Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Luc Besson, 2017)
Based on a popular (in France) series of graphic novels by Pierre Christin, director Luc Besson’s latest ridiculous confection offers sci-fi spectacle of technical wizardry and artless design. Oh, sure, there’s thought behind the production, but it’s of the variety that more equals more, regardless of narrative cohesion. Add a healthy dose of derivative visuals and characters, with a chaser of hallucinogens (of the bad-trip variety) on the side, and you have a recipe for cinematic lunacy that never manages to make you overlook its idiocy in the service of pure entertainment. I have seen plenty of terrible movies in my time that have nevertheless delivered some kind of joy ride. Not so here, courtesy of the mess of a screenplay – filled with forced jocularity and expositional dialogue – and deeply flawed central performances.
We begin with what passes for a clever montage that takes us from the dawn of humanity’s space program through the building of an international space station, all the way through 2150, where we make contact with extraterrestrials. We then jump forward 400 years to a time when that same space station, released from its orbit around Earth, has become Alpha, the city of the title, filled with representatives from many (perhaps a thousand?) planets. But Alpha is not really the focus of the story (though the action will be set there), title be damned. Instead, we then cut to a planet named Mül, where pale humanoids frolic in the waves with dog-like armadillos until a spaceship from above crashes through the atmosphere and annihilates their world. How? Why? Fear not, for all plot points are eventually explained, even if their logic is not.
But even these inhabitants of Mül are not our main characters, Instead, we get Valerian, a special agent of the intergalactic government, and his trusty girl Friday/romantic interest, Laureline, whom we meet in medias res as they are on their way to a mission that will, miraculously, relate to the scene we have just witnessed on Mül (coincidence and bad exposition tend to go hand in hand in screenplays of this kind). Dane DeHaan (A Cure for Wellness) plays Valerian; Cara Delevingne (Paper Towns) plays Laureline. Both are miscast, though she less so (in fact, there are moments when she is almost good). Together, they form an irritating duo, doing their best Han Solo/Princess Leia routine with smirk and banter. It hurts.
Recalling the plot also induces pain, so let’s stop. Poor Clive Owen (Children of Men), among others, shows up, slumming, but cannot do much beyond snarl. Even Rihanna makes an appearance, just in time to perform the ritual self-sacrifice of the person of color on behalf of the white folk. Occasionally there are flashes of wit and even artfulness, but they get lost in the totality of the special effects, which seem the real raison d’être of this mess. Besson (Lucy) once seemed poised, years ago, to marry Hollywood pulp with a Gallic flair in films like Subway, La Femme Nikita and The Professional (his best film, however, is his very first, The Last Battle). Now he just takes pulp, puts it into a high-speed blender, and hopes for the best. It is not a recipe for narrative success. though I suspect the energy it releases may appeal to some. If that’s how you like your shake, enjoy, and don’t let me stop you.