Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment
A long time ago in a galaxy not so distant from our world, filmmaker Luc Besson had the dream of adapting the graphic novel “Valerian and Laureline,” an ameatuer french comic that spans across many intergalactic landscapes, into a full length motion picture experience. While any “Star Wars” fan could find themselves behooved by any imitators to their beloved franchise, if any director had a shot to rival one of history's greatest national treasures, it’s Besson. He did give us one of the greatest stoner-cult classics of my generation in “The Fifth Element.” And somehow that is the type of recognition that I feel “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” will conquer: a stoner roommates favorite “Netflix” late night snack.
All cannabis smoking roommates aside, the visuals on display in “Valerian” are quite intoxicating (and with a projected budget of $200 million - they should be). However, this is a french import with backing from a US distributor, so I feel the box office grosses won’t reflect as well stateside as they will in the director's home country. “Valerian” is a mixed bag. On one hand, it defies to actually produce something audiences haven’t seen before, and Besson let’s his freak flag fly, and that does count for something. Not much, but something. On the other, it’s a very perplexed and overly acted pile of convolution. So in that regard “Valerian” manages to be cutting edge, and old school - the kind of creative thrill ride that only Besson could deliver.
Sadly, the biggest disappoint in “Valerian” is the titular character, played to the best ability by the under-appreciated Dane DeHaan. As much as he gives us this irresistibly charming bad boy vibe, the Han Solo wannabe clearly lacks the type of wits Harrison Ford brought to the table. With that said, he knows how to play this type of role and the “Chronicle” star looks good paired up with Cara Delevinge who plays Valerian’s partner in crime and eventual love interest. She is cool enough for the both of them, even if she stumbled with last summer's “Suicide Squad” - here Delevinge possess the right amount of spontaneity that keeps this two hour plus ride watchable. I found the movie to be considerably more fun when we followed her character. Which, usually, was her saving Valerian in tight situations.
The chemistry between the two might be odd, but they make a good team, constantly trying to prove themselves to each other. But Valerian is an army soldier and her a sergeant, so even his coy attempts at asking for her hand in marriage seem quite out of place. Most of the time, the two are busy following orders, and so the idea of vacation is hardly a thought. The plot of “Valerian” is one that hardly stays in bounds, and it concerns a vast military cover up. For the films enchanting first twenty minutes, set to the backdrop of David Bowies ‘Space Odyssey,’ we are given the set-up of how the last century has been shaped and molded. With our worlds slowly becoming connected gradually, with different organisms coming into contact every year. Don’t get used to seeing those characters, because once they make their cameo - they disappear onto the scene. One primitive civilization we do get to learn more about is a species called Pearls Tall, slender and scantily dressed, like the blue folks from “Avatar.” They are interesting and further prove just how far motion capture technology has come, even when it's not Andy Serkis doing the acting.
The movie kicks into gear once we get transported to the world Besson is trying to create, like a city called “Alpha” where, on the surface, it looks like an empty dessert, but the second you throw on virtual reality goggles, the flat desert suddenly becomes a utopia of riches. Though Besson manages to sustain himself on the planets he creates, and his script can leave us wanting more, at least he tries. One of the few hiccups which comes at the hand of Besson’s script though - is the underwritten baddie, played with a twirling mustache by Clive Owen, a four star general who has been using Valerian for his own dastardly agenda, and the biggest misfire in the whole movie? Rihanna as a creature with the ability to morph into any living being. The funniest part, is that her name is Bubbles.
No matter how good of a director Besson can be, and even though he convinced the world that Milla Jovovich could act in “The Fifth Element” - I couldn’t take any of Rihanna’s line readings seriously, and it’s their where “Valerian” slides of the rails. The final 30 minutes of this sci-fi epic seem out of order and wholly unnecessary. It’s almost like the actors and the action are put on autopilot to the finish line. But can we really fault originality? Even if the final product is less the extraordinary. I think the real answer is no, and while this big-budget troupe has enough material to elevate it above a “Starship Troopers” sequel, the overall message barely squeaks through the cracks. Combine that with the decently likable performances and astounding visual effects, and, well, “Valerian” does what it set out too. As I said above, somewhere, somehow, that needs to count for something. B-