Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets kicks off with a montage appropriately set to David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, a song title which also functions as a two-word description of the movie. It’s hardly surprising that mainstream audiences were turned away from a film so unashamedly weird, particularly one lacking any allegiance to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But Valerian‘s catastrophic box office performance is a genuine loss for film fans, particularly those who claim to want more original blockbusters in their local multiplex.
The film follows Valerian and Laureline, played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, a pair of agents working for a human police force based on a huge space station called Alpha a.k.a The City of a Thousand Planets. The station earns its name from the vast number of alien species living on it, and has floated through space in relative peace for hundreds of years. However, a threat to the city has reared its head in the form of a mysterious “dead zone” at its heart, where radio communication is jammed and a group of unknown aliens have settled with unclear intentions.
After an extended prologue which serves to showcase the film’s charming creature design along with its breathtaking visual effects, our pair of heroes are finally introduced. Admittedly, there are some problems. Valerian is intended to be a charming, rebellious space scoundrel not dissimilar to the likes of Han Solo and Star Lord, which makes it quite baffling that Dane DeHaan was chosen for the role. While such an “out of the box” casting decision is admirable, in this case it didn’t pan out tremendously well.
Harsh though it may seem, in a film filled with crazy science fiction concepts, the most unbelievable of all is that someone who looks and acts like Dane DeHaan could build a reputation as a wild and rebellious womanizer. Simply put, he’s less Han Solo and more dorky Luke Skywalker (before he got his cool Jedi powers).
Delevingne gives a passable performance in the role of Laureline, although the former-supermodel is yet to prove she has genuine acting talent beyond those iconic eyebrows. At the very least she doesn’t feel quite as awkwardly miscast as her co-star, and shows a marked improvement on her work in 2016’s Suicide Squad.
But while previous blockbuster offerings have found themselves debilitated by the absence of strong lead performances, in the case of Valerian it actually adds to the film’s B-movie charm. Had writer-director Luc Besson made more traditional casting choices, (say: Chris Pine and Scarlett Johansson), they would only have detracted from the weird and wonderful aesthetic of the movie. Not to mention that it would make Valerian feel less like the fiercely independent piece of European cinema that it is, and more like just another product of the Hollywood machine.
Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that Besson’s film is aiming higher than the ever-decreasing bar set by its American equivalents. An early action set-piece taking place in two dimensions simultaneously is the first of many to impress, taking what could have been a confusing and overly elaborate headache, and turning it into one of the most entertaining sequences of the year so far.
The abundance of action set-pieces that follow show similar ambition, without a single one overstaying its welcome or standing out as a weak link. Besson keeps things feeling fresh by constantly throwing together new scenarios and surroundings. Escaping from gargantuan sea monsters, running head-first through the walls of Alpha, and assassinating a barbaric alien king are all in a day’s work for Valerian and Laureline. Suffice to say, it makes for mesmerising viewing.
Perhaps the only element that proves genuinely detrimental to Valerian is the script, which is riddled with awkward lines throughout and suffers from a general lack of subtlety. In one particularly egregious scene towards the end of the film, Besson disregards the age-old rule of cinema “show don’t tell”, by having Valerian and Laureline unnecessarily explain the plot of the movie. In an attempt to inject some excitement into the scene, Besson keeps the camera constantly spinning around his characters to such a degree that those with a weak stomach could experience motion sickness.
The character of Bubble, a shape-shifting alien with aspirations of stardom, is treated particularly badly by this movie. For starters, Rihanna was cast in the role which immediately eliminated the possibility of a good performance, but Besson’s script also saddles her with a character arc which can only be described as half-baked at best. Unbelievably, her first scene in the movie, where she performs a laughably bizarre and overly long dance routine, somehow ends up being her best.
But what the film lacks in scripting, it makes up for in spectacle. In terms of production design, Valerian is quite literally like nothing we have seen on-screen before. Whereas most comic-book adaptations have adopted the practice of redesigning anything that seems in the slightest bit garish, (in an effort to make them palatable to mainstream audiences), Valerian stays unflinchingly faithful to its source material. If anything, the array of alien species and environments on display here are even brighter and bolder than they were in those original comic strips by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières.
Indeed, it seems apparent that Valerian‘s greatest mistake was that it dared to be different. In a world where it appears that the only company capable of successful gambles is Marvel Studios, Luc Besson’s comparatively small-fry production company went all out on an insane mega-budget adaptation of a comic-book that no one outside of France has ever heard of. Yes, Valerian is flawed, but it is undeserving of the harsh criticism it has received in certain circles.
Having left critics polarised in much the same way as Besson’s The Fifth Element did back in 1997, it seems likely that Valerian will chart a similar course towards “cult classic” status.