a cute little creature that has the extraordinary ability to eat something (let’s say a pearl) and then immediately excrete hundreds of replicas (let’s say, hundreds of pearls).
The mission is tense and fraught with danger. And the way the market works, and how Valerian and Laureline interact with it, is actually pretty interesting. Their next mission, however, is not in a virtual reality place, but a “real” one, on Alpha, the aforementioned City of a Thousand Planets, where thousands of species from throughout the universe live in harmony, sharing their technology and cultures, in the ultimate intergalactic melting pot.
It turns out that there’s a strange anomaly at the center of the city, a “dead zone” that is thought to be contaminated and continues to grow. Whenever expeditions are sent to infiltrate it, they never returned. So, of course, Valerian and Laureline are put on the case. But first, they must provide security for the representative of the human population of Alpha, Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen), who is holding a special meeting with the leaders of various alien races.
Things don’t go according to plan, the Commander is kidnapped, and Valerian and Laureline end up inside the ominous “dead zone,” trying to retrieve their superior officer. And that is the plot in a nutshell. Meanwhile, we get treated to several different alien species, and their living areas, which no doubt try to recreate their home sweet homeworlds.
I have to admit, I’m often a fan of these kinds of movies, where entire worlds are created for us to marvel at. AVATAR comes to mind, of course, but I think a better example of this kind of thing is the criminally underrated JOHN CARTER (2012), and I’m probably the only critic who actually enjoyed the Wachowskis’ JUPITER ASCENDING (2015). Hell, I even think David Lynch’s pre-CGI DUNE (1984) deserves more love than it gets.
VALERIAN delivers the spectacle of amazing visuals, and then some. The CGI here is above-average and a lot of what’s on the screen is a feast for the eyes. The story isn’t exactly on the same level, but if you treat it as you would something with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, like Vadim’s wonderful film, then you won’t mind the plot holes too much.
The stars are another thing. While I like Dane DeHaan a lot as an actor in such movies as CHRONICLE (2012) and A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016), and the much-praised HBO series IN TREATMENT (2008 – 2010), I just think he’s really miscast here. DeHaan excels at playing moody, intelligent, and sometimes awkward young men. Valerian is a swaggering narcissist, and I just never really bought DeHaan in that role. He’s a little stiff and one-note throughout, as if he wasn’t entirely sure how to play the character, and while he’s not bad enough to ruin the movie, a more suitable actor, with a bit more swagger, could have improved the film a lot.
His partner in crime—er, law— is Cara Delevingne as Laureline, the smart one of the pair, who is always getting Valerian out of trouble. While Delevingne started out as a model, and is still sort of a newbie to acting, she is much better than DeHaan here. Don’t expect the thespian talents of a young Meryl Streep, but Delevingne has the right amount of smarts and attitude (and beauty) to pull the part off. She fairs much better than DeHaan. She has been in movies like PAPER TOWNS (2015), and TULIP FEVER (2017, coming later this summer, in which she also co-stars with DeHaan), as well as playing the villainess the Enchantress in the movie SUICIDE SQUAD (2016, admittedly not her finest moment).
There are some interesting people in supporting roles. Jazz legend Herbie Hancock (how many people remember his classic video for the 1983 jazz-fusion song Rockit?) plays the Defense Minister, who we only see in hologram. Ethan Hawke has a hilarious turn as “Jolly the Pimp” in a seedy alien red light district, and Rutger Hauer plays the “President of the World State Federation.”
The best supporting role, though, is easily singer Rihanna as a shape-shifter named Bubble, who helps Valerian (and in turn Laureline) out of a jam. Bubble’s introduction, as she instantly transforms into a dozen variations of Rihanna is pretty breath-taking, and while she’s still not as impressive as an actress (her final speech in the movie is a bit stilted and goofy), she’s got charisma and screen presence to burn.
I saw it on a big screen in 3D, and that’s a pretty good way to see it, and the movie does what it sets out to do, which is dazzle us. Some of the aliens and creatures look a little cartoony (especially the bigger ones) and some look pretty cool, but the overall impression is a good one. While it could be improved (with a better Valerian, for example), it’s pretty good as is. I give it three knives.
I will make a prediction, though. American audiences seem to be averse to any big, ambitious science fiction films featuring new worlds and multiple alien races for the most part, unless it’s part of the STAR WARS universe, or, on the rare occasion, an exception like AVATAR. Considering how many critics are already panning this movie, I’m sure VALERIAN will continue the trend, which is unfortunate. It’s ironic though, that, despite its titanic footprint in modern cinema, STAR WARS was no doubt influenced by the 1960s Valerian & Laureline comics (and, before that, the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs), but because it made it to the big screen first, STAR WARS will always be considered, by many people, the originator of this kind of thing. I think VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS has a more mischievous tone, and offers a fresh take on this genre. I hope it finds its audience.
© Copyright 2017 by L.L. Soares
LL Soares gives VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS ~three knives.