Valerian: Love Will Bring Us Together
Written Review by David Carter
Luc Besson has never been a director to concern himself with traditional narrative and storytelling. This isn’t to say that he’s not concerned with commercialism and crowd pleasing. As a matter of fact, Besson was denied entry to the National School of Cinema because his influences were considered too American and too commercial (Scorsese, Spielberg, and Coppola were some names he rattled off). What makes Besson so interesting is his dedication to style over the substance of his films, or maybe rather style AS substance. His films are always about something, it’s just that he’s more concerned with aesthetic and archetypes as shorthand for the very simple but very affecting stories he’s trying to tell. The Jean-Pierre Melville cool meets Tony Scott-esque visual saturation and melodrama of The Professional to tell a story about unlikely spiritual kinship. Lucy uses pseudo-science combined with schlock and awe to get the audience on board with sophomoric ideas about shared consciousness and our primal connection to nature.
They’re big ideas played out in big unsubtle ways. The biggest and most unsubtle of which has to be Besson’s magnum opus The Fifth Element. A movie that takes 126 minutes to tell the audience about the three most important things in the universe: love, Love, and LOVE. Using an aesthetic that can only be described as Moebius by way of Die Hard, Besson uses planet sized manifestations of evil to go up against a hyper intelligent and capable being of empathy to tell the audience that if we are to last as species we have to open ourselves to the fundamental element of love. It’s no surprise that he would return to this well 20 years when empathy and care seem to be in even shorter supply by adapting the highly influential French comic series Valerian and Laureline. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets serves as a spiritual follow-up to The Fifth Element. One that fully realizes Besson’s visual scope and intention but unfortunately isn’t quite as put together on a textual level.
It’s the 28th century and after years of finally getting our affairs in order, humanity is a part of the galactic collective. What started as U.S. space station has over the course of centuries transformed into its own hub for thousands of species to cohabitate and conduct business. Agents Valerian (Dane Dehaan who is woefully miscast), a thick headed “by the rules” womanizer and Laureline (Cara Delevingne who knows exactly what type of movie she’s in) a no nonsense but welcomely empathetic badass, are responsible for keeping the peace and stopping any potential threats to the galaxy. We see them thwart a potentially dangerous trade in an extra dimensional marketplace ( a concept so cool that I wish it wasn’t just tossed aside). The trade in question has to do with a civilization of Na’vi-esque beings that were wiped out by mysterious circumstances. As Valerian and Laureline go deeper to find out what the hubbub is about they are lead down an increasingly dangerous (and zany) path of incidents that will unlock bigger truths they may not be ready for.
The truths in question come into direct conflict with the utopia of interspecies harmony the movie wants us to believe in. The opening scene itself is a masterclass in succinct saccharine sweet storytelling. Set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, we see one nation become many and one planet become a galaxy all because of a simple handshake and a little tenderness. It’s peak Luc Besson. It’s the stylistic shorthand I mentioned earlier taken to its logical extreme. Of course the narrative would have to conflict with this scene (one that plays almost like the epilogue to another film) but that conflict (one about human folly combined with individuals lack of compassion) never quite reaches the highs that this opening scene sets up, but that’s fine because this is one of those films where the destination isn’t what we pay money for. It’s the journey.
What a journey we get. One filled with colorful creatures, esoteric concepts and musicians (Herbie “I was in one of the best quintets in history” Hancock is on screen for multiple scenes and actually does a pretty good job delivering clunky dialogue) and character actors galore. You can see Besson really stretching out from the practical limitations put upon him in The Fifth Element. Alien creatures show up and disappear on screen within a second, but it’s more than just superfluous set dressing, it shows you the scope of how many sentient beings there are in the universe and how crazy it is that we have this level of understanding and cohabitation. One of those creatures is the shapeshifting-mind-reader Bubble played with aplomb by Rihanna who’s introduced to us rapid fire quick change strip tease where she dons every PG-13 fetish costume she can in about 70 seconds. It’s a showstopper, one that’s only manageable because for what Rihanna lacks in acting skill she more than makes up for in showmanship, personality screen presence. French actor Alain Chabat literally pops in to steal a scene as “Bob the pirate”. There’s even a cameo by a respectable Gen X icon to play a straight up space pimp, and you can tell it was an eventful fun day on set.
Unfortunately, for all the praise I can heap on the movie for its colorful characters, the main characters don’t really cut the mustard. Clive Owens Commander Arun Filit feel almost like an afterthought. Valerian feels like it was implicitly written for a seasoned actor like Bruce Willis and Dehaan can’t really play that type of role. Dehaan is 31 years old but he plays the character like a 16-year-old posturing like he’s in his late 40’s. It doesn’t help that the way his character is written is begging for some sort of undercutting. He’s a masculine lunk head lothario who thinks he really truly loves Laureline but doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to show it. He’s pretty much Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy but without a Chris Pratt in the role to undercut the more agro tendencies. Hell, even Bruce Willis could play a role like this with a knowing grin. Cara Delevingne makes out much better as the “straight man.” While I think her role would be better served by an older actress, she at least realizes how broad the movie is and plays the part in the easiest to understand manner possible. By far the best stretch of the film is when she’s tasked to rescue Valerian. His absence is welcome and her mini adventure has her bouncing off some great personalities. It’s important I single out these two actors because the gender dynamics in this movie are all over the place. Sometimes it plays out with giving female characters agency, other times it feels like a screenplay from the mid 80’s. Besson has gone on record as saying the Valerians overblown machismo was intentional because he finds that men at this point are overrated and has Laureline be the brain and heart of the film. Unfortunately, the movie’s too broad to subvert that dynamic and it just comes off as an unlikable character lusting after his co-worker (who he probably has a romantic past with but it’s not handled well). The movies so big hearted and dopey that these issues don’t cripple it, but they do stick out.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is like when you take colorful birthday cake and ice cream and mix it into a mish mash. It looks kaleidoscopic and beautiful in a garish way, it’ll fill you and leave you feeling good for a little bit but eventually the sugar high wears off. You don’t feel terrible afterward and you’re glad you consumed it because it was a reminder of something good and wonderful but there’s barely anything nutritious about it. However, it’s damned good cake and there’s nothing wrong with having a little more cake in the world.