I’m a big fan of Luc Besson’s over-the-top space opera The 5th Element (1997). That film combined a menagerie of cosmic creatures and crazy costumes in a tale of a fantastic future where one perfect being saves the universe from total annihilation. The flick was big on style – it’s still one of the most original looking sci-fi films of all time, and it boasts a unique comedy/cosmic conspiracy tone that feels fresh even two decades later. And great performances from Gary Oldman, Chris Tucker, Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich ground the film in a believable heroine’s journey that only makes the flashing lasers and shiny ships seem all the more brilliant.
When I read that Besson was returning to science fiction with another epic tale of galactic good guys fighting an evil force, I was more than a little intrigued: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is an adaptation of Besson’s favorite childhood comic: Valérian and Laureline. Besson had snagged the comic’s author, Jean-Claude Mézières, to work on The 5th Element and it was Mézières himself who suggested that Besson make the Valerian story into a feature. In the late 1990s Besson thought the tale was impossible to translate to the screen, but a few decades – and vast improvements in digital movie magic – later, and Besson has brought his childhood favorite to the screen.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a story about a massive space station that plays home to innumerable human, alien and machine populations from across the universe. Alpha is a utopia where these innumerable species live, work and play together in the kind of diverse, multicultural mix that would make a Breitbart editor come unglued. When a dark force is discovered in the center of the massive, floating metropolis, special operatives Valerian (Dan DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are sent on a mission to identify and neutralize the threat before Alpha – and maybe the entire universe – is lost.
Unfortunately the high point of the film is its opening sequence which offers a history of human space station development set to the starry strains of David Bowie’s classic “Space Oddity”: the film begins in 1975 when U.S. and Russian spacecrafts first docked together and astronauts and cosmonauts welcomed each other in zero gravity greetings of cosmic solidarity. Besson then speeds the sequence through 900 years with the ships and technology quickly outpacing those familiar to us, and the Americans and Russians being replaced by a magical zoo of increasingly strange alien races. The various space stations continue to attach to one another before the massive hulk of the city of Alpha – and its array of alien passengers – sets off to the far edge of the galaxy. It’s one of the most emotionally moving scenes in science fiction filmdom, and it recalls the galactic goodwill themes of the pioneering Star Trek franchise.
After David Bowie fades out on the speakers, we’re introduced to Valerian and Laureline, and I immediately wanted to push a magic button that would allow me to abort this misguided mission. Dan DeHaan comes off as a little boy trying to convince you he’s really a star-skipping super agent – he reads all of his lines in a phony tough guy voice he’s pushing down about one whole octave. English fashion model Cara Delevingne can’t help falling into a catwalk strut no matter how weird that seems in a spacecraft control room or a close quarters laser battle. And although she and Besson clearly see Laureline as a strong feminist character, they mistake icy obstinance for self possession at every turn – this ain’t Wonder Woman. It’s no surprise that this pair have the romantic chemistry of a bologna sandwich and Kool-Aid, and the whole film suffers under the pretense that theirs is a love writ large across the firmament.
Valerian’s problem is that the style/substance balance that Besson got so right with The Fifth Element is just so wrong here. If you’re attracted to science fiction films for escapist movie magic, I recommend seeing Valerian and even ponying up for the 3D ticket. Practically everything you see on the screen is a fabrication of one kind or another, and perhaps DeHaan and Delevingne should garner a bit of mercy given the difficulties of emoting on stages strewn with green screens. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Besson revealed that the film includes 2,734 special effects shots, and it’s easy to see how other elements like characters and performances might just end up lost in space.
Valerian is currently playing in wide release.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.