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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

In Theaters: VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017)


VALERIAN AND THE 
CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS
(France/China/Germany/
UAE/US/Belgium - 2017)

Written and directed by Luc Besson. Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delavingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Rutger Hauer, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabot, Peter Hudson, Xavier Giannoli, Ola Rapace, Matthieu Kassovitz, Louis Leterrier, Olivier Megaton, voices of John Goodman, Elizabeth Debicki. (PG-13, 137 mins)

A long-planned pet project of legendary French auteur Luc Besson, VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is an adaptation Valerian and Laureline, a sci-fi comic book series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres that began way back in 1967 and ran until 2010. Filled with eye-popping artwork, the comics became a clear influence on other films, ranging from old-school animated classics like FANTASTIC PLANET and HEAVY METAL to STAR WARS and TOTAL RECALL and CGI-era films like AVATAR and JOHN CARTER. Mezieres also did some conceptual artwork during pre-production on Besson's 1997 favorite THE FIFTH ELEMENT, which now looks like a test run for VALERIAN, a $210 million, six-country co-production that currently stands as the most expensive independent film ever made. It's a film that manages to succeed entirely on being deliriously imaginative eye candy. The story on the other hand, inadvertently suffers from so many of its ideas and plot points already being utilized by films that came one to five decades before it. Among other things, there's a giant virtual reality shopping mall, some space battles straight out of STAR WARS, an alien baddie--voiced by John Goodman--who looks like Jabba the Hutt's younger brother, and a race of alien beings that not only seem to have wandered in from AVATAR outtakes but also have a FANTASTIC PLANET look about them, living on a planet that looks like a Roger Dean wet dream.






Set in the 2700s, VALERIAN deals with intrigue aboard a massive space station called Alpha, which was created in 1975 and spent the next eight centuries growing as it became a giant, peaceful utopian city floating through the galaxy, with hundreds of species from a thousand planets living and working together in harmony. That harmony is disrupted by a radioactive presence somewhere deep within the core of Alpha. Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Sgt. Laureline (Cara Delavingne) are law enforcement agents assigned to protect Cmdr. Fillit (Clive Owen) to an Alpha summit where he plans to inform them that the radiation pocket is growing and could threaten the existence of Alpha in a matter of weeks. The summit is crashed by a group of Na'vi-looking beings who kidnap Fillit. These beings were also seen by Valerian in a dream. They're from the planet Mul, which was destroyed 30 years earlier for reasons classified to Valerian and even to Fillit's second-in-command Gen. Okto-Bar (Sam Spruell). The Defense Minister (Herbie Hancock?!) sends Valerian and Laureline on a mission to the outer reaches of the space to find and rescue Fillit, while at the same timeValerian attempts to get to the bottom of what his dreams mean and what these renegade beings from Mul are trying to tell him via the psychic connection they've established.


There's an overabundance of dazzling style, wall-to-wall visual effects, and other wild eccentricities in every frame of VALERIAN (the cute Melo the Converter, a tiny, Mul creature that can replicate any object it ingests would make a must-have toy for kids if this ended up being a hit). No expense was spared, and it's indeed one of the best-looking films of the year, making THE FIFTH ELEMENT look almost quaintly old-fashioned by comparison. But VALERIAN isn't on the level of THE FIFTH ELEMENT, and while it's never less than stunning just to watch it, the story is lacking, partially due to the familiarity of it being co-opted so much over the years, but also because Besson's characters aren't very interesting. Owen, Rihanna (as an imprisoned, shape-shifting alien princess), Ethan Hawke (as Jolly the Pimp, a loud but less flamboyant incarnation of Chris Tucker's Ruby Rhod from THE FIFTH ELEMENT), and Rutger Hauer (who has less than a minute of screen time during the opening credits as the President of the World Federation) have little to do, and the stunt casting of jazz legend Hancock--seen mostly as a hologram--is utterly pointless aside from Besson simply wanting to hang out with Herbie Hancock. At least Rihanna gets to sing and dance.



Delavingne is OK, but it's a good thing VALERIAN can get by on its visuals, because there's a massive black hole at the center of it thanks to the almost deal-breaking miscasting of DeHaan, an actor that Hollywood is hellbent on making a thing no matter how many times audiences flatly reject them (see also "Courtney, Jai"). The decision to cast him as a sarcastic, womanizing, hot-dogging Han Solo-esque space jockey is a miscalculation that stops VALERIAN cold every time he smirks and/or opens his mouth. DeHaan is trying to go for Harrison Ford's bad boy charm but can only convey "smug twerp." In the form of DeHaan, it's impossible to buy Valerian's plethora of sexual conquests--his "playlist," as Laureline calls it--or that Laureline is even the slightest bit won over by anyone with DeHaan's shit-eating grin. Try not to Picard Facepalm hen he pours his heart out with "You're the only one I want on my playlist." DeHaan can work in the right role--he's fine in THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES and A CURE FOR WELLNESS--but casting him as Valerian is a decision that comes from an alternate universe 1977 where George Lucas wanted to cast someone from AMERICAN GRAFFITI as Han Solo but sent Harrison Ford home and gave the part to Charles Martin Smith instead. Lest it sound like I'm piling on DeHaan, Besson's dumb script doesn't help, as shown in one scene where Valerian mumbles something about "I'm a soldier! I follow orders!" 30 seconds after he just cold-cocked his commanding officer. VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is entertaining and endlessly watchable pulp sci-fi, but it's just too bad that Besson spent so much time envisioning this incredibly ambitious and expensive movie in his head and kinda blew it to an extent by making such a terrible decision for his lead actor that it ends up having a profoundly negative effect on the movie.

2 comments:

  1. DeHaan was fine AT BEST in A Cure for Wellness; but as you say, he is unaccountably Hollywood's flavor of the moment. Too bad that flavor is unsweetened vanilla.

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  2. Even Jai Courtney would have been better. At least he has some gravitas as opposed to DeHaan who is completely anti-gravitas.

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