VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS Review
Director: Luc Besson
Genre: Sci-Fi, Action
You don’t just go and independently finance a $180 million space opera. Luc Besson knows that full well, and I’d wager that his financiers didn’t. It’s 2017, after all. Films really only go two ways: tentpole blockbuster or quiet indie. Mixing any assumed novelties of the two would be madness. What’s more, the former demands a rich history to justify its marketability. It’s because of this that VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is a cinematic oddity—a celluloid blood diamond.
Any filmmaker working in the 21st century understands the impenetrability of pitching a high concept anything. It really doesn’t matter if we’re talking sci-fi, western, or wuxia. The fact of the matter remains that new IPs are expensive to produce, regardless of their legacy. Yes, VALERIAN is based on a comic book, but it can barely hold a candle to the marketability of box office bomb THE LONE RANGER, let alone the financial monolith of DC or Marvel. So when Besson suggests making this 137-minute space epic starring Dane Dehaan and Cara Delevingne, you’d probably laugh it off as a joke; but you don’t know the French.
When all’s said and done, VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS got made, and its title isn’t kidding around. This is a big film, something we really don’t get to see anymore. It’s loose, fun, drops you in, and doesn’t expect any further commitment post-viewing. Ironically, the only contemporary filmmaker who can consistently finance a triple-digit blockbuster is Christopher Nolan, so it’s a shame that the two are competing at the box office this week.
The beaches of DUNKIRK
It’s always been a pleasure to see ambitious filmmakers try and avoid the plight of franchising, and with OKJA and BABY DRIVER in our rearview mirror, it’s an outrage that these films weren’t all evenly spaced out. Each of these four projects make for a refreshing statement about blockbuster auteurship, so pitting them against each other not only feels counterintuitive, it registers as the studio system attempting to quash the opposition. The joke is that neither OKJA, BABY DRIVER, or VALERIAN are perfect films, but they are different. And sometimes, that’s all you need!
So how is Luc Besson’s latest? Well, if you’re even mildly interested in THE FIFTH ELEMENT, there’s a lot to love here. VALERIAN boasts more peculiarities per second than an entire phase of Marvel films. Introducing itself with one of the most inspiring opening credits in sci-fi history, Besson paints a canvas thick with emotion, charm, and melancholy, only to drop his audience right into the action. He knows that we are here for his rich lore and attention to detail, and wastes as much time as possible on the minutiae of his world, going as far as introducing most things twice, once visually and once with a hokey voice over.
Where’s David Attenborough?
That is to say that VALERIAN is inarguably slapdash. Besson lets you live in his world, taking in all of its quirks without really explaining anything to you. Until he does, at which point you briefly roll your eyes at the needless exposition. It’s rinse, wash, repeat from there. VALERIAN doesn’t exactly read like an assembly edit as much as it feels like a patchwork of a director’s and studio cut. It never compromises for complete cheap-out worldbuilding, but doesn’t stick to its visual storytelling guns either. And still, no film follows the tenets of establishing lore with such precision. Besson isn’t expecting us to learn about his world through his characters; they know everything already. As such, VALERIAN does the one thing no Hollywood blockbuster dares do anymore: it doesn’t give us a surrogate.
Dane Dehaan and Cara Delevingne play two hardened lawpeople well into their understanding of the universe. Neither is here to learn anything, and Besson makes that expressly clear by jumping the shark on their romantic entanglement as well. This isn’t a film about two people that discover their love for one another. No, this is an elongated proposal. As such, much of VALERIAN does register like the second installment of a long-running series, and it’s all the better for it. No time is wasted trying to make sense of its dense universe; there’s too much to make sense of.
Nicholas Hoult in a utopian FURY ROAD
Instead, we get a rollercoaster experience chock full of atrocious dialogue and computer generated eye candy, a visual feast that puts the undeniably impressive imagery of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 to shame. It is style for days. This is the closest we’ve come to having a SPEED RACER for the 2010s, but unfortunately, VALERIAN just misses the mark by never using its aesthetic to its emotional benefit. It’s fun, fast, and otherworldly, but these bright colors and wild antics never add up to anything cathartic.
Dehaan and Delevingne are partly to blame here. While the latter does her best with the emotionally absent role she’s given, Dehaan has the on screen charisma of a flounder. His nihilistic showmanship never registers as sympathetic, let alone cute. He’s too drab for the fun of a Besson film. His self-serious arrogance works like gangbusters in A CURE FOR WELLNESS, but here, it feels like he’s trying to give edge to a film that demands a protagonist with levity. But because so much of this film translates as inconsequential “moments” (or great ideas in a sandbox environment), it’s an issue that is often easy to ignore.
I know Dehaan, I wish I were Ryan Gosling too
It’s because of this that Besson begins to lose his audience around the halfway mark. Once VALERIAN needs its two lukewarm protagonists to step up to the plate and give us an actual story, we begrudgingly enter a far more boring movie, one that arguably caves into itself in the final 20 minutes. It’s a narrative as generic and expected as any early aughts VOD release, and the fact that I remained on for the ride is only a further testament to Besson’s visual splendor. Where the first act does a bang-up job being about nothing, the later half of the film fails tremendously at being about something. VALERIAN is at its best when it registers as a video game Twitch stream. After all, it has all the makings of a video game, from scale to tepid line delivers.
The initial 50 minutes play like a SKYRIM Let’s Play, devoid of clear direction, pinballing from A to V to C to N as new quests and conflicts appear on the map. But as soon as Besson feels inclined to follow that “main quest,” I lose interest entirely. VALERIAN is at its coolest inside of its hub world, the eponymous City of a Thousand Planets. There, the detail and joy of Besson’s creativity really shows. The concepts for each character model alone are jaw dropping, but it’s the breadth of the art department that really takes the cake. From a triangular spaceship that splits into a thousand tiny triangular spaceships to an inter dimensional gunfight, VALERIAN fires away concepts at a rate that the narrative could never keep up with. And that’s partly because Besson isn’t a very interesting storyteller.
Spotted @ Burning Man
From GHOST IN THE SHELL and ALIEN: COVENANT to the upcoming BLADE RUNNER 2049, 2017 is shaping up to be a bang-up year for science fiction. VALERIAN gets so lost in its world that it forgets to give its audience a tale worth remembering, but by God if it doesn’t make your eyes bug out on the way. When all’s said and done, Besson’s film is exactly that: a film. It doesn’t fulfill its responsibilities of storytelling. It’s a perfect case study for a project that would have found a better home in the medium of interactive gaming.
And still, the charm of VALERIAN is that it’s so outrageous. It is a film that shouldn’t exist in today’s cinematic climate. It’s an ode to the vastness of space and all the high concept shenanigans Hollywood is refusing to capitalize on. Call VALERIAN what you want, but you can’t call it boring. For what it’s worth, it is a reminder that we should be trying to impress. Besson isn’t concerned with failing as a storyteller, because he wants to remind us that filmmaking is about having fun. It’s a lesson that every Cinematic Universe ought to consider. In Hollywood, shoot for the stars, so that if you fall, you’ll land on a cloud.