Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Mundane and Muddled

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Editor’s Note: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens in wide theatrical release today, July 21, 2017.

You can’t argue with Luc Besson. The man knows how to spend upwards of $200 million – $209 million by one report, $225 million by another – on his latest, soon-to-be-but-maybe-not-debacle, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Besson’s big-screen adaptation of Pierre Christin Jean-Claude Mézières’ long-running, French comic-book series, Valérian and Laureline, that first appeared on Continental newsstands fifty years ago. Valérian and Laureline never quite hit stateside – few moviegoers venturing into multiplexes this weekend will know its sourced to a now ended comic-book series – but that didn’t prove to be an impediment to Besson when he tapped his producing partners for his $200 million+ budget. Apparently, they agreed without reservation (a decision they’ll likely regret Monday morning). But we’re not here to breakdown potential box-office grosses, but Besson’s Euro-Pop meets sci-fi/space-fantasy, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, an orgiastic procession of multi-hued visual invention repeatedly dragged down by an incredibly thin story, even thinner characters (figuratively speaking), and muddled subtext.

In Besson’s universe, whiteness confers purity, of mind, of spirit, and an intellect unmatched by any of the other alien species. That Besson tries to counter backward representations by making the pale species the victims of a semi-intentional, planet-wide genocide deserves some credit presumably, though not much.

In short, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets reflects Besson’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker almost perfectly. The prologue, however, promises something else entirely: A progressive vision of intra-planetary, interplanetary harmony as the International Space Station (ISS) turns into a model United Nations as the ISS’s occupants repeatedly greet representatives of the latest nation to venture into space. Eventually, the ISS’s ever-expanding facilities draw the attention of extraterrestrial visitors. In time, the ISS becomes so large that it becomes a hazard to the Earth’s current residents, in turn necessitating a massive relocation of the entire station to the farthest reaches of outer space. That wonderful, uplifting visualization of peace, love, and harmony, however, doesn’t last. A forward jump in time (400 years to be exact), and the ISS, now dubbed Alpha, has become the home to the titular thousand planets, 800 different species, and a vast knowledge library the envy of bibliophiles across the galaxy.

valerianThe more prosaic, mundane plot kicks into gear when Besson introduces his co-protagonists, Valerian (Dane DeHaan), a twenty-something with the rank of major in an inter-world police force, and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), his second-in-command, partner, and sometime romantic interest. Typical of Besson’s shortcomings as a filmmaker, especially on the writing side, Valerian and Laureline enter Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets as shallow, superficial characters and exit two hours later as the same shallow, superficial characters. A 25th-century Lothario, Valerian takes his cues on masculinity from regressive, sexist 1960s attitudes while Laureline essentially plays hard to get: Valerian wants to put a ring on it, while Laureline wants Valerian to prove his worthiness as a monogamous life partner (insert multiple yawns here). Valerian and Laureline’s dialogue extends to clichéd banter to … more clichéd banter. It’s a credit to DeHaan (channeling his inner Keanu Reeves line delivery wise) and Delevingne (still trying to make a go of this acting thing) that they managed to keep a straight face throughout production.

Besson’s Euro-Pop meets sci-fi/space-fantasy Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is an orgiastic procession of multi-hued visual invention repeatedly dragged down by an incredibly thin story, even thinner characters, and muddled subtext.

The plot? Right, let’s discuss the plot. Valerian and Laureline arrive on Alpha at the behest of their commanding officer (an inexplicably cast musician Herbie Hancock, all too obviously reading cue cards), Valerian and Laureline land on Alpha first to retrieve a priceless stolen artifact or object, the Collector, from an interdimensional black market smuggler, before moving on to security duty, protecting Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen), a military officer tasked with investigating a radioactive threat to Alpha. The interdimensional run-and-chase scene gives Besson and his small army of animators to put their well-honed skills to good, if not great use. On a technical level, the scene deftly mixes action choreography, live-action/CGI, and performance into a near seamless whole. That it feels like an aside or tangent, however, makes the stakes (Valerian’s safety) a non-starter. As Valerian’s helper, Laureline hangs back, doing little except near the end.

Presumably aware of Laureline’s wasted potential as a character, Besson gives her a chance to play hero, saving Valerian from almost-certain-but-not-really-death, moments before flipping the script again and switching Valerian back into hero mode. In a loosely structured film constructed around set pieces and incidental tangents, Valerian’s side trip to a house of ill repute run by Jolly the Pimp (Ethan Hawke) offers another surface-level diversion, less for Jolly’s presence or Hawke’s deliberately over-the-top performance and more for the temporary presence of Rihanna as a shape-shifting alien performer, Bubble, who apparently caters to male-oriented porn fantasies. Alas, Bubble doesn’t last long (Rihanna probably had a tour or something), but at least her presence lightens up proceedings, even if only temporarily.

Besson contrasts two alien species, one, big, dumb, and brown (with frog eyes), and another slender, pale, and luminescent; the former qualify as less than noble, borderline racists stereotypes, while the latter represent their idealized, romanticized opposite. In Besson’s universe, whiteness confers purity, of mind, of spirit, and an intellect unmatched by any of the other alien species we meet in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. That Besson tries to counter backward representations by making the pale species the victims of a semi-intentional (“collateral damage”) planet-wide genocide deserves some credit presumably, though not much. Getting an A or a B for effort for weaving in serious themes into a pulpy sci-fi/fantasy can only get you so far. And in Besson’s case, it gets him – and by extension, us – back to where we started, Star Wars– or Guardians of the Galaxy-level world building, but nothing else except enervating, ultimately empty spectacle.

6.0 OKAY

Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets gets a B for effort when it comes to weaving in serious themes into a pulpy sci-fi/fantasy, and its Guardians of the Galaxy-level world building is little more than enervating, empty spectacle.

  • 6.0
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About Author

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending New York University as an undergrad (politics and economics double major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he relocated from the East Coast to San Francisco, California, where he's been ever since. Since Mel began writing about film nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.