The bigger they are, the harder they fall. French film director Luc Besson’s sci-fi spectacle Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is his most expensive, and riskiest production yet. With a bewildering deep mythology, and problematic casting eclipsed by garish special effects, this French comic adaptation faces a difficult road winning the property many new fans at the American box office.
Luc Besson is one of France’s most commercially successful filmmakers. He has reaped both critical and mainstream success with Natalie Portman’s debut in Léon: The Professional, as well as the Bruce Willis-led sci-fi The Fifth Element. His foray into animation Arthur and the Invisibles flopped in the U.S., however, but Scarlett Johansson’s 2014 star vehicle Lucy ushered Besson’s return to American profitability.
Besson drew significant inspiration from the French comic series Valérian and Laureline while crafting The Fifth Element. Due to the heavy emphasis of other-worldly creatures, he thought a film adaptation of Valérian impossible, until he witnessed James Cameron’s Avatar. With the help of CGI, he has brought his dream project to life, but not without cost. At 180 million, Valerian is by far the most expensive French film production of all time.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets stars Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline, special agents working as partners for the human police forces. The film opens by portraying how humans built Alpha, a space station that gradually migrated from earth as the planet fell into decay. Over the years, more and more alien species joined and appended to the station to form the largest and most diverse colony of races in the universe.
Valerian experiences visions of an alien princess on a foreign planet who perished during its destruction. Meanwhile, he joins Laureline in a secret mission transporting a “converter,” an exceedingly rare, highly-sought after little creature to the human commander. Once they return to Alpha, they find the station under the threat of invasion by an unknown alien species. The rest of the plot commences as the agents begin to understand how these developments are related.
As the story unfolds, the film is a constant pinball game between clumsy action sequences and painstaking attempts to impress with poorly realized, bizarre alien creatures. Valérian and Laureline has been cited as an influence on Star Wars, but the special effects engineers on this film clearly draw more from the latter. Planet Mül, the planet Valerian sees in visions, is a beautifully rendered paradise, but the rest of the visuals in the film are distasteful and obnoxious.
Besson’s greatest shortcoming with this feature is his failure to smoothly immerse viewers into Valérian’s immensely complex and rich universe. Those unfamiliar with the comic face a steep learning curve as they struggle to wade through an onslaught of grotesque extra-terrestrial beings and technological devices that leave very little to the impossible. Besson, who also wrote the script, sweats to reign in a chaotic barrage of settings and characters to no avail.
While Dane DeHaan is typically superb in dramatic roles, he is severely miscast as Major Valerian. He puts in a great effort, but he simply doesn’t fit as a character conceived as a cocky ladies’ man. Cara Delevingne on the other hand, is terrific at delivering Laureline’s icy sarcasm. The two agents engage in playful banter throughout the film, and though the actors make for a somewhat awkward pairing, these scenes constitute Valerian’s most entertaining material.
The movie’s many supporting players include John Goodman in a perfectly cast voice role, a poorly cast Clive Owen as a delinquent military commander, and Ethan Hawke in a very offbeat cameo. Rihanna plays a dancing, acting, shapeshifting alien named Bubble. The creature is easily the most memorable special effect in the film, and the role is far superior to Rihanna’s past film appearances.
Besson has been pegged as a driving force behind “cinéma du look,” a specific visual style noted for favoring style over substance. While Valerian doesn’t necessarily meet the criteria to be included as part of this movement, it certainly represents Besson’s penchant for compromising narrative cohesion for spectacle. Though the desperation to amaze is occasionally diverting, overall, Valerian represents little more than a colossal waste of money.