Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and all the images you see in this review are owned by STX Entertainment and EuropaCorp
Directed by Luc Besson
As much as I would like a new Sci-Fi franchise to bring a bit of variety and challenge the Disney Monolith, I just couldn’t see this movie as anything more than a REALLY expensive mistake. Maybe that’s more of a commentary on the current state of Blockbuster Cinema than an observation of the movie itself (though the ho-hum trailers certainly didn’t help), but a movie THIS expensive looking based around a series of graphic novels that (as far as I can tell) didn’t end up having THAT much reach outside of its native France looked like the kind of disaster that can only be made by people REALLY passionate about what they’re doing. Now sometimes China can pick up the slack like it did with Pacific Rim which was a GOOD movie, but then other times not even they can save a doomed production like John Carter. Still, that’s all secondary when talking about whether a movie is good or not, and while the trailers didn’t really impressive me, there were certainly glimpses of something that could be great if the filmmaker knew how to take advantage of it. Does this movie manage to be a science fiction classic despite its box office prospects, or was everyone asleep at the wheel while Luc Besson spent an untold fortune bringing this comic book to life? Let’s find out!!
Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne) are two space agents working for the Human government who are basically paid to be bad asses across the galaxy and supposedly have the ability to travel through time which I guess we’ll have to wait to see in the sequel. Anyway, Valerian is having dreams about some lost civilization whose planet was destroyed but he has no idea if these are premonitions of the future or something that happened long ago. Either way, his latest mission with Laureline JUST SO HAPPENS to converge with these mysterious dreams as there are a band of terrorists of sorts from an unknown race (I BET VALERIAN KNOWS WHO THEY ARE!) that are trying to get their hands on a rare MacGuffin Creature that Laureline is protecting as well as the current military leader of the Human government General Arün Filitt (Clive Owen). They manage to get the latter, but the former is still safely tucked away and both Valerian and Laureline, despite the protestations of their new commanding officer (Sam Spruell) try to chase them down. Valerian gets lost in the chase as do the terrorists, and so Laureline has to find him and then the both of them can these aliens who kidnapped the general… unless of course shenanigans with other aliens happen along the way, but that could NEVER happen in the city of a thousand planets, right!? Will Valerian and Laureline stop this new threat before it’s too late!? What is their ultimate goal once they have both the general and the MacGuffin Creature? Will Valerian be the next ACTION STAR to dominate the silver screen!? Well… probably not, but can he and Laureline STILL save the City of a Thousand Planets!?
I may not be the biggest fan of Luc Besson’s work, but god damn did he pull out all he stops for this one which is easily one of my favorite films of the year so far and makes me DOUBLY pissed at how poorly the trailers seemed to convey this! There’s just something so delightfully retro and overwhelmingly joyous about the whole thing which seems to have been missing from a lot of modern science fiction that would rather focus on being big and pretentious rather than light and fun. Even movies that I absolutely adore like The Force Awakens and Jupiter Ascending are guilty of this to a certain extent where the weight of everything going on can overwhelm the characters and their humanity (even for non-human characters) which can be funny, awkward, and extremely endearing. This movie isn’t quite FREE from those problems either as there are parts where the movie gets a bit too big for its britches, but I can’t think of a more simple and wonderfully silly space adventure that was this good since… well Luc Besson did it like twenty years ago.
What’s amazing about this movie is just how little it resembles modern blockbusters, sci-fi or otherwise, and feels almost like a rejection of that type of film in favor of something much more buoyant which makes sense considering that nostalgia is written all over this thing; from the director trying to relive his nineties glory days to the story itself which comes from a French sci-fi series that seems to have a rather important spot in French movie’s biggest problems can be traced back to its insistence on being like older films and it’s one of the main reasons why I still give Jupiter Ascending (a VERY modern film) an edge over this one. My point is more that something feels like it was lost along the way, and that even the movies that are supposed to swing more on the fun loving side of excess (Fate of the Furious, Star Trek Beyond, etc) still fall short in terms of carefree swashbuckling fun that this film excels at. Hell, the first two opening scenes are absolutely jaw dropping in terms of the ideas it puts forth and the visual design that’s rich with vibrant colors and fascinating creatures. The movie is much smaller in scope which helps a lot, and the scope of destruction isn’t nearly as important as the philosophical and political implications (the movie even kind of winks at that by having the most CG heavy boom-tastic moment be the point of greatest stupidity and avarice for the villain) which sounds pretentious as shit, but the moral mostly comes down to GIVE PEACE A CHANCE, so it’s not like we’re going down the Batman v Superman route of saying way too much about absolutely nothing. It’s just… simple and fun. What’s wrong with that!?
