In the future Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are special government agents trying to maintain a delicate peace between the universe’s occupants. When a growing, impenetrable mass starts expanding at the heart of Alpha – the city of a thousand planets – they must quickly intervene before it consumes all life around it.
‘Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets’ is director Luc Besson’s dream project. Even from his early teenage years, this is the film he always wanted to make – and in keeping with his many other films (‘Subway’, ‘Nikita’, ‘Le Grand Bleu’, ‘The Fifth Element’ and ‘Lucy’ amongst others) ‘love again triumphs over all’. You see, for all of his high-octane action movies and the ‘le cinema du look’ millstone around his neck, Besson has always been a ‘romantic’. More often that not, his movies are about those overturning the evil plans of others – together with a love story at its centre. And in this respect ‘Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets’ is perfectly in keeping with the rest of his oeuvre.
...looks amazing and is unquestioningly a big screen event.
Fortuitously in the intervening years since his first film, special effects have now become so advanced that creating the multiverse needed for Valerian, with its many rich and diverse alien creatures is now a possibility. If you’ve seen the trailer or the posters for this movie, there’s no denying the visual impact and wow factor of the world that Besson has created for this film. Utilising both 3D and an army of highly talented animators, ‘Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets’ looks amazing and is unquestioningly a big screen event. However like this year’s ‘Ghost In The Shell’ live-action remake, this densely-realised world has come at a cost.
Where some movie fans were in turn, mystified, bemused and delighted by Besson’s previous space opera ’The Fifth Element’, ‘Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets’ has little of the wit or panache that made that film such a cult classic. Was ‘The Fifth Element’ camp? -Yes. Was it tongue-in-its-cheek? -Without question. Does ‘Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets’ try and do the same thing? -Kind of…
You see, where Bruce Willis’s jaded Korben Dallas and Milla Jojovich’s plain-bonkers Leeloo made for such an endearing star-crossed couple, Dane DeHaan’s Valerian and Cara Delevingne’s Laureline’s fail to ignite. With exposition-heavy dialogue and a one-sided romance, there’s seemingly no time in the future for fun one-liners and throw-away gags. When this film does calm down in the second act, it is the surprise arrival of a big-name cameo that actually brings some badly-needed warmth to all the techno-banter.
With the many notable performances that made ‘The Fifth Element’ so quotable (Gary Oldman, Ian Holm and others), Eric Serra, Besson’s long-standing composer is also missing this time. Instead of his multi-faceted musical inflections, ‘Valerian’ has a surprisingly orchestral score which does not give Alpha’s alien races the sonic identities that so set them so apart in ‘The Fifth Element’.
In the end, with all of its creatures and out-of-this-world special effects ‘Valerian’ certainly sets a new landmark in CGI and performance capture. However for all of its visible density and polish, this ornateness cannot shroud the story’s weakness or characters’ lack of spontaneity. Where ‘The Fifth Element’ was not dramatic enough for some or comedic enough for others, ‘Valerian’s’ speeches are so mired in exposition that Besson’s central romance now feels too contrived to be affecting – which is a shame given all the on-screen effort.
Looking back, if you could embrace Besson’s first space opera’s chaotic style there were endearing characters with memorable quips that would live long in your memory. Now with a much larger budget to play with, the effects have taken centre stage and the mischief and mayhem that made ‘The Fifth Element’ so endearing, has been lost in a story that only serves as a thread between set pieces.
For the journey travelled and the many other fine films he has made, ‘Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets’ isn’t a fair reflection of Luc Besson. Whilst it is a beautiful love-letter to the comics that put him on this path, ‘Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets’ is light years away from the personality that first marked out his earlier work.1