Adapted from the comic book series Valerian and Laureline, the decision by writer/director Luc Besson to go with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets as the film’s title is interesting because it fails to acknowledge the fact that the story is very much about a partnership in which both characters contribute equally to the narrative action. Furthermore, Besson is on record as declaring that one of the reasons the comics were so appealing to him when he discovered them in the 1970’s was the fact that “it was the first time we saw this modern girl kicking ass.” Perhaps it is fitting therefore that, given the less-than-inspired performance from Dane DeHann as Valerian, it is actually Cara Delevingne’s Laureline who is the saving grace in a film that becomes bogged down by the weight of its excesses. France’s most expensive film ever, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is brimming with elaborate costumes and effects, often to the detriment of the story and character development. While comparisons with other science-fiction films are inevitable given so much of what we see seems so familiar, the fact that the comic was first published in 1967 suggests that maybe it is Star Wars and Besson’s own The Fifth Element that have drawn their influence from the adventures of Valerian and Laureline, rather than the other way around.
Valerian is very much of the Han Solo mould; cocky, careless and unable to admit when he is wrong. The problem is that DeHaan lacks the charisma that Harrison Ford imbued in Solo or which Chris Pratt brings to Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy. Both of these characters combine witty repartee and delusional self-confidence with deeds of derring-do that make them a hell of a lot of fun. DeHaan is dull in the lead role here, delivering a one-note performance; every line delivered with the same po-faced sincerity. As such, it is left to Delevingne to carry the load and she is remarkably assured in what is very much the co-lead. Whilst the story is essentially about the efforts of Valerian and Laureline to save a rat-like creature that poops pearls, there are, of course, an array of obstacles (human, technological and extra-terrestrial) that need to be overcome if they are to succeed in their mission and subsequently neutralise a threat to destroy the space-station metropolis of Alpha, which is home to species from a thousand different planets.
It goes without saying that there is an evil overlord whose actions have put Alpha in jeopardy, and in this instance it is Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) who, having ordered the destruction of the planet Hui some 30 years earlier, wants to eliminate the few remaining former inhabitants of the planet who managed to escape and are now living on Alpha. Rihanna features as a shape shifting burlesque performer named Bubble, jazz legend Herbie Hancock is Alpha’s Defence Minister and Ethan Hawke looks like he is having fun as a flamboyant club proprietor. Rutger Hauer makes an all-too-brief appearance very early as President of the World State Organisation and, given the state of local and international politics at the moment, the idea of Rutger ruling the world holds considerable appeal.
Besson has enjoyed an eclectic career as a director, delivering a diverse collection of films – in both quality and content – that range from the superb Leon: The Professional, to animated adventure Arthur and the Invisibles, the biographical drama The Lady, mafia misfire The Family and the somewhat silly Scarlett Johansson-starring Lucy – and it is unlikely there is anybody else brave (or crazy) enough to bring Valerian to the big screen. As a risk-taker, Besson is prone to stumble on occasion but his ambition and audacity as a filmmaker are something to admire. With Weta Digital, Rodeo FX and Industrial Light and Magic joining forces to create the visual effects that infiltrate every scene, the world that has been created is a kaleidoscope of colour, action and digital wizardry that, whilst very impressive, doesn’t compensate for the lack of substance in the narrative. Delevingne brings the right amount of sass, spunk and sarcasm to Laureline and Owen is actually pretty good in a role that, in the wrong hands, could have easily tipped into parody (and not in a good way). Ultimately, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets emerges as a spectacular-looking confection that is enjoyable enough at the time but unlikely to leave a lasting impression.