Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets may be a “visual beast of a film” but is that enough asks Dara Higgins
In the 60’s and onwards, Jean-Claude Mézières drew Valerian, and his imagination proved to be a staging point for much future sci-fi, notably quoted as an influence for George Lucas when he was putting Star Wars together. Luc Besson has wanted, for many years, to translate the comics onto the big screen, but apparently needed technology to catch up with his ideas. Technology seems to have done its job. There’s no problem with technology here. Besson’s a visual beast, and this is a visual beast of a film.
Following the adventures of Major Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and his sidekick, Laureline (Cara Delevingne), as they protect the universe from evil folk sometime in the 28th century, this is Science Fiction the way it used to be, utterly removed in every way from reality. There’s no inward looking philosophising here. No wondering what’s happened to Earth or why humans are dicks, or the nature of time and space, just a romp through the multifaceted, alien inhabited souks and cities of this striking universe.
The City in question, Alpha, is basically the ISS, 400 years into the future, in deep space, a cosmic Kowloon that kept growing, now home to millions of beings from thousands of galaxies. But there’s something amiss, a radiation source bang smack in the middle of old town, deep within the space city. Anyone who’s been sent to examine the anomaly hasn’t returned. So who you gonna call? Major Valerian, of course. Because he’s all action. He gets shit done. And with Dane Dehaan at the tiller, he looks like a grumpy child, a grounded Di Caprio, a toddler with a hangover.
To get to the bottom of the problem, Valerian and Laureline pass through the many splendorous burbs of Alpha, meeting various species of weird on the way. That’s pretty much it. It plays like it could be the new Spy Kids movie, with the eponymous kids everso slightly older. Spy Tweens. Space Dudes. Fidget Spinner sci-fi. Except for Valerian’s voraciously carnal pursuit of Laureline. He’s not above some inappropriate fondling. Dude, this is a workplace. That’s harassment.
The dialogue lies dead on the page it was printed on. A page made from the pulp of a tree presumably from the same forest in which Cara Delevingne was grown. This is a casting nightmare. They look like a couple of 12 year old twins. The chemistry is non-existent, the bantz is leaden. Dehaan fails as both a romantic lead and an action hero. He’s always come across as a bargain bin Ryan Phillipe, himself a Euro-saver Malkovich, who is, in turn, a rancid ham. There’s a place for Dane’s oeuvre: Snarky, entitled, sarcastic, effete. Great to have in the arsenal, he was fine in A Cure For Wellness for example, but useless here. Throwaway quips land with no trace of self-effacement, sans irony. There’s none of Han Solo’s insouciance, just a bratty lack of charm. Christ, it’s not even Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element.
The relationship between the two leads is facile, it’s uninvolving, it’s rubbish and it lets the entire spectacle down. Rhianna turns up as a shape shifting alien and explains it all to us, in case we weren’t getting it. She gives Valerian the tools he needs to woo the wooden heart of his wooden comrade, because he wasn’t going to work it out himself, being, as he is, a cartoon character.
Acting isn’t important to Besson. Indeed, humans don’t seem to be interesting to him. The film abounds with stilted exposition. He’s obsessed with the look of the thing, and it looks impressive. Worlds are created, hundreds of species bring vibrant colour to the screen. Different aliens with their different skills and societies, foibles and beliefs, they fly by as Valerian and Woody Wooderson unravel this child’s plot while Clive Owen phones in a performance.
Besson claims that seeing James Cameron’s Avatar influenced him to proceed with this film, and like Avatar, there’s a migraine-subtle message hidden within its folds: displaced peoples, refugees, war, the search for belonging in a myriad society. Maybe. Who can tell? Why get bogged down in (possibly non existent) subtext when everything here appears to be obsessed with surface. With look, imagery, technique and rudimentary story telling. Before long even the spectacular visuals of Valerian aren’t enough to stop its two and something hours feeling like a drag.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens in cinemas on Friday 4th August.