The opening scene to Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is some of the best visual storytelling with one of the best uses of a David Bowie song that I’ve seen in a good long while. A series of moments of how a U.S. space station gradually becomes an international space station, which then evolves into an intergalactic hub for millions of species. It’s gorgeous and heartwarming in its optimism and its belief in us as a species and our ability to overcome our differences and achieve greatness. It’s all so perfect in every aspect it’s a shame it starts to fall apart when our characters start talking.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets contains the best visual and soul gaping storytelling of the year so far, but also the worst hamfisted, forced, and bizarrely unimaginative bit of character exposition as well. Major Valerian (Dan DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevigne) relax on a holographic beach and trade stilted banter. This includes Lauraline asking the ship’s computer to show the list of Valerian’s ‘conquests’. The wall is then covered with random pictures of women. It made me cringe.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is at once a hot mess story wise while also being an orgiastic visual delight. There is a breathless energy we don’t see often in big budget movies. Oh sure, many box office juggernauts have hyperkinetic editing, and whip pans. But that’s just them trying to make you feel like there’s energy. With Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets the energy is organic to the camera movements and the travelogue style of the story.
To try and tell you the story seems like an exercise in novelization. To tell you one thing happens, I would have to tell you why nine other things happen. In a nutshell Agents Valerian and Laureline are called to Alpha to help investigate a series of strange occurrences. They meet Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) and go from protecting him to hunting him down and holding him prisoner. Along the way we meet a string of characters who try and help, eat, kill, or steal from our heroes.
All of it is eye poppingly gorgeous and imaginative. Besson has adapted the long running series of French graphic novels Valerian and Laureline by Jean-Claude Mezieres and Pierre Christin. (When I say long running keep in mind it started in the late sixties.) The characters of Valerian and Laureline are obvious inspirations for George Lucas’s Han Solo and Princess Leia. The problems with this are two fold: 1.) The way the relationship is written is horribly outdated and disgustingly childish, and 2.) Dane DeHaan is sorely miscast as Valerian.
When I say the flirtatious relationship is outdated and immature I’m referring to the earlier scene. Valerian tries in vain to get Laureline to be another ‘conquest’. Even though she repeatedly flat out tells him ‘No.’ So Valerian then decides to go big and proposes marriage. This entire subplot is just so awful.
At one point Valerian promises that after the mission, he will take Laureline on a honeymoon. She then informs him that a honeymoon happens ‘after’ a wedding. Valerian seems shocked by the news. Whether or not Valerian was just trying to be cocky by implying that by that time they would be married or he honestly didn’t know is a crap shoot. DeHaan is so deadpan and so deathly serious in his line delivery he seems at odds with the pulpish mayhem that reigns around him. This could have been a deliberate choice by Besson as a way of giving us an eye of the storm in all the chaos. But DeHaan never rises to the task. There’s no spark. It’s all just rote line deliveries and empty smirks.
This is a shame because Cara Delevigne is a bucket and a half of kick-ass fun. She plays the role of Laureline with flair. Her performance isn’t a plateau of a singular emotion. She has peaks and valleys of annoyance, fear, intelligence, confusion, and cockiness. She has a presence and a wit about her that consistently blows DeHaan’s Valerian out of the water.
For all it’s imagination and visual verve Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is depressingly hetero-normative and patriarchal. There is a glamour pod Bauble (Rihanna), a shape shifting prostitute who is more designed for the male gaze than anything else. For all the daring and inventive storytelling techniques Besson has curiously wimped out on the actual story and characterizations.
Which is sad because there are moments where Besson seems to be trying to say something. There is a scene where oppressors are told they must come to terms with their actions and with the oppressed. The idea of acknowledging your history of genocide and not erasing it is a powerful one, but it’s clumsily handled in the last third of the movie. Yet, even through all that it manages to land some key emotional beats. Delevigne’s monologue about how love conquers all is a blatant relic of the sixties, but feels refreshing in these cynical modern times.
There is a lot that doesn’t work in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, but there is a lot that does. This is a deeply flawed cinematic experience that at the very least strives to inspire some kind of emotion in you. There is a confidence in its execution and a boldness even when it missteps.
In today’s climate of assembly line franchise art, it’s nice to see a movie that aspires to get that kind of deep reaction. Maybe that’s why I love it, flaws and all. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a pulpy, madcap, stylistic tour de force of cinema. Love it or hate it, you will not forget it.