Director: Luc Besson.
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Sam Spruell, Kris Wu.
|"Are you sure we didn't mix up our uniforms?"|
More than three decades on, Besson's latest film Valerian & The City Of A Thousand Planets tells us nothing has changed. It must be this eye for the visual that has kept Besson's name as a selling point, because it sure as hell isn't his scriptwriting if Valerian is anything to go by.
More than 20 years on from his international career-defining one-two punch of Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element, Besson has managed to make the biggest film of his career - a love letter to the French graphic novel that inspired The Fifth Element and Star Wars, to name but two sci-fi descendants of Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières' comic book series. But much like many of his films since The Fifth Element, the script is a mess. Valerian is visually stunning, no doubt, but its screenplay leaves a lot to be desired.
The story focuses on government agents Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne), who have been tasked to retrieve an item from an intergalactic marketplace. That item has a major role to play in something sinister that's taking place on Alpha, which was originally the international space station but in the 28th century has become a universal hub for aliens from every corner of the cosmos.
Spoilers prevent further explanation of the plot, but so does the plot itself. The story is such a tangled confusion of poorly thought-out strands that it defies explanation. When the various machinations and half-baked ideas are somewhat explained in the final act, it elicits an "Oh" from the audience - not in surprise and awe, but more an "Oh - is that what they were trying to do?".
Which brings us back to the "style over substance" thing from Wikipedia, which is so scarily accurate in this case that I wouldn't be surprised if someone recently created the "cinéma du look" page purely in response to having seen Valerian.
The film looks incredible. Every one of its €200 million has been spent on piling the pixels sky high to create worlds and aliens that would give George Lucas funny feelings in his pants department. There is no shortage of creativity on display and its visual spectacle has to be applauded, even if a lot of it feels like it's there for no reason other than showing off.
But its all way too much pretty tinsel piled onto a dead Christmas tree. Contributing to the failure of the story is the depiction of its main characters. Valerian and Laureline vacillate between annoying and stupid and the script throws them headlong into an awkward relationship that is really hard to get on board with straight up. Easing us into their uncomfortable workplace situation might have made it easier to stomach and made it feel a little less "I should report you to HR".
Laureline occasionally gets to be a butt-kicking heroine, but all too often feels like a bunch of reductive stereotypes, while Valerian is primarily a jerk. DeHaan and Delevingne do their best individually but lack chemistry together. After that, everything else is doomed to fail. No one in the cast comes out of this smelling of roses, except probably John Goodman in a brief voice role.
All Valerian has going for it is its stunning visuals, an occasional good idea amid the mess, and a destiny as a cult favourite, which is what usually happens with similarly over-stuffed sci-fi films. The reality is that this is the next Jupiter Ascending, as opposed to being the next The Fifth Element.