Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Based on the comic by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” more than makes good on the extravagant promise of its title. The principal setting is Alpha, an improbable space station forged, rather haphazardly, from the technology and derring-do of innumerable interstellar cultures. Though made by the hands of intelligent beings, Alpha is so complex it’s unknowable. Its depths hold discoveries and dangers. It’s as mysterious as was the pre-Columbian world, whose maps depicted sea monsters and fantastic races — not as warnings against the unknown but as promises of it. With his customary cheek Besson uses the environment to riff on multiculturalism. But the Model UN officiousness of “Deep Space Nine” isn’t his bag; his multicultural space is dripping with sensuality and redolent of classic Boy’s Adventure. It’s also somewhat anti-universalist. An independent movie mogul, Besson isn’t afraid to tweak PC values. “Valerian” harks back to the unwoke era of space opera; it reacquaints us with the allure of the exotic.
The movie is a lot like its setting: it’s a fabulous conglomeration of absurdities. As Besson and his team (Thierry Arbogast is the cinematographer, Hugues Tissandier the production designer) hurtle the characters through spaces, dimensions, and ecosystems, the spatio-temporal frame skews, and the resulting disorientation plays into Besson’s directorial performance, his razzle-dazzle showmanship. During the picture’s most successful moments boffo set-pieces whiz by like the painted cars of a circus train, each more colorful than the last. In one, the heroine is captured by a tribe of aliens who suggest pinhead Ubangis out of some racially insensitive comic of yesteryear. When they present her to their leader, she’s wearing a hat that looks like a giant nacho bowl. It seems a visual non sequitur — until you realize that King Ubangi intends to dine on her brains. Another sequence has the hero, Valerian, pursuing a whale-like creature that inhabits Alpha’s aquatic sector; he’s attempting to acquire a species of jellyfish that lives on its back. The purpose of the jellyfish I can’t recall, but the sequence is so fun a purpose seems unnecessary; its immersive strangeness evokes Miyazaki.
Besson errs, I think, in relying on a conventional villain. The movie doesn’t need Clive Owen’s hangdog machismo, nor does it need the burden of the exposition required to explain the coverup for which he is responsible. All of this weighs “Valerian” down and unnecessarily adds to its running time (at 137 minutes, it’s at least a quarter too long). The plot’s central idea is good, though: A peaceful alien race, surreptitiously dwelling near Alpha’s core, wants to be restored to independence, and to remain free of the forces that hold the space station in tenuous semi-unity. The conflict, which posits Alpha as an obstacle both literal and figurative, is enough to keep “Valerian” moving. It doesn’t need a conventional heavy.
As Valerian, the interdimensional government agent, Dane DeHaan has the inviolate quality of an Ingres portrait. In a movie fraught with entropy, the intenseness of his placidity gives him presence and even a touch of eroticism. But he and Besson haven’t given Valerian’s personality much of a foundation, and his playboy-in-space persona seems like a costume that DeHaan hasn’t quite figured out how to wear. His collaborator, Laureline, played by Cara Delevingne, is more successful. Delevingne has a droll I’m-not-putting-up-with-your-shit quality that seems to grow out of her eyebrows. DeHaan teases her, propositions her; she gives him the Ginger Rogers cold shoulder, and makes him live up to her standards. As a team the pair have little in the way of authentic sizzle, and yet I found them appealing. Either I’m reflexively responding to the classic rom-com tropes, rarely employed in this era of sexual puritanism, or the appeal of the couple lies in the nimble way that Besson employs their lithe physicalities. That nimbleness is also evident in the handling of Rihanna, who makes a brief appearance as a shapeshifting dancer named Bubble. Based on the evidence of “Valerian,” Rihanna isn’t yet much of an actress, but like a lot of singers-turned-actors she’s a natural movie performer, and her vulnerability is about as appealing as her gameness, her willingness to please. Her dance routine is “Valerian” at its best: sensuous, baroque, and exotic.
I’m glad you reviewed this — I too found the visuals striking, but unlike you I couldn’t stand the lead performances. I thought that Dane and Cara had zero chemistry together; in fact, I thought Dane as ‘leading man’ was a stretch. For example, that scene you mention with the Ubangis — when Dane was fighting them I thought to myself I don’t believe in him as an action hero for one minute. I think you are spot on though about Rihanna, and I liked her dance sequence.
I was sorry that this movie didn’t make much money — I think a director like Besson should be encouraged to take sci-fi risks like this film and do interesting visual things.
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I agree. Space movies don’t need a villain; the difficulties of space are sufficient. “Gravity” had no sentient villain. Same with “The Martian”. And “Passengers” (unless you count its antihero).
And I am glad it lost money. Besson proved he cannot be trusted with this property.