REVIEW – “Valerian” Creates Worlds Among Worlds in the Summer’s Definitive Guilty Pleasure Film
by Joe Hammerschmidt
Luc Besson has proven himself as France’s gift to the sci-fi genre, and twice to the family-of-assassins niche action subgerne. For the former, he blew the world away two decades prior with the then-revolutionary The Fifth Element, which had originated from his own vivid imagination as a youngster inspired by his favorite comic writers at the time. Even with tapping similar source material, the stakes are raised much higher with his latest straightforward sci-fi effort. Inspired by a beloved comic series, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets still oozes near-original creativity with that Besson spark. It’s nowhere near perfect, with an underqualified lead and an overreliance on CGI, yet one can’t ignore its looseness, making for perhaps the most fun one can have with a film this summer that’s not already tied to an established superhero franchise.
Starting quietly through the charming tones of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, the society of our “universe” sees an expansive transformation from the year 2020 onward, changing hands in government until eventually jumping ahead to the 28th century. From there, we witness the destruction of a presumably uninhabited planet known as Mül, at least to opposing forces that manage to wipe out 95% (or so) of an entire species of Na’Vi-esque descendants. Annoyingly, Besson saves all callbacks and such to this otherwise pivotal aspect of the plot, no mentions whatsoever til it’s actually convenient again in the final third.
For all the money spent on this lavish production (at €197 million, the most expensive production in the history of French cinema), it could almost be considered an insult that a wide majority of the attention and screen time is left to the leads, the titular hero Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and his more levelheaded copilot Laureline (Cara Delevingne). As headbutting partners in an independent syndicate of good samaritans, their job is simple to maintain balance across preventing certain crimes around the galaxy. After their first exhausting scrape that, as I think about it more, could be mistaken for an awkward Star Wars side story, the pair are lured into Alpha, the umbrella name for a highly specific directory of planets with varying species and landscape. Underneath the splendor and hope lies a conflict which their commander (Clive Owen) and the uber-serious defense minister (Herbie Hancock, if one could believe that) are determined to prevent from going public.
The bureaucratic withholding sets in motion the antics that occur through the rest of the film. Satisfying, yet not without their flaws as to why any of this should exist. Much of what’s in the movie works, yet the best characters in the film are left to only mild supporting roles that will instantly leave the viewer wanting more even before their time is done. For starters, John Goodman as the blob-like creature who proves the foil in the first major action sequence appears in voice-only. A slight waste of a wonderful talent with staying power. Ethan Hawke surprises as a comic jester disguised as a 70s pimp; given more time, he should’ve made for an awesome “accidental sidekick.” And then there’s Rihanna, playing Bubble, a shapeshifting alien with multiple talents, and the charm of any nightclub dancer, in an undisparaging light. It’s more a cameo than anything else, yet Besson normally doesn’t settle for the type of cameo that just appears out of nowhere, hers is purposeful and barely saves the story from imploding into absurdity overload.
Dehaan’s likely the largest offender of said overload, in the lead role. I’d trust him enough as a Major in an outer space military, yet he’s a bit of a douche in front of Laureline, whom he tries to charm romantically, coming off even more unlikeable, and given her hesitation until the very end, difficult to believe and even accept they’re in a relationship. Delevingne is unfazed in her own acting goals as the more sensical of the duo, even if she’s pulled into even less plausible gag scenes to rescue the AWOL Major; you’ll never look at jellyfish the same way again after. And Owen as the over-the-top villain who faces a moral crisis is a veritable foe, even if his character’s merits evolve into a stock role by the climax.
The universe Besson derives from comic inspiration also contributes to that scale-tipping; the look and scope in every shot IS expectedly beautiful, yet the level of CGI used opposed to real actors is almost nauseating at points. I don’t mean to nitpick about it, the director’s intention was just, yet the aforementioned price tag surely could’ve been spent more wisely for practical effects and the like. We get plenty of decent sweeping visuals, but the cost is still felt.
There’s no big winner or crowning moment that allows Valerian to stand out, nor is it an abomination to cinema that must be avoided at all costs. Through its perfect imperfections, Besson still succeeds in crafting an enjoyable adventure flick that will enjoy a better life as a cult favorite. Like any movie as it opens, shelf life is usually not the first thing studio execs are concerned with unless it means reaching the bottom line faster. The huge difference is Besson self-financed with additional crowdsourcing; this was the passion project to end all passion projects, and at every point the care he puts into making this his film, his own adventure isn’t ignored. Matter of fact, it is embraced. It’s what indie movies are meant to be, made for the sake of having a good time, whether you made it or you’re watching. The best advice I can give is to keep expectations very low, indulge in 3D if possible, and anticipate the fun like a well-worn glove, reliable even when overused. (B+)
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is currently playing at most area theaters; rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language; 137 minutes.