If you’ve been reading our essays on The Fifth Element this week, you’ve probably noticed that most of us were pretty excited about seeing Luc Besson’s latest film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. In my Opening Statement I noted that I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, similar to my first experience with The Fifth Element. Perhaps it is the small contrarian in me, though, that I expected to have a lot of fun with it despite what could be an absolute trainwreck. In the end, it is more bad than good, but like its predecessor there is a lot to love.
This is where I’m going to try and describe the plot [this is no easy task]. Valerian and Laureline are government officers who become wrapped up in a mysterious conspiracy. The title city, Alpha, is a space station that continued to attract alien races from across the universe, expanding to the size of millions. The film's opening scene, by the way, a montage of different aliens arriving at Alpha over the years, is a fantastic short film in itself. In the center of this amazing metropolis grew a dead zone, shut off from human populations—when the defense ministry’s Commander [played by Clive Owen—where’s he been?] is kidnapped and taken there, Valerian and Laureline head out on a rescue mission. But, of course, things aren’t what they seem.
That’s the bare-bones of what transpires over Valerian but it is definitely much more complicated than that. Most of the specifics fly out of the screen and simply don’t register—which is strange because there is so much exposition. The introduction of our two heroes, for example, is a complete jumble. A lot of time is spent with the characters telling us exactly who they are and the dynamic between them. Valerian is a ladies man, Laureline resists his charms, but we’re supposed to be interested in them getting together [as becomes clear with a long plot thread where Valerian vows to clean up his irresponsible life and marry his partner].
They are quickly shot into the film’s first big sci-fi action sequence, wherein Valerian simultaneously exists between two dimensions—a desert landscape in his real space and a gigantic market tourist trap in the other. He’s tasked with intercepting some sort of illegal dealing in the alternate dimension. It is an impressive and inventive set piece but I honestly have no idea at all how it works. There is no real attempt to explain the physics and when things go wrong the narrative has to bend backwards to make sure the threat has any sense of danger. Different characters seem to be able to interact with the space under different rules. When you think about the scene at all it quickly becomes gobbledegook.
Like The Fifth Element, the visual landscape of the film and the supreme special effects are enough to go along with the ride. Unfortunately, Valerian suffers much more in its characters, especially and most importantly with its lead. Valerian seems to be a sarcastic, wisecracking rapscallion but I can’t really know for sure because star Dane DeHaan delivers every line so seriously that I’m not sure he knows what a joke is. I’ve like DeHaan in other films—his early work in Chronicle and The Place Beyond the Pines definitely set him up as an actor to watch. Since, he simply hasn’t been able to escape the angsty teen roles and graduate to full-on adult leads this year in Valerian and A Cure for Wellness. For Valerian, he tries to go super cool when the character seems to just be a big goof, the kind of role pretty much reserved for Chris Evans or Chris Pratt these days. On one hand I’m glad Valerian didn’t go for one of those hunkier guys and took a risk on DeHaan, but it just doesn’t work here.
That said, many of his co-stars seem to be having much more fun with the material. In contrast, Cara Delevingne comes off like a star. She’s isn’t in the same stratosphere as Milla Jovovich, but she admirably fulfills both the action and comedy elements of the film. Near the midpoint of the film, Rihanna shows up as a shape-shifting space prostitute and gives the film a little bit of life and heart just as it needs it. The fully CGI characters in the film aren’t ever confused for real flesh-and-blood though they are incredibly impressive, on the same level as the Na’vi in Avatar.
There is a lot of imagination in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and the ideas are there; the worlds that it builds are extraordinary. If you are a fan of The Fifth Element you’ll find some things to love in Valerian. It is possibly even more ambitious, though that leads to some of its plotting problems. The design of the film is all there—if you were worried about Bresson getting too much CGI to play with, everything turns out beautifully. The Fifth Element’s best charms between its characters are nowhere to be found here. Whatever you think of Bruce Willis, Korben Dallas is a much easier lead to follow along with than Valerian and there isn’t anything close to as epically realized or original as Leeloo.