The spirit of The Fifth Element lives on in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Luc Besson’s adaptation of the popular French comic Valérian and Laureline that comes with a $200-million budget and, if opening weekend tallies are any indication, little hope of recouping that at the box office.
Everyone complains about the lack of originality at the multiplex: discounting animated features, 90% of the top 20 grossing films in 2016 were franchise films (Hidden Figures and La La Land the lone exceptions) and it’s the same story so far in 2017 (Get Out and Split).
And yet whenever an original thought enters the blockbuster realm, in the form of a Jupiter Ascending or Gods of Egypt, audiences stay away and critics rejoice in trashing the latest big-budget bomb. The current state of things in Hollywood is no accident.
It wasn’t like that twenty years ago, when the majority of top-grossing films were original creations. Besson’s wildly inventive Fifth Element wasn’t well-received at the time, but today it’s something of a sci-fi classic and better remembered than that year’s crop of sequels, which included The Lost World, Batman & Robin, and Speed 2: Cruise Control.
Valerian is cut from the same cloth: a phantasmagoria of weird and wild characters, props, sets, and even story ideas, it’s always an interesting thing to look and and try to figure out, though the plot deceptively resolves itself in conventional manner by the end.
In the movie’s first big action sequence, for example, spatio-temporal space agent Valerian (Dan DeHaan) must thwart a shady transaction – in another dimension. He’s in a desert, but also inside a giant marketplace that can only be interacted with through special props. When his hand gets stuck in one dimension, partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) must come to his aid.
In another showstopping sequence, the movie takes a 25-minute break from it’s main storyline so Valerian can rescue Laureline from a society of primitive alien creatures that look as if they were made of clay. To infiltrate their society, he seeks out an intergalactic pimp (Ethan Hawke) and a shapeshifting pole dancer played by Rihanna (when she isn’t an amorphous blob).
The movie takes place on Alpha, an enormous space station that contains hundreds of various humanoid-alien beings (hence the title), and where all life is threatened by a vague but imminent threat. Commander Arun Filitt (a bland Clive Owen) and General Okto-Bar (Sam Spruell, who’s great here) enlist the aid of Valerian and Laureline, their top agents.
The proper plot involves a race of peaceful alien beings whose planet was decimated, and existence wiped from the history books, twenty years ago. But any description of the events of the film can’t compete with the tangled mess of a narrative and the overflowing visual information on display.
Valerian is fast, loose, and overflowing with original ideas and creations. It’s a lot of fun. But as much fun as I had with the sets and costumes and general weirdness on display, there’s one near-fatal flaw: the casting of Dane DeHaan as our dashing hero.
DeHaan is a talented actor, but there’s a reason he’s typically cast as a villain (in movies like Chronicle and The Amazing Spider-Man). I don’t want to say there’s something innately sinister about him, but he’s more of a Willem Dafoe than a Tom Cruise, which the script wants in the role. His constant romantic banter with Delevingne comes off as creepy.
But instead of recasting the part, the filmmakers should have recast the role: they have a perfect lead in Laureline, who should have been the focus of the film – a modern version of Jane Fonda’s Barbarella.
Delevingne brings just the right amount of sincerity to the role, and the film is at its best when she’s off on her own. But while she gets a couple of token lines about getting an equal share of the action, she’s firmly thrust to the sidelines while DeHaan takes center stage, and the film suffers for it.
Casting issues aside, the vivid Valerian is breath of fresh air in a marketplace deprived of originality, and certainly worth catching for the visual experience alone. It’s been about as well-received as Besson’s Fifth Element; if that’s any indication, it may well be revered as a sci-fi classic by 2037.
In-joke for French film fans: directors Xavier Giannoli, Louis Leterrier, Eric Rochant, Benoît Jacquot, Olivier Megaton, and Mathieu Kassovitz all appear in cameos.