Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets [Review by Haus]
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is about as jumbled and overstuffed as its title makes it sound, and it’s a real shame that Luc Besson’s baldfaced attempt to recapture the quirky, super-saturated essence of probably his best and certainly his trippiest film (The Fifth Element) collapses into a heaving, straining mess of dialogue best suited for a middle school play with a story to match even though the aliens are so quirky and shiny and very different looking and it’s in SPACE with lasers and star destroyers and the space weapons make noise which they of course wouldn’t do and there are stern-faced commanders in galactic uniforms and — oh look, another alien!
Boy, that was painful and I’m sorry to have written it. (Interestingly, this is also what Luc Besson said when he finished the script.) But swaddle that run-on opening in high-dollar CGI and you’ve pretty much got this movie.
Valerian tells the story of one Major Valerian — a hopelessly miscast Dane DeHaan, whose pasty emo loping does not sit well with the role of galactic federal super-agent — and his headstrong, quippy partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevigne). From their very first scene together we’re battered with shockingly unsubtle dialog that sets forth in no uncertain terms Valerian’s sole apparent motivation in this world: The dogged romantic pursuit of his partner and rank subordinate. (To the grand dismay of women and compliance officers everywhere, Laureline does not immediately report him to HR.)
Aside from a single sentence apiece, these characters have no backstory whatsoever. None. No explanation is offered for how two sullen-eyed youth become super-agents, how they first met, what agency they work for, or what really anything here means. Besson doesn’t care about such trivialities; he’s too busy populating his jam-packed galactic kaleidoscope with more alien stride-bys and allegedly romantic dialogue that sounds like an on-the-fly translation of a Volvo repair manual.
So Valerian has a weird dream, and the pair go on some nonsensical missions before spending the majority of the movie racing around Alpha (the titular “City of a Thousand Planets”) which, I feel compelled to disclose, lacks even a single planet. They trade glares with Clive Owen in a Sergeant Pepper outfit, watch some holograms of Herbie Hancock, ride around in a hovering schoolbus, and interact with a particular species whose CGI build sheet presumably called for “the exact same aliens from Avatar, minus the blue.” Space soldiers eight hundred years in the future carry straight-up AR-15s with Magpul furniture. This film is where hope goes to die.
I’m not sure why I expected more from Besson, a fellow who despite early promise (La Femme Nikita and the aforementioned The Fifth Element) has shown an alarming eagerness to poop on his own legacy (see, e.g., Lucy). He’s still dining out on a couple of twenty-year old successes, which pretty much makes him the M. Night Shyamalan of sci-fi.
As for the source material, I will say this: Valerian allegedly stems from a long-running French comic book series, but it’s one I’ve never read and given all this I cannot recommend that you do, either.
And now comes the part where you realize that my standards are not that high, because I actually enjoyed this movie.
Yes, despite the awful dialogue, the silly cluttered story, the wholly gratuitous aliens, the incessant stylistic cribbing of other films, and its various other faults, by act three I generally liked it. Positives included Rihanna’s mesmerizing but all-too-short performance (one of the most Fifth Elementy scenes in the whole thing), as well as Ethan Hawke’s equally memorable turn as a chill space pimp. It has some admittedly iconic aliens in it. It’s also lighthearted and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
But more than all this, I liked the sheer excess of it all. Those countless aliens, those shiny set pieces, those carefully-rendered star destroyers and space lasers and robots eventually add up to something more, something transcendent: All that money and all that effort turned to color and noise for no reason but to entertain. That’s what this movie is: Fireworks. Just sit back and watch the lights.
But while that may be enough for me, but it’s probably not for you. If you want more from your movies than a tight musical number and a two-hour light show, these thousand planets have nothing for you.
Haus Verdict: Visual overload, but it’s all sizzle. There are many great movies out right now. See those.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens Friday, July 21.
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