Film review | Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Another loopy tribute

Valerian is strange and beautiful and exciting, but its flaws are reason enough for the non-aficionados to remain non-enthused • 3/5

The trouble with shopping: following a visit to an interdimensional marketplace Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) find themselves in a spot of trouble en route to the City of a Thousand Planets
The trouble with shopping: following a visit to an interdimensional marketplace Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) find themselves in a spot of trouble en route to the City of a Thousand Planets

By Marco Attard

Back in 1997 the world saw the release of The Fifth Element, a loopy tribute to the science fiction comics of director Luc Besson’s youth. It opened to much critical derision before eventual, arguably much deserved, cult favourite status. Now, twenty years later, Besson returns to the genre with the grandly named Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, another loopy tribute to the comics of, well, the director’s youth. 

For the curious in the audience (and who isn’t?) Valerian is the cinematic adaptation of Valérian and Laureline, a series of comic books (or bandes dessinées, as per the French) from author Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières whose combination of low-brow pulp adventure, grungy, lived-in worlds and weird aliens might remind of Star Wars even if it predates it by a full decade, having first appeared in the magazine Pilote in 1967. The comics are perhaps obscure outside of mainland Europe, but anyone who’s seen The Fifth Element will be familiar with Mézières - after all he was responsible for that film’s look, together with the late, great Jean Giraud (aka Moebius). 

And now, to Valerian the movie. As one might expect from both the aforementioned source material and the director in question, this is a film absolutely popping with life and colour. The direction is lively and exciting, with a camera almost too restless to take the audience from one imaginative locale to the other, be it a market set in an alternate reality or the various sectors making a massive space station housing hundreds of alien races from across the universe. And just as well, since the opposite applies when it comes to the plotting. Simultaneously slight and needlessly busy - making it, ultimately, true to the nature of the source comics - it involves the inhabitants of the planet Mül, a race of supermodel-esque androgynes who want to rebuild their beachy home world after it was blown up during a space battle. To do so they need a “Mül Converter,” an adorable shrew-like creature capable of replicating anything it ingests. However, following an adventure involving a corpulent crime lord and hopping between two separate planes of reality (a stunning sequence that makes the film worth watching in 3D) the converter ends up in the possession of Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), a pair of agents working for what amounts to the military wing of the government running Alpha, the titular City of a Thousand Planets. The Mül attack the Alpha security council, Valerian and Laureline set off on the chase, action set pieces ensue across environments ranging from typical space station interiors to Blade Runner-style urban locales, submerged sectors housing massive creatures and what appears to be a red-light district planted right next to a series of caves housing a xenophobic tribal society. There is a density and imagination of visuals that hasn’t been since the George Lucas-directed Star Wars prequels, and taken as such Valerian is an antidote to the overly conservative franchise tentpoles of recent years including, well, the two post-Lucas Star Wars films of recent years. 

It all sounds like good fun, but Valerian is marred by one major flaw - Besson’s penchant for casting elfin youths as his leads. One might assume model turned actress Cara Delevigne would be the film’s weakest link but that is not actually the case, even if this possessor of the strongest eyebrow game in the galaxy is, ultimately, rather wooden. Instead, it’s Dane DeHaan who absolutely fails to convince, with a dreadful performance turning what is supposed to be a roguish and charming space hero into something of a petulant manchild. And while the comics were famous for having a couple of protagonists in a flirty will-they-won’t-they relationship, their cinematic equivalent is absolutely bereft of chemistry, and appear to near hate each other at points. Meanwhile the supporting cast fails to brighten proceedings, as Clive Owen sleepwalks his way through his role as military Commander Arün Filitt, Rihanna is oddly muted as shapeshifting alien performer Bubbles and Ethan Hawke makes a blink or you miss it cameo as what the credits tell is “Jolly the Pimp.”

While The Fifth Element remains the main point of reference, Valerian reminds a great deal of Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowski siblings’ 2015 soap opera featuring a similar combination of dazzling visuals, awful acting and malnourished scripting. And like Jupiter Ascending, it is probably set to gather a minor cult among the fans of oddball science fiction cinema. For the likes of us, Valerian is strange and beautiful and exciting, but its flaws are reason enough for the non-aficionados to remain non-enthused. Which is a shame, really.

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