Okay, so here’s what’s wrong with that. As much as I love the retro throwback style of everything from the visual designs to the way it’s written, it does come with a certain amount of baggage that keeps me fully endorsing this movie and will certainly keep some people away from seeing it altogether. We’ll first talk about the structure which is a bit wonky and can’t manage to stay focused on the clear objective that we’re all striving for; opting to go on detours for mostly humorous results. It reminds me a lot of the Rush Hour movies which are STILL fun to watch, but in them you’d get to a part where the characters are going VERY far out of their way to move the plot along. There bar fight in the first one, a massage parlor in the second, and probably most relevant to this discussion, the third film had that burlesque show which is more or less ripped off whole cloth here. Hell, if we’re gonna bring up Chris Tucker, pretty much everything with him in The Fifth Element was a distraction from the actual plot! It’s not that the scenes aren’t fun in their own isolated moments, but there’s certainly too many and it removes any tension the plot has when we can spend twenty minutes fishing for a jellyfish or crashing a feast.
Now that’s not a HUGE problem as the movie never slows down enough to be boring and it’s not something that has ever REALLY gone away in modern movies. The bigger problem, which still pops up in modern movies but not is FAR less tolerated, is how the film treats the gender dynamic between its central characters. The original books were written back in the sixties, and like a lot of properties that were big at the time (*cough* James Bond *cough*) there’s some problematic elements in regards to how to how our MASCULINE MANLY HERO is portrayed and how the women around him are treated. Now to be fair, I wouldn’t exactly call Dane DeHaan the stereotypical rugged and suave ladies’ man that you’d get for this kind of role, but he’s still playing the part and he even has a creepy list of his sexual conquests, ala Don Juan and those sad PUA mother fuckers. He’s never really called to answer for any of his bullshit throughout the movie despite Laureline constantly pulling his ass out of trouble or telling him when he’s screwed up and because of this the movie gets dangerously close to framing her as a nag to bounce off of his boisterous personality. Speaking of Laureline, Cara Delevingne is a real trooper in this and does a great job with the role she’s given… but what she’s given to do in the story feels really dated. A lot of cleaning up Valerian’s messes, a lot of being caught off guard by the men around her, and they even manage to throw in a SAVE THE PRINCESS subplot for her in the second act which comes out of nowhere and is the most tertiary thing to the plot imaginable; not to mention that Valerian is CONSTANTLY trying to convince her to marry him despite her saying to buzz off every time. They even have a disposable Bond Girl in here in in the form of Bubble played (quite well) by Rihanna. I won’t spoil exactly what happens to her, but it feels like such a waste and even skirts the line on some really toxic stereotypes about women (or female presenting individuals) in her profession. All of this feels kind of inexplicable to boot considering how well gender is handled in other areas (there’s a race of elf like aliens who have male and female genders but are all played by women) and how disconnected a lot of these moments are from the core plot which means they could have been fixed VERY easily.
Despite its faults which will no doubt (and understandably) turn off some audience members, I still absolutely recommend you go out and see this. Sure it’s a little all over the place which can make the two hour run time feel a bit excessive, but there’s just not enough movies out there that are straight up FUN to watch and don’t take themselves too seriously. Damen Lindelof whose writing credits include Lost, Prometheus, and Star Trek Into Darkness, once said in regards to writing blockbusters (paraphrasing) that once you spend a hundred million dollars, you can’t help but write a story about saving the world which limits the ideas that you have to work with. While I don’t fully agree with that sentiment the core of his argument, that money and resources can be just as much of a restraint as it is an asset, rings true when it comes to movies like this, and it’s refreshing to see one that in some ways manages to break the rules. Will it pay off? I’m gonna guess it won’t, though mostly because next to no one in the US knows what the hell this even is, but the box office is really a secondary concern when we get a great movie out of it. Then again, I DO want to see a sequel… Like I said, GO OUT AND SEE IT!!