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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Luc Besson has been awful lately. Leaving aside his prolific work as a producer, his most recent directorial efforts have yielded the single most insultingly stupid sequence in cinema history in The Family (a film that’s otherwise perfectly disposable), and the ambitious load of incomprehensible bullshit called Lucy. Yet Luc Besson still enjoys a solid reputation as a filmmaker, due in no small part to The Fifth Element. In 1997. Yes, that’s how far back we have to go.

So here we are at last with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, an adaptation of a landmark comic series out of France that ran from 1967 clear up to 2010. This is a comic series so prominent that it was one of the numerous inspirations pulled by George Lucas in the 1970s. The comics’ influence on Besson can hardly be overstated — “Valerian” co-creator Jean-Claude Mézières was hired to help the production design on Fifth Element.

To be frank, Besson has been leaning so hard on his twenty-year-old greatest hit, I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if he had come out with a sequel or remade it outright. Instead, we get the best of both approaches: A completely new cinematic franchise made with 21st century technological wizardry by the same visionary genius and subpar storyteller who brought us The Fifth Element.

I won’t even bother going into the plot for Valerian. All at once, it’s predictable and incomprehensible, simple and convoluted, bogged down with deus ex machinas and exposition dumps. It bears every hallmark of a plot that was scrabbled together with no fucks given, a flimsy through-line developed for the sole purpose of taking us through all the alien cultures and futuristic tech happening in the background. But before we get to that, let’s talk about the characters for a bit.

Wikipedia tells me that in the source comic, Valerian was a direct response to the square-jawed boy scout of superhero comics in the USA. He was a macho and brainless parody of himself; well-intentioned and loyal to a fault, yet bull-headed and chauvinistic. Conversely, his partner Laureline was ironically the true hero of the series; using her brains, muscle, and manipulation through sex appeal to get all the actual work done. In the movie, the characters are quite similar… but only as written.

Casting Dane DeHaan to play Valerian makes about as much sense as casting Martin Freeman to play James Bond: It’s not that they’re bad actors — far from it — just totally wrong for the parts. Don’t get me wrong, I love DeHaan and I think he’s got fantastic chops, but “preening, conceited alpha male” is so far out of his range it’s not even funny. Throw in non-existent chemistry opposite his female partner, and our namesake hero is DOA.

By contrast, Cara Delevingne has the charisma to fit the character. She has more than enough strength, sex appeal, and confidence to sell herself as a worthy heroine who can match her partner blow for blow. Entertaining as it is to see Delevingne acquit herself so well here, it’s kind of embarrassing to see DeHaan get acted off the screen against her. But not nearly as embarrassing as watching Laureline get caught in some ridiculous “damsel in distress” ploy just so Valerian can get a turn to actually do something.

Alas, the rest of the cast is nowhere near as strong. Clive Owen gets a few brief minutes to chew up the scenery while Sam Spruell gets a whole plotline to fade into the background. John Goodman is in there, but he’s buried under so much CGI and voice modulation he might as well not be. The female cast members fare a lot better, but that comes with some heavy caveats. The most noteworthy example is Rihanna, here playing a shapeshifter who spends most of her time as a CGI creation. As such, Rihanna herself doesn’t have to do much except dance around for a bit and put in some voice work — stuff she could do in her sleep. The other noteworthy supporting female is Elizabeth Debicki, utterly wasted in a voice-over role while someone else does all the mo-cap work.

Then we have the cameos. I was very pleasantly surprised to see Rutger Hauer and Ethan Hawke show up for a few memorable speaking cameos. Far less impressive was motherfucking Herbie Hancock, here shamefully wasted as a talking head. Last but not least is the opening credits sequence, featuring a boatload of cameos from Louis Letterier, Olivier Megaton, and other prominent French directors.

Oh, yeah. That opening credits sequence.

The filmmakers are very up front in telling the audience what they want this movie to be. The first five minutes are a brilliant masterpiece of visual storytelling, beautifully portraying the early history of Alpha — the eponymous City of a Thousand Planets. In a sequence straight out of Gene Roddenberry’s wildest dreams, the credits sequence perfectly conveys cooperation across all sociopolitical barriers and a commitment to scientific achievement, brought together to create something glorious and exquisite.

(Side note: Apparently, the city of the source material was called “Galaxity”. I’m honestly glad this was changed in adaptation because are you fucking kidding me?)

The rest of the movie is more of the same visual splendor, sending us along at a breakneck pace through all sorts of fascinating alien cultures and concepts that would be worth a franchise unto themselves. For better and for worse.

A key example is the Big Market, a gigantic mall comprised of over a million different shops. It’s a place that can only be accessed by a kind of interdimensional virtual reality, partly due to loss prevention and partly because there’s no way to physically navigate a place so huge. The methods and mechanics of this place would take a whole separate movie to unpack, but it only gets an action sequence in the first act. So we have to rush through the whole thing, taking the characters at their word that all of this insanity somehow makes sense. But damned if it isn’t an insanely creative concept that looks gorgeous.

A far more transparent example (so to speak) is the Cortex Jellyfish. It is literally a giant jellyfish that gives prescient visions to whomever puts it on their head. This is clearly some gibberish that the filmmakers invented to keep the plot moving, and there’s no hint of pretense otherwise.

What it comes down to is this: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is pure brainless spectacle. It’s a load of CGI nonsense made for the pure and simple purpose of looking pretty and giving us some decent action scenes. That said, I’ve always been willing to forgive empty CGI spectacle if it gives me something I could never find anywhere else, and this movie totally fits that bill. A ton of ambition and effort went into crafting this film, and I’ll take that over a movie with the opposite problem any day.

The cast is weak, but it’s not like Besson was ever an actor’s director, let’s be honest. And the plot suffers greatly for how stripped-down it has to be if we’re going to cover so much ground and go through so many different alien cultures in so little time. Yet the visuals are so utterly gorgeous and bursting with creativity that I simply have to give it a recommendation. With heavy, heavy caveats.

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