For various reasons, it’s a shame to read reports that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has drastically underperformed at the box office. Firstly, its the latest film from French auteur Luc Besson, the man behind such classics as Nikita, Leon, The Fifth Element, as well as excellent popcorn fare like Lucy or Adele Blanc-Sec. Secondly, it stars Dane DeHaan, a charismatic rising performer who often stars in pleasantly atypical movies like A Cure for Wellness, a very interesting movie which also flopped financially earlier this year. However, most importantly, I’m sad Valerian didn’t recoup its budget because its a real blast.
Based on a French comic (one which inspired Besson’s previous sci-fi foray The Fifth Element), DeHaan stars as the titular character – a human special agent living in the 28th century on Alpha, a space station with multiple biomes where millions of alien species co-exist to share knowledge. Along with his partner – both professionally and romantically – Laureline (Cara Delevingne – her character every bit as centre-stage as DeHaan’s), Valerian uncovers a conspiracy involving a shady commander played by Clive Owen and a mysterious race of seemingly extinct aliens.
Made on a budget of €197 million (making it the most expensive independent film ever), Valerian is an absolute sight to marvel at. Those who worried – like I did from watching the trailers – that the movie would look too CGI heavy and artificial, fret not. Although, in the first scene post opening credits, there are moments of uncanniness as the viewer is dropped into a distinctly non-human planet and environment – soon these issues fade away. Besson really capitalises visually on the central premise of a world comprised of a multitude of different beings and cultures e.g. desert dwellers, cybernetic robots, sea creatures, shape shifters. He stages scene after scene (including one incredible one take shot) of characters colliding or being speedily thrusted between radically different settings and dimensions to a deliriously dizzying effect. Also, unlike many modern blockbusters, Valerian is vivid with bright colours. In every scene, there’s a still which feels like a sci-fi pulp novel cover come to life.
There’s a sense while watching Valerian that Besson really let loose. He was free to engage with his own whimsies openly due to him self-financing and crowd-sourcing the project – as opposed to working with a huge studio and being handed notes from producers. How many special effects driven blockbusters can you think of that feature a lengthy dance homage to Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, a human being kidnapped via fishing rods, a pierced up pimp called Jolly played by Ethan Hawke and a lead character placing her head in a jellyfish’s anus?
The performances are solid. Dane DeHaan’s choice to do a Keanu Reeves impression is at first a little distracting but winds up being pretty endearing. Cara Delevingne shines as Laureline. Although her line delivery can feel stilted occasionally, she has very expressive cat-like eyes – which manage to do the bulk of the emoting. Although Besson’s script is nowhere near as sharp (though moments had my cinema chucking), there is a hint of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday in Valerian and Laureline’s relationship – a chemistry DeHaan and Delevingne do evoke in their roles.
An issue I have with the movie is that the conspiracy plot-line is so predictable – mainly because its been done in so many other films but also because Clive Owen never ever seems like anything other than an adversary. There is a sense Besson realised this too as the bulk of the movie is made up of stand-alone scenes only tangentially related to the main story – Laureline being abducted by giant acquatic monsters, DeHaan recruiting a scene-stealing, shapeshifting Rihanna to get her back. These moments are great. Yet, it creates a pacing problem when the movie keeps shifting away from the insanity of these scenes to the standard over-arching plot.
Yet, with so much spectacle its hard to care. Flamboyant, extravagant and often quite strange, Valerian is one-hundred per cent Besson. If one likes their summer blockbusters but is craving something more wild and out-there, choose this.