It is strange that a director so lofty as Luc Besson should release a new film and instead draw praise for a film he directed 20 years earlier. Yet such is the case as Besson’s late nineties cult sci-fi hit The Fifth Element holds court as it turns 20, while Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is left in orbit. Having seen in Valerian what a few hundred million dollars of CGI and a couple of feeble leads can do, perhaps it is the relative disappointment of Besson’s latest venture that has triggered such nostalgic ruminations.
After all, The Fifth Element was an OK film, but perhaps it is flattered through direct comparison with Besson’s later work. That film had buzz, a killer name, a commanding but irreverent Bruce Willis at his Die Hard peak, and Milla Jovovich before the Resident Evil decline set in. It was one of a few typically 90s sci-fi films that set the tone for the eventual cavalcade of copycats. Besson’s new film has two slight and self-centred leads with all the emotional range and dynamic presence of a pair of bickering teens. How Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are preceded by a reputation for reliable service as space operatives and peace-keepers is puzzling, given how easily they appear to get themselves into trouble rather than out.
In this instance, this 28th-century dynamic duo is on a mission. Their destination: the intergalactic space station that is Alpha, which has grown and grown from its earliest days in Earth’s orbit. Now an independent entity in its own right and drifting through space, it is an ever-growing hub for the universe’s knowledge, although it now has to contend with a new unidentified force that could set things awry if left unchecked. What do they want? Who is the real threat? For better or worse, it is left to Valerian and Laureline to get to the bottom of the mystery and the strange species at the heart of it.
While the skeleton of the plot seems engaging enough, a threadbare attention to character development defies the stunning and diverse visuals to leave this production surprisingly one-note. It is a shiny vehicle but one whose visual scope outflanks its narrative potential. Amid the chaos there is the scrap of a more interesting focus mirroring the whitewashing of history by colonial powers such as the British Empire et al., but ideas and funds are endlessly funnelled into the visual arena where the plot resembles a golden snitch – quick-moving and hard to grasp until you’re forced to swallow it during the long overdue ending.
It certainly doesn’t help this film’s prospects having a title that is right up there with Billy and the Cloneasaurus for catchiness. More so, given that Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’s original comic was titled Valérian and Laureline and Cara Delevingne is probably the biggest drawcard here, exactly why Laureline doesn’t warrant a place on the poster alongside her partner seems at least a little discriminatory. What part of ‘partners‘ does Luc not understand? Even if such an omission was not a commentary on the role of Valerian as being the more central character but on Dane DeHaan being the more established actor, then the point is still moot because DeHaan is at least as disappointing as Delevingne, if not more so. The reluctance to allow the leads to be stretched to their emotional limits seems rather to betray their limited range, while also robbing this film of any sense of tension or dire stakes. The result of poor direction or writing or otherwise, any potential for chemistry is quashed from the start. And if you’re relying on a Rihanna burlesque act to save the day, then you’re struggling, as startling as said routine may be.
Apparently the original comic was one of the driving forces of science fiction across much of the later 20th century, and yet we know now to be cautious when adapting seminal sci-fi material. Ghost in the Shell has already proven this year that the greater aspirational height, the further the fall and the more resounding the thud in the box office. Valerian promises to be such a film, playful but misguided, a great big John Carter with lots of ideas, even more money and very little keeping it together, much like this fabled city of a thousand planets.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is in cinemas from 10th August through Entertainment One.