Feb 21, 2020
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
Luc Besson is not a man who inspires a lot of moderate opinions. He is not a moderate man. He’s been referred to as the most American French filmmaker, a title he earned through a characteristically French kind of pigheadedness. He comes from a filmmaking tradition steeped in the idea of the auteur, and he definitely thinks of himself as one. The cardinal sin in his mind is compromise. He’s not subtle, and he hates holding back; he does what he does how he does it and he does it all balls to the wall. Knowing all this, hearing Luc Besson’s super-pricey space opera Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets referred to as his “passion project” should give you pause no matter what your opinion of his movies.
Valerian has been in the pipes for awhile, as it turns out. Twenty-odd years ago, Besson enlisted Jean-Claude Mézières, the writer of the French comic book Valerian et Laureline (a staple of Besson’s childhood), to work on Besson’s divisive cult classic The Fifth Element. According to Besson, Mézières asked him, “Why are you doing this shitty film? Why don’t you do Valerian?” With that very French encouragement, Besson wrote a story, waited a couple decades for digital effects technology to catch up with his vision, squirreled away money from his EuropaCorp production company, and then wrote another story. The movie that eventually came out of this struggle cost the equivalent of $180 million, neatly taking the record for both the most expensive non-US production and the most expensive independent film ever made.
Was it worth it? Uhh…
Visually, Valerian is a stunner. Besson took extraordinary care in the 3000+ special effects shots, rendering a gorgeously strange world filled to bursting with majestic environments, complex architecture, sleek machines, and bizarre creatures. Meticulously crafted sets and one ostentatious costume after another do their portion of the heavy lifting as well. The Valerian comic is often compared to Star Wars, and Valerian is more Star Wars than Star Wars, in that its visual palette is drenched with the sort of pulpy retro space-opera aesthetic that the Star Wars series isn’t really interested in doing anymore.
Sadly, though, the visual experience of Valerian amounts to a load of empty calories: a fizzy sugar high that dissipates quickly, leaving you hungering in vain for something more substantial. Which is to say that all the non-visual aspects of the movie are utter crap.
I wanted to start this paragraph with “Valerian is about…”, but it’s not really about anything. There are no themes, no lessons, anemic conflict, and the characters don’t change over the course of the movie. I don’t even know if it has a plot, per se. It has a story, certainly: a bunch of things do happen. And I suppose if you pressed me I could answer questions about why these things were happening, so I guess in that sense it does, technically, have a plot. But I never really felt satisfied by the internal logic of the sequence of events I was watching. Monsieur Besson’s attention is too often pulled away by all the shinies to impress any real narrative vision on his movie.
Basically, in the 28th century, Earth is part of a vaguely defined interplanetary federation whose capital is a gigantic space station called Alpha, the titular “city of a thousand planets”, so named for its cosmopolitan mix of cultures from all over the galaxy. Valerian and Laureline (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, respectively) are two human detective/agents of a vaguely defined space cop force, sent to investigate an expanding radioactive death zone in the center of Alpha. They have a bunch of weekly-serial style space adventures and stumble upon a conspiracy to cover up a genocide.
The genocided aliens come from the idyllic planet Mül, which exploded thirty years previously and whose reigning princess’s soul jumps into Valerian’s body at the beginning of the movie, but that’s not really important. The Müllians fish for pearls made of huge amounts of concentrated energy, and an animal native to their planet can magically replicate anything it eats, but those details aren’t really important either. There’s a whole lot in this movie that’s just sort of there. In his eagerness, Luc Besson wrote many times more characters and plot devices than he could have ever used. Chekhov’s Guns pile up at his feet, begging in vain to be fired.
Dane DeHaan as Valerian is destined to enter the Bad Casting Hall of Infamy, alongside John Wayne’s Genghis Khan. Everything about him belies the character we’re supposed to be getting. He’s supposed to be a high-ranking super-cop, but he doesn’t project the least bit of authority or competence. He’s supposed to be a happy-go-lucky, roguish type, and instead affects a vacant, bovine surliness like that of a teenager who stayed up too late last night gaming. His one-liners all clatter to the ground like anchors. Every time he opens his mouth I can’t wait for him to shut up again.
Cara Delevingne’s almost as bad. Just as dour and joyless as her counterpart, and never certain whether she’s supposed to be the by-the-bookie or the loose cannon, her Laureline is the all the more frustrating for the few picoseconds of human warmth that Besson is occasionally able to wring out of her, prompting the question of whether she sucks or he. As to who’s responsible for her and Valerian’s shriveling lack of romantic chemistry (did I mention they’re lovers? for the whole movie?), it’s safe to say that both suck equally.
The rest of the cast is filled out with boring douches (Sam Spruell’s put-upon commander is particularly dull), with the occasional zany, scene-grabbing character who always disappears in a minute or two. Bizarrely, Herbie Hancock is in the cast, and even more bizarrely, he’s firmly in the “boring” category. Why oh why would you cast the Watermelon Man in a movie like this and not make him a nine-armed alien playing insane space jazz?
The plot of Valerian is so full of holes it’s practically see-through. I could talk about a couple, but I recently had an epiphany: as much as people love to complain about plot holes, the holes themselves are almost never the real problem. It’s not that people can’t suspend their disbelief; it’s that the movie didn’t give them enough reason to. If the movie’s good, people will overlook damn near anything. People love Lord of the Rings even though the Eagles should’ve just flown the rings to Mordor. People love Harry Potter even though no one ever tried shooting Voldemort with, like, just a regular gun. (Is there any reason a wizard can’t use a gun? Train a wizard sniper, hide out in a field and dome him, he’ll never expect it. “But he has Horcruxes, he’ll come back!” Well then, fuckin’ shoot him again! He’ll figure out what’s up eventually. )
Okay, if you insist, I’ll talk about a couple:
1) The entire middle act of the movie is eaten up by side-quests occasioned by Valerian crashing his spaceship while trying to find the weird aliens, after which Valerian realizes that the alien princess’s soul inside him (which has been there for the entire movie) can guide him there.
2) A gelatinous, shapeshifting alien played by Rihanna is killed by a spear. To repeat: A gelatinous blob. Is killed. By. A. Spear.
3) No one has ever heard of the genocided aliens that figure so heavily into the plot, and information about the planet they come from is heavily restricted. But the weird matter-replicating animal native to that same planet? The one that has the name of the planet in its own name? Everyone seems to know what that is.
But as I mentioned, a movie’s plot can be far-fetched, or even assault logic itself, and still satisfy. Valerian‘s doesn’t. It’s all over the place, like Luc Besson came up with this whole laundry list of ideas and just decided to do them all. The world-building is wretched; it feels over-explained, but then you think back on it later and realize you know almost nothing about anything. The pacing is horrible; you get overwhelming info-dumps and then long sections of the movie where nothing happens. Frequently, the movie gets bogged down in RPG-style fetch quests where a character will have to get this thing for this person in order to get this other thing, and it does that until you’re screaming at the TV to move it along. If I were being charitable, I’d say that Besson was trying to pay homage to the episodic nature of both the comic and the weekly adventure serials that inspired it, but more realistically, he just takes any opportunity to make some bonkers effects-heavy shit happen.
Valerian went down in flames at the box office, as I suspected it might—it made a mere $45 million in America. I would have hoped that Luc Besson would learn something about keeping his own worst instincts in check and maybe going back to making slick crime thrillers, but he’s too old and too stubborn to learn anything. And because he only lost his own company’s money, he doesn’t have to. Here’s hoping that, at the very least, Dane DeHaan is sent back to the minors until he can spit out an action hero-worthy one-liner without choking on it.