BESSON’S VISION OF A THOUSAND SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Review by Ray Schillaci
A good way to gauge whether or not you are the audience that writer/director Luc Besson’s (The Professional, Lucy) latest visual dynamo is catering to, one may only ask the easy question. Were you a fan of Besson’s The Fifth Element? If not, then you probably should skip Valerian. But, if you loved that eye-popping romp of pop sci-fi with its over-the-top humor and visual effects, then there is a good chance you will enjoy the wild ride Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets takes us on. Luc Besson’s latest is a virtual kaleidoscope, heavy on sights and sounds, but light on story and characters which tends to be the norm for many graphic novel adaptations.
Valerian is the name of the lead character, a proud rogue of a government operative, and rising star in the human army. Self-centered, vain, and well trained in combat, it’s been suggested that the young soldier is an adrenaline junkie and goes through women like toilet paper. Such a person should be hard to like let alone carry a sci-fi epic. Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) has the look of a comic book hero, but strains under the burden of pulling it off.
Helping him is the far more charismatic Sergeant Laureline, played quite fetchingly by model/actress Cara Delevingne (Paper Towns, Suicide Squad). She is as engaging as Milla Jovovich was in The Fifth Element, and perhaps we can chalk that up to the strength of her character. She’s portrayed as intelligent, determined, fiercely independent and incredibly strong, making her rebuffing of Valerian’s advances all the more fun.
Together, they are a great combat/retrieval team, but not once do we believe that any of this is to be taken seriously. Any sense of danger feels more like a joyful ride at Disneyland. That’s not to say that it’s bad, it just does not muster the suspense that we’ve experienced with more popular sci-fi adventures (i.e. Star Wars, Star Trek). But perhaps that’s on purpose since this film has a definite European flavor that is more interested in “oohs” and “aaahs,” rather than a detailed storyline with snappy dialogue and intriguing characters.
If the rest of the film was anything like the first brilliant ten minutes, we might have had a new science fiction classic. From the beginnings of space travel, joint missions, and eventually introduction to alien races all set to the tune of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, it’s wonderfully nostalgic, melancholic, and breathtaking with the imagery. Eventually, we’re introduced to what can almost pass for a New Age alien race and their gorgeous peaceful life that nearly rivals anything in James Cameron’s Avatar. But it all comes to a jarring and senseless halt as their world is decimated by the crashing of other mammoth-like alien ships.
Fast forward many years later, and we’re introduced to Major Valerian and his partner, Sergeant Laureline. They are on a mission to capture a living creature known as a converter that can save what is left of the near extinct alien race we saw in the beginning. Besson sets up an intriguing heist in a intra-dimensional marketplace that nearly boggles the imagination. There is a certain playfulness to it all, and you could easily get caught up in the imaginative set up and the odd creatures that inhabit the dimensional market, especially John Goodman’s character.
This and other scenes are only enhanced by the use of 3D, but once again dark scenes, especially ones in deep space, suffer from ghost imaging. This only gives good reason to forego the 3D experience with Valerian. It’s a shame because scenes like the opening of the peaceful alien planet are eye popping and beautiful.
Once Valerian and his partner capture the converter, they travel to Alpha, the gigantic space station known as the “City of a Thousand Planets.” Once again, it is a treat to behold with all types of alien lifeforms and breathtaking landscapes. As Valerian and Laureline proceed to their mission, they become caught up in a conspiracy that causes them to question their belief in the government they work for.
Along the way, the most fascinating character brought late on board and not given enough screen time is the ever morphing “Bubble”, played by Rihanna. Her unusual and sexy pole dance provides a good jolt to the screen when the proceedings get a little tedious. And that’s where Besson and company do a tight rope act. With so much visual splendor they want to capture from the graphic novel, I tended to wander from all of it and yearn for something that really grabbed me or made the time go by much quicker instead of enduring its running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes.
Could Luc Besson have cut some of his vision to give us a quicker paced version of his film that would have us holding onto our seats while blowing us away with the sight and sounds of Valerian? More than likely. But then it would not have that unique European flavor that the film relishes in and more than likely appeal to the international market that in these days rules out what the domestic market thinks.
For those with more patience and the ability to forgive Besson for simplifying the story along with easily digestible dialogue and mostly forgettable characters with unforgettable production values and effects, Valerian: The City of a Thousand Planets rewards the eyes and ears. But it also refrains from being thought provoking or getting anywhere near the depth of some science fiction epics. However, it also comes with a playful spirit that harkens back to the days of the old serials that gave us Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.
Writer/director Luc Besson has proved in the past that he has two sides of an artist in him. There is the man that has wowed us with his unique storytelling prowess and vision with La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional, and Angel-A, and then there’s the joyous imp that merely wants to engage and entertain us with a visual trip with such wild rides as The Fifth Element and Lucy. Luc Besson’s Valerian is a loving look at a graphic novel and comic that fueled his imagination years ago only to pass it onto an audience that is willing to take that journey and merely enjoy the time. Those that do can skip the 3D, but I would urge everyone interested to see it on a huge screen with great sound to fully appreciate what Besson has to offer.
Directed by: Luc Besson
Release Date: July 21, 2017
Run Time: 137 Minutes
Distributor: STX Entertainment