By Preston Wilder
I wish I could be more positive about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, one of the year’s biggest flops and a film, I suspect, that many people wanted to flop – especially big-studio people who resent seeing their mindless action fantasies turned into someone’s personal vision. That someone is Luc Besson, the veteran French maverick who, buoyed by the success of Lucy, staked $200 million on this lavish pet project – an adaptation of a French sci-fi comic-book series – and lost. In truth, the film feels empty (Besson, not a native speaker, also made the mistake of writing the dialogue), yet it also has a lot more visual madness and imaginative detail than the last few Star Wars movies.
Consider, for instance, the bit where Valerian (Dane DeHaan) warns his cohort/lover Laureline (Cara Delevingne) not to touch the pretty butterflies. They’re on some sort of cliff, with butterflies floating all around, and Valerian warns her not to touch because “some of them are…” – but it’s too late, Laureline grabs a butterfly and is suddenly jerked upwards violently, forcing our hero to go after her. There are many possibilities here – but I bet you won’t have guessed that the butterflies, or some of the butterflies, are actually bait, being dangled on a line by ugly troll-like giants who are happily fishing (for what?) from a cliff higher up! The whole film has that idiosyncratic quality.
There are echoes of the Star Wars universe: a fat blobby crook reminiscent of Jabba the Hutt, plus the sense of an interplanetary melting-pot inhabited by various alien species. The latter is especially important, and there’s even a political dimension in Besson’s vision of multicultural Alpha, the titular city of a thousand planets where humans and aliens co-exist in relative harmony (at one point, a ‘glampod’ played by Rihanna also speaks up for illegal immigrants). The plot isn’t very Star Wars, though – closer to Avatar, having to do with a Na’vi-like tribe of superior beings whose planet was destroyed by nasty soldiers – and the tone certainly isn’t Star Wars, blessed with a sense of humour and breezy insouciance. One action scene finds Laureline mistaking an ‘18’ for an ‘81’, giving Valerian wrong directions and sending him hurtling through space to his probable death; “We all make mistakes,” she shrugs, not sounding especially worried.
Much of the film is devoted to rather leaden banter between the duo – but the real Achilles’ heel in Valerian is the climax, and the last half-hour in general (that said, the film feels shorter than its 137-minute running time). Once Besson brings our heroes face-to-face with the ‘Pearls’ – the aforementioned tribe, so called for their gleaming translucent skin and reliance on marble-like pearls – he has only a couple of lame twists left, and the climax even manages to screw up that most reliable source of tension, the ticking-clock countdown. Like a lot of expensive fantasies that flopped at the box-office (John Carter, Jupiter Ascending), Valerian dances charmingly but lacks the cathartic connection that’ll send an audience home happy.
The charm is considerable, though. Highlights include the Doghan Daguis, a voluble trio of billed, oracular creatures who look like a cross between Howard the Duck and the see-no-evil monkeys – and of course the glampod played by Rihanna, a burlesque queen who shape-shifts from the bowler-hatted Liza Minnelli look to a maid’s uniform to a pole dancer (but is actually a blue gelatinous creature under the sway of a pimp played by Ethan Hawke). Best of all, perhaps, is that the plot is driven by “the Converter”, an incredibly cute little animal who, upon being fed a pearl, will immediately poo a hundred more pearls (it’s not actually identified as pooing, but what else can you call it?). That’s Besson at his most endearingly silly; Alpha itself, however – a jumbled constellation of verticals, diagonals, neon lights and shifting landscapes – is Besson at his most visually dazzling.
There are so many neat details here. Why did George Lucas never think to adorn his own planets with clouds in different colours, not just boring white? What’s the deal with the bearded piratical type who steals a fluorescent blue jellyfish from an underwater dinosaur then cackles “I’m Bob, by the way”? You can tell that someone waited years to make this, mentally stockpiling all the cool bits he’d include when he finally got a chance to make it – but he should’ve stepped back and looked at the bigger picture, maybe found a structure to accommodate the various inventions. Valerian is the textbook case of a film where the whole is less – in this case, considerably less – than the sum of its parts, both enjoyable and something of a damp squib. I wish I could rave, but I can’t really.
DIRECTED BY Luc Besson
STARRING Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen
France 2017 137 mins