Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Filmmaker Luc Besson has built a reputation of being a true auteur. He’s often credited with inventing true, iconic, strong female characters in cinema – badass ladies like Mathilda (in LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL), Leeloo (in THE FIFTH ELEMENT), Nikita (in LA FEMME NIKITA), and Lucy (in LUCY). He’s even re-imagined genres in innovative ways, putting his signature berserk touch on even the most boring of historical biopics (THE MESSENGER: THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC). With his intuitive sense of character and world design, one would think his current labor of love VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS would fare better. What results is a disappointing mixed bag. Based on the French comic book series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, Besson’s cinematic adaptation is as much a spectacle as it is a stinker.
Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Agent Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are summoned by Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen) to Alpha, the titular city home to thousands of races, to investigate a menace threatening to destroy it from the inside out. Their ensuing quest involves unraveling the mystery of a genocide – and a potential military cover-up. Together they deep dive into the city’s multitude of layers in order to save the universe.
VALERIAN’s strengths lie in its effortless visual world-building and dazzling beauty. Besson gives you plenty of time to explore a few of the awe-inducing moments within those worlds as well – like the entire opening set on Mul, the chase through the Big Market, and Valerian’s spaceship pursuit through Alpha’s corridors. Especially inventive is a bonkers tangent wherein alien Bubble (Rihanna) morphs seductively as her glam-space-cowboy-pimp, Jolly (Ethan Hawke, looking like he’s having a blast), shows off. Though the 3-D is sub-par, suffering from ghosting (particularly in the space shots), the visual effects from WETA digital are second to none. Each creature’s race looks strikingly different and unique. You’ll want to explore each of the thousand planets that make up Alpha Station, marinating in their cultures and carefree frivolity. And just as we coveted Leeloo’s eye-makeup-applier in THE FIFTH ELEMENT, you’ll yearn for your very own “converter,” the tiny space dragon who shits precious stones.
Despite all the ingenuity, this is an absolute failure from a storytelling standpoint. So much so, it gets incredibly irritating. Besson’s screenplay utterly fails at giving the audience reasons why they should care about any of the characters. Before the heavily expository speech dumps in the third act, he never answers the how, what and why of each scene. What are we rooting for? What are the stakes of their quest? Why isn’t the execution of these ideas better?
While the overarching story can be simplified, as a whole, the way it’s told and laid out is terribly unwieldy. The filmmakers treat the plot as an unfolding mystery when it’s very clear who the corrupt person is and who is seeking payback. Many times our main characters are trailing far behind what we already know.
Narratively, a lot of this is nonsense. Action sequences don’t yield character-driven resonance. The chase through the Big Market may be there to show us how these two function within their dysfunction, but it becomes plodding. More time is eaten up throughout, made most egregious with the Fake Jabba character (voiced by John Goodman) threatening a return that never materializes. Thematic sentiments about collateral damage, genocide, ecology and the consequence and futility of war are integrated softly, but they are both achingly underdeveloped and overdeveloped. It also seems massively silly to be talking about such seriousness given the nonsense that overtakes the picture, but, you know, welcome to Besson’s madness. This is why he’s endearing.
Another thing VALERIAN has working against it are the two leads. Not only does the poor material not afford them fleshed-out, three-dimensional characters, but the character traits exhibited don’t work at all. There are no standout hero moments for either of the characters, though I suppose the pair are on equal ground as Laureline is – albeit briefly (roughly five minutes) – tasked with “rescuing” Valerian. Then Valerian must turn around and rescue her, which takes up a much larger portion of the film.
DeHaan, who I think is a decent talent in other films, is wildly miscast. It’s clear he’s putting forth his best Han Solo impression, but in his hands, it comes across as weird and smarmy. When it comes to his character, Besson’s adaptation does a lot of telling and not showing – so we never see nor feel the weight of his womanizing and repentance. Delevingne, who assuredly has beauty and some cinematic charisma, is marginally better in the unattainable Princess Leia role. Truth be told though, she’s got zero chemistry with DeHaan. Their casting seems unusual given neither of them are names that, to use the studio executive parlance of our time, “put asses in seats.” Had this been two French leads – say Romain Duris or Nicolas Duvauchelle and Alice Pol or Sara Forestier – their relationship would be endearingly cheeky fun. As is, their witty repartee doesn’t ignite the necessary sparks.
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS opens on July 21.