I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong about this. Not just because I sense this theory doesn’t apply to Europe, but also because I could be misreading his reception in the U.S. Is it no longer cool to like Luc Besson? I ask because I’m pretty sure it’s no longer cool to like Luc Besson. Again, I could be wrong but I get the feeling that general audiences and even the more serious film-goers who would read this blog kind of just roll their eyes and yawn at the thought of a Besson movie. Why wasn’t the crazed, genre-defying LUCY a bigger hit or, at the very least, a cult hit? Two years after it was released, the film waivers somewhere in-between forgotten and loathed, overshadowed by the similarly crazed but inferior JOHN WICK. With every passing moment hits like LA FEMME NIKITA, THE FIFTH ELEMENT and the achingly French LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL slowly loosen whatever grip they had on the pop-cultural zeitgeist. Ridley Scott -- another purely visual filmmaker -- carries more weight than Besson does these days and that’s unfair. Unlike Scott, there’s no pretense to what Besson does. More importantly, Besson has never made a boring movie. He’s made bad movies. Several of them. Who remembers ANGEL-A? Or ARTHUR AND THE INVISIBLES? Or that Joan of Arc movie where Dustin Hoffman plays the voice of god? But as bad as these movies were, they were never boring. VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is the closest Besson has come to making a film that is both bad and boring. Mind you, it never quite gets there but, fuckitty fuck, does it come close.
The film opens on an appropriately bewildering note as we’re thrown into an alien landscape without a pre-credits scroll or a voiceover to hold our tiny hands and reassure us that everything is OK. Blue, sylph-like aliens with tall willowy bodies happily go through their inexplicable daily routines as they wander in and out of seashell houses. Throughout this sequence, these otherworldly creatures rub luminescent pearls into their faces and feed those same pearls to friendly, Muppet-y, aardvark beasts that puff up and shit crystal-like objects into a well. Like the Pierre Christin/Jean-Claude Mézières comic on which this movie is based, it’s all very appealing in its Euro, Jean Girard (Moebius) inspired visuals. VALERIAN also has confidence that you’ll either figure out what’s happening on screen or simply adjust to the alien goings-on. Admittedly, the look of the aliens seems to be cribbed from those from AVATAR. But unlike James Cameron’s shrug-inducing creations, there’s a dreamy, almost creepy quality to these aliens. Like a Pixar project filtered through the surreal sensibilities of Alejandro Jodorowsky, it’s hard not to get your hopes up throughout these gently crazy moments. Of course, it’s only moments later when those hopes come crashing to the ground. As it turns out, these aliens appear to exist only in the dreams of Valerian (Dane DeHaan), a mopey secret agent/astronaut.
There’s a lot of odd casting decisions in VALERIAN: Herbie Hancock shows up in a surprisingly large role as earth’s defense minister, Rutger Hauer is cast as the president of earth, Ethan Hawke appears in a glorified cameo as Rihanna’s oily pimp, Olivier Megaton plays the sci-fi equivalent to a Wal-Mart greeter. Like Richard Kelly’s SOUTHLAND TALES, Besson peppers Valerian with non-actors and intentionally casts performers in roles they’re ill-suited to play. It’s an interesting experiment but like the casting in SOUTHLAND TALES, it’s an experiment that always doesn’t work. And the reason it doesn’t always work is because the camera is almost always focused on DeHaan and Cara Delevingne -- as Valerian and Laureline, respectively. Individually, they’re terrible, but together they suggest what would happen if texter/murderer Michelle Carter had been cast in dual roles in some kind of sci-fi infused Klumps tour de force. When we first see the duo they’re trading flirty exposition in a bored, disaffected way. DeHaan and Delevingne’s performance is reminiscent of Monica Vitti’s decision to play her titular character as a drunk, faintly annoyed socialite in Joseph Losey’s underrated MODESTY BLAISE. Unfortunately, in DeHaan and Delevingne’s hands, disaffected and bored reads as wooden and blank. They also look so much alike, I thought Valerian and Laureline were supposed to be incestuous fraternal twins, which is, ironically, a plot development that would have made Valerian a lot more interesting.
Still, Besson manages to briefly distract attention away from DeHaan and Delevingne’s deadening performances by introducing a set-piece so insane and so knowingly, beautifully convoluted that you’ll nearly forgive the film for the many flaws that will be forthcoming in the next two-and-a-half hours. For muddled reasons that will be kind of explained later, DeHaan and Delevingne pose