I’m floating in the most peculiar way
Luc Besson may not be the most recognizable name, but people are definitely familiar with his work: Leon the Professional, Lucy, and of course The Fifth Element. In watching trailers for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, several people were drawing comparisons between it and Besson’s twenty year old classic thanks to the vibrant colors and weird looking characters. But looking similar to a director’s previous work, is different from feeling like a previous work and that’s what matters most to fans of The Fifth Element, who to this day people still quote the film and like to dress in the bizarre futuristic fashion from the piece. So how does the adaptation of the decades-running French comic, Valerian & Laureline, stack up? Well I got some good news and a whole swath of bad…
Our titular protagonist, Valerian (Dane DeHaan), a major in an intergalactic police force who’s partnered with his biter love interest Laureline (Cara Delevingne), is tasked with bringing a “converter” (actually a small creature that poops replicants out of any object you feed it) to Alpha, a the former International Space Station that has since merged with thousands of different space ships from races all across the galaxy. There, they find the city is under siege from the inside by an unknown force that also wants to get their hands on the converter. After the grizzled leader of Alpha, Commander Fillit (Clive Owen), is captured by this mysterious enemy, it’s up to Valerian and Laureline to find him and figure out what is threatening the peace of Alpha…or something to the effect.
This movie is the definition of a “hot mess.” It wants to go everywhere but winds up nowhere at the same time, hamstrung by a plot that keeps stopping itself with every alternate step to showcase some big set piece involving characters you don’t care about in developments that don’t contribute to the final outcome. This film may have been called Detour: The Movie, because we stop our story every 15 minutes to go on some random sub-plot that we have to resolve before proceeding with the main story which was…actually I’m not 100% sure myself. Was it everyone wanting to get their hands on the converter? Or was it the disappearance of Clive Owen’s super-duper-obviously-evil character that they still try to set up as a twist? But what’s most tragic to me is the beginning of this movie is filled with such promise that you’re about to watch something truly imaginative.
Without exaggeration, this movie’s worth a look solely for the first ten minutes of this film. Starting off with the history of Alpha’s development through centuries, it’s a wonderful little short film set to the tune of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” I’m really looking forward to this scene getting featured on YouTube for me to share, because it’s filled with such positive wonder that it would make an easy contender for best short film. Hell, even the scene immediately following this introduction isn’t half bad as you see a day in the life of an alien race (that totally aren’t the Na’vi from Avatar) and the film communicates the world’s culture and it’s unfortunate demise all in the space of a few minutes. I was really gearing up for a high quality space opera at this point, but I was sadly mistaken once Dane DeHaan entered the frame.
God. DAMN. He was acting atrociously in this. I don’t know whether to chalk this up to having a bad day, bad direction, being completely miscast, or all of the above because his performance is just painfully awkward to witness. The thing is Valerian is supposed to be some cocky, arrogant ladies’ man that’s fiercely loyal to the government he works for, but DeHaan looks and acts nothing like the character he and other characters refer to him as. Everyone says he’s a suave flirt that doesn’t play by the rules, but he’s never seen to actually mack on anyone besides Laureline and that’s just painful to witness for reasons I’ll get to shortly. Further, DeHaan talks like he’s a man in his late 30’s, early 40’s but looks like a teenager. He had a similar problem in A Cure for Wellness, and a few months of time have not improved matters in the slightest.
It’s truly a miracle that his co-star is slightly better than DeHaan, but only because Cara Delevingne is given a smidgen better lines than the lead. Otherwise Delevinge is just as bad as DeHaan in the acting department, and the film’s problems only compound when they start “flirting” with each other. Keep in mind, this on-screen couple already has as much chemistry as water on a dying candle; so when you have two thespians badly spouting lines on top of it all, things get so much worse from there. Their back-and-forth dialogue is just awkward to watch and not in the hilariously awful way, more like the painfully bad way from Fifty Shades Darker. With two painfully bad leads, any comparisons to The Fifth Element stop dead in their tracks which at least a few memorable side characters with all of the film’s faults.
We do get two other characters that do serve as a brief respite from the parade of mediocrity, but both are gone way too soon. One’s an extravagant pimp played by Ethan Hawke, who may have been drunk in a nearby set so Besson just wrote him into the picture for a five minute sequence in which he’s plenty of fun but exits in a really bad way. The second was a shapeshifter played by Rihanna, and I have to confess her scenes almost made me want to forgive the whole film. Almost. She performs this ridiculously well-done pole-dancing scene while jumping in and out of a half dozen outfits that look sexy without feeling exploitative. And Rihanna doesn’t do half bad with her lines, I dare say she acts circles around the two leads, so her abrupt exit from the film was just torture for me. Mostly because I had to go back to Mr. and Mrs. Suck.
And while your leads were underdeveloped, at least the production team was anything but. This film is simply put “fucking gorgeous.” Seriously, it’d be a crime if this team wasn’t nominated Best Production Design at the Oscars, because they knocked it right out of the park. Featuring drop-dead beautiful visuals, inventive creature designs, and a plethora of imaginative environments, it becomes clear to me that Besson and his crew were more attracted to the look of the comic series this film was based off of rather than the actual story. And you can almost see the connections between the aesthetic of this film and The Fifth Element as one of the artists of the French comic series, Valerian and Laureline, worked on Besson’s magnum opus.
The visuals are so strong for me that I wouldn’t mind playing this film in the background of a party while I have some music cranked up. It’s a visual splendor to behold, but the dialogue, story, and most of the acting is just plain terrible. There was a germ of an idea for a really clever space opera here that I could recognize, but Besson allowed the kid in him to get the better of his judgment and he unleashed a purely chaotic mess of a film. And while some Besson fans may recall similar criticisms were lobbied at The Fifth Element before it’s ascent to nostalgic classic, I don’t see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets pulling off a similar appreciation in the future. This particular film has no over-the-top Ruby Rhod, spectacular outfits worn by Gary Oldman or Milla Jovovich, or even a highly imaginative sense of fun. It just has pretty visuals and nothing else going for it.
Granted it’s considerably more coherent than the last Transformers film, and more aesthetically pleasing to the eye as well. For that, I’ll give this a solid…