Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is French director Luc Besson’s latest indulgence, and with a budget in the vicinity of $US200 million it has become not only the most expensive European film ever made, but also the most expensive independent film of all time. Returning to the aesthetic of his 1997 cult hit The Fifth Element, Besson has conjured a visceral cinematic experience based on much-loved French comic book Valérian and Laureline, which was a driving influence behind The Fifth Element, as well as Star Wars, and yet it is disconcerting when the two major points of comparison for the film are The Phantom Menace and Jupiter Ascending.
The film opens with an enticing montage sequence set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Beginning in the year 1975, we are shown the evolution of an international space station, which adapts into an intergalactic metropolis called Alpha, home to thousands of species. The film’s story takes place in the 28th century and follows two military soldiers on a mission to identify a menacing force that threatens to destroy Alpha. Their assignment sees them weaving through a patchwork of alien environments and fighting an endless assortment of creatures.
First of all, there are some favourable things to take away from the movie… such as the size of Besson’s vision and, perhaps, the audacity to attempt such a colossal project without the support of a major studio. But such praise is faint. The truth: Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets is an exceptional piece of shit.
In 2016, Besson was sued by American director John Carpenter. Besson’s film Lockout had been ruled a blatant rip-off of Escape from New York and he was forced to pay over $US500,000 in damages. And so it boggles the mind that Besson would turn to a project like Valerian, which owes its gratitude to countless films before it. One can only assume that having the legitimate source material of a beloved comic book has allowed him to evade similar accusations of infringement, because there’s no denying that Valerian looks like many other films and is unapologetic in its delivery.
The first notable flaw is the casting of Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as the leads. I cannot think of two less charismatic actors to command a film of this magnitude, and their lack of chemistry makes for one hell of a tedious dynamic. DeHaan puts in a particularly poor performance and fails to connect with the material. His boyish appearance and cocky demeanour showcases a huge casting misstep, and highlights why casting is such an integral part of filmmaking. The supporting cast is also underwhelming, with the likes of Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke and Herbie Hancock all struggling to find stability amongst the rubble. Oh, and if you were excited about Rutger Hauer’s involvement in the film, be sure not to blink.
The overindulgence and saturation of visual effects makes Valerian a difficult film to define. Is it live-action or is it animation? The distinction is almost impossible to make, but for the sake of the “real actors” on screen, let’s just call it “live action”. Besson throws digital effects at the screen the way Jackson Pollock flings paint at a canvas; it’s a convoluted mess of concepts. Thousands of digital creatures populate the screen while the characters hopscotch their way through high-concept landscapes that pass by the audience with fleeting succession. There is just too much going on and the result is one giant mess of a film.
Full kudos to Besson for having the tenacity to attempt such a gigantic feat, and good luck to him on making his money back (he’ll need all the luck in the world). But may he be held accountable for delivering one of the year’s most turdish exploits, and damn him for wasting 140 minutes of my time.