UK Release Date: 2nd August 2017
Runtime: 137 minutes
Director: Luc Besson
Writer: Luc Besson
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Sam Spruell, Elizabeth Debicki, Ethan Hawke, John Goodman
Synopsis: A pair of space agents are dispatched to recover an immensely valuable creature in the hope of maintaining peace on a space station populated by hundreds of different species from across the universe.
You can’t fault the ambition of Luc Besson. He’s a filmmaker who wears his passions on his sleeve and puts his heart and soul into every project he makes. His ideas don’t always pay off, but when a film like Leon or the delightfully silly Lucy comes along, he’s a thrilling voice to have in the world of cinema. His latest project is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which is adapted from a comic book series Besson loved as a child, and is without doubt the most ambitious film he has made to date. With a reported budget just shy of $200m, it’s the most expensive independent movie ever made and, for all of its flaws, it’s certainly a movie that puts its cash right up on the screen.
Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are agents working to keep the peace on Alpha – a space station that has become a symbol of collaboration between the hundreds of species who live there. Valerian experiences visions of a race of ethereal, peaceful creatures led by Emperor Haban Limaï (Elizabeth Debicki) who find their planet destroyed by a war. The duo of agents are sent by their very shifty boss Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) to track down a mysterious creature of enormous value, running into characters including space pimp Jolly (Ethan Hawke) and exotic dancer Bubble (Rihanna). When Filitt is kidnapped, General Okto Bar (Sam Spruell) assumes control.
There’s a real joy and energy to Valerian, which is able to paper over many of its issues. Besson is clearly having an absolute ball bringing this world to the big screen and that sense of hyperactive, charming enjoyment can be felt in almost every frame of the movie. His world is beautifully realised, with sumptuous visuals bringing the ideas to life, whether it’s the idyllic beaches of the planet Mul, the sleazy back alleys of a space burlesque club or the bizarre genius of a crowded market that exists across multiple dimensions. The obvious touchstone is Besson’s own The Fifth Element, but this is a film that feels like a mash-up of the best ideas in deeply flawed, but fun films like Dune and Jupiter Ascending.
Given the richness of the world created in Valerian, it’s actually quite sad how little we get to explore. The plot largely treads a pretty familiar storyline, with Valerian and Laureline finding their loyalties to their employer in question given how clearly villainous Clive Owen is. Owen, for his part, gives a fine panto-style performance, but not one that’s offered much in the way of depth or character progression. Thankfully, the plot doesn’t stand still long enough for that to be much of a problem as Besson doesn’t lift his foot off the gas for almost two and a half hours.
There are problems, though, when it comes to the central cast. Many people have singled out Cara Delevingne as unconvincing in her role, but she’s actually incredibly charming in the role and a heroine you immediately warm to and root for. Delevingne is a likeable screen presence and the film could certainly have benefited from giving her more to do. Unfortunately, it’s far more taken with DeHaan. The utter failure of Valerian’s protagonist is not necessarily the fault of DeHaan, who does his best, but with whoever made the decision to cast a noted character actor as a caddish leading man. DeHaan is a lot of things, but he ain’t Han Solo.
Valerian is a film that lacks substance and has an issue with chemistry thanks to its central miscasting. It does, however, paper over its narrative cracks with wit, silliness and utter campy enthusiasm. It’s like an excited child tugging your sleeve because they want to show you the drawing they have done. It’s a drawing that doesn’t make any sense at all, has no focus and probably suffers from major artistic flaws, but there’s a love in every pen stroke that makes it almost impossible not be thoroughly charmed.
Pop or Poop?
Luc Besson has constructed something thrilling and charming with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which is a big, bombastic blockbuster packed to breaking point with invention and ambition. It’s visually impressive and has an off-kilter sensibility that makes it consistently entertaining across its lengthy running time.
The central performances are variable and there isn’t a shred of depth on show, but it can’t be faulted for sheer enjoyment. If cinema is about taking risks, Besson deserves all of the credit in the world.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.