It’s easy to be fooled into thinking you’re watching a really great go-for-broke space opera at the start of Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. There’s a magic and charm about the first 20 minutes, which features a prologue about the origins of Alpha, said City of a Thousand Planets, set to Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” and through its pure exposition, it’s done wonderfully, endowed with a sense of fun and wonder. The next bit, a prologue on the surface of a planet comprised entirely of beachfront real-estate, is some of the best filmmaking that Besson has ever done, which combines his gifts for visual storytelling with a unique and interesting landscape, with echoes of Melies and his own flair echoing throughout.
It’s right about then that you wonder, “Wait, could he have done it? Could he have finally made something as good as The Fifth Element?” And then that planet’s destroyed, Dane Dehaan sits up and growls something, and Cara Delevigne stumbles over her first line of dialogue. That’s when it hits you: No, he hasn’t.
It’s late Besson at its prettiest, I guess. Valerian wants to live and die on the strengths of its “impressive” visuals alone, but its asshole protagonists and bloated, stupid script keep it from being anything resembling fun.
And when I say “asshole protagonists,” I mean it. There’s never a compelling reason for why we should be rooting for space cops Valerian (Dehaan) and Laureline (Delevigne) to succeed on their mission to, uh, save Alpha? Help the species that Valerian sees in the vision that the prologue is depicting? Well, we definitely should be rooting for them to screw, at least, according to how Besson’s structured his bloated plot, but their barbs come off as annoyance rather than playful banter. Dehaan and Delevigne’s romance lacks the basic elements of a kid’s chemistry set. There aren’t any sparks between the two of them, nor is there even an eruption between the two of them on the level of your average vinegar and baking soda volcano (which can be hot, thanks), and I’m straining to think of a lead couple more miscast in a recent blockbuster.
Delevigne is decidedly Not Good, but she’s got enough fun moments to come off alright here, though it’s a bit frustrating how she’s perpetually a damsel in distress for Dehaan to rescue. Dehaan’s truly great when he wants to be, but he’s not Harrison Ford nor the Pepe Le Pew type that the film sets him up to be, and it might have helped if his character was more consistently written. His motivations are all over the place, to the point where a late-film assertion that he’s “a soldier” directly contradicts his actions in the scene that took place not 30 seconds before.
The other characters are fine, I guess. Clive Owen is so callous and weird that they probably should have just named his character “Snidely Whiplash” and given him a cartoonish mustache. Ethan Hawke gets to ham it up as an intergalactic pimp, which is fun for a few minutes before it gets annoying. Herbie Hancock is Valerian and Laureline’s commander, which others have found significantly funnier than me, so your milage may vary depending on how much you like Headhunters. I mean, it’s fun stunt casting, but he doesn’t do anything! He says maybe eight lines over a video screen, and his presence is just sort of meant to act as a psychedelic stamp of approval or some bullshit. Rutger Hauer is in the prologue, which is funny, because he’s credited in the opening montage for what might have been a minute of screentime. The film’s best asset is Rihanna, here playing a shapeshifting intergalactic stripper, who’s introduced with a fabulous musical number that basically acts as a visual rolodex of Besson’s fetishes but reveals herself to be both funny and endearing for the short while that she’s in the picture. She’s the squid stripper with the heart of gold, y’all.
If you like pointless CGI environments and the power suits from G.I. Joe: the Rise of Cobra, you’re probably going to love the action sequences in Valerian, as much of the film consists of our protagonist either running or flying through interesting places that we’ll glimpse for a second before they just fuck off to being background noise in the next “visually stunning” masterpiece that some third-rate hack like Joseph Kosinski tries to pass off as brilliance. Not all of them are boring — there’s a fun chase sequence set in two dimensions (so that tourists can shop there without getting robbed) but it’s all undermined by the same sort of kill-all-the-guys shit that people only whine about when it’s convenient, with an extra layer of ick in how gleefully Valerian takes to his task. There are fantastic effects that we glimpse throughout the film — the alien creatures are impeccably designed and wonderfully emotive, and Alpha itself is gorgeous — but they’re mostly the kind of practical effect that Besson perfected 20 years ago. And the film’s CGI blows its wad with that brilliant opening and the rest of the movie can’t possibly live up to those visuals. It’s honestly a damn shame, and I kept waiting for that moment when the green screen would stop and we’d get that weird and tactile feeling that The Fifth Element had in spades.
The fact that Valerian can’t ever seem to get its ducks in a row with regards to its story and its main characters undercuts a decently anti-colonial message at its heart, one that could have perhaps innovated if not for Besson’s slavish dedication to the ’60s comics, with their shagginess and retrograde sexual politics (this may be why the relationship between Valerian and Laureline is too strained; it’s hard to pull off that kind of rapport even with good actors). But here it’s stuck somewhere between Avatar and a hard place, and it’s not even silly enough to let its characters fuck the ground like in that disaster.
Besson’s now almost 20 years away from his last truly solid work, and his skills as a producer aren’t in any doubt — the Taken series, referenced here by a shitty one-off gag involving John Goodman, were a tremendous success, and occasionally you’ll find him in the credits of something truly surprising — but a weird coldness has hit upon his heart, and even though this comes from a place of true, honest-to-god love, it’s about as real as the polygons that fill every frame. Beautiful, but empty.
Featured ‘Valerian’ photo by Lou Faulon/TF1 Films Production. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.