VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Luc Besson

Stars: Dane De Haan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Herbie Hancock, Rutger Hauer, Louis Leterrier, Olivier Megaton, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, voices of Elizabeth Debicki, John Goodman.

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Twenty years after he gave us The Fifth Element, director Luc Besson returns to the futuristic sci-fi genre with this flawed special-effects heavy space opera that plays out on a grander and visually epic canvas.

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is based on the ground-breaking series of graphic novels depicting the adventures of special agents Valerian and Laureline, which were written by Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mezieres. The series ran for 21 volumes between 1967 and 2010, and was widely considered to be a huge influence on many of the sci fi films churned out by Hollywood in the past four decades. Besson was a fan of the series and first toyed with the idea of adapting Valerian to the screen back in the 90s, but decided that the special effects technology available then would not do justice to the ambitious vision of the material.

This film largely draws upon the sixth book in the series, but it is a bit of a mess. Besson throws too many ideas at the screen, and even though it has a generous running time of 140 minutes it still seems too crowded and overloaded with subplots and ideas. The film explores themes of corruption, genocide, greed, and Valerian has plenty of subplots running throughout its narrative. But, ultimately, there are far too many ideas, some clunky dialogue and underdeveloped characters.

The film is set in the 28th century. Space Station Alpha began life as a scientific research station but over time it has grown into a huge outpost, a multi-cultural community that is host to some 8000-intergalactic species supposedly living and working in harmony. But now Alpha is under threat from some mysterious force. Special agents Valerian (played by Dane De Haan, from The Place Beyond The Pines, etc) and Laureline (played by former model Cara Delevingne, from the recent Suicide Squad, etc) work for the Space Federation, and are charged by the Minister of Defence (jazz musician Herbie Hancock) with retrieving a strange device known as a Mui converter, a reptilian creature which has the power to replicate whatever it swallows. The quest takes the pair on a dimension-hopping heist at a virtual market, a spectacular and imaginative 18-minute sequence that is one of the highlights of the film.

The budget for Valerian is reputed to be $180 million, making this the most expensive “independent” production in cinematic history, but it is easy to see where most of the money has gone. Besson has let his imagination run wild here, but more thought seems to have gone into the visuals and special effects than a coherent narrative. Several VFX houses, including Weta, ILM and many others, have been involved in creating the spectacular look of the film. Regular cinematographer Thierry Arbogast has done a superb job with the eye popping visuals, and its use of 3D is as impressive as the first time you saw Avatar on the big screen. Besson and his creative team have put a lot of effort into creating these visually rich intergalactic worlds and an array of alien creatures. There is some stunning production design from his regular collaborator Hughes Tissandier and some outlandish costumes from Olivier Beriot that enrich Besson’s audacious vision.

Where the film falls down is in the casting. De Haan and Delevingne have precious little chemistry. De Haan here seems miscast; he is too young to play the heroic and daring roguish space cowboy Valerian, and he comes across as awkward and stilted. Delevingne acquits herself well in the physical action. Clive Owen plays Commander Fillet, the head of the Federation, but he is a one-dimensional character and is given little to do. Rhianna fares better as Bubble, a shape shifting cabaret singer, while Ethan Hawke contributes a bizarre and camp cameo as Jolly the Pimp. There are some amusing cameos interspersed throughout the film, including Rutger Hauer (blink and you miss him), Hancock, Mathieu Kassovitz, and directors Louis Letierre (director of Clash Of The Titans, etc) and Olivier Magaton (Taken 2 and 3, etc).

Any hopes of developing another film based on the exploits of Valerian and Laureline may well be stillborn after this ambitious but hugely flawed adventure.
★★☆

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