In his latest film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, French director Luc Besson offers up a phantasmagorical sci-fi where the thrust is squarely focused on world-building and spectacle, but with scant attention paid to characters and plot.
The film is based on a French comic series that Besson has been longing to adapt for years. Retaining something of the 1960s origins of the source material, the film is also clearly influenced by key sci-fi titles of the past forty years, from Star Wars (both originals and prequels) to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Valerian also includes sly (and not so sly) nods to Besson’s previous sci-fi outing, The Fifth Element – a much more impressive and cohesive work.
As world-building goes, Besson should be commended for the effort he has gone to in creating a detailed, universe-sized zoo of oddities. On display are duck-billed Psammead-like creatures, iridescent shape-shifting cephalopods, hulking gangster trolls, and even some rainbow-skinned dwarf armadillos which excrete nuclear pearls. But, for the most part these weird and wonderful creatures are back-ground noise to the thin and tiresome plot.
At the centre of the story are Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as a pair of super-spies charged with keeping the galaxy in check. Sadly, they lack any semblance of sexual chemistry, bickering and whinging like a pair of hipster teenagers upset about the quality of their flat whites. As action heroes, DeHaan and Delevingne are also an offbeat choice, and they don’t fit into their military boots at all. In their defence, DeHaan, who has proven himself in the past outings such as Life and Kill Your Darlings, and Delevingne, who has yet to demonstrate her ability as an actor – their pitiful performances can mainly be blamed on the exposition-heavy, and witless script provided by Besson. And anyway, neither of their acting faults compare to Clive Owen’s embarrassingly thin performance which rivals his dim-witted turn in King Arthur.
The entire film feels episodic, like a series of vignettes bound together as an excuse to explore Besson’s universe. Sometimes they dazzle, a lot of the time they bore. There is one moment of brilliance however, oddly provided by Rihanna as a shape-shifting hooker and Ethan Hawke as her neon-clad space-cowboy pimp, perhaps the only moment in the film where you begin to feel invested in the action. There are some interesting elements buried deep under the sparkly surface. Male and female roles are toyed with, not just between Delevingne and DeHaan who have their own power plays, but with the alien races too. Gender is explored in flexible terms, but in a way that doesn’t overtly draw the viewer’s attention to it.
Likewise, there are underdeveloped notions throughout the film which hint that Valerian could have been so much more. Instead we have a film too much in love with the toy box of whizzbangs and doohickeys used to create this bloated spectacle. There is no soul, and no heart to the story. A good sci-fi is never merely about the effects, it’s about the plot, character and thoughts they bring to life, all of which Valerian lacks in abundance.
Joseph Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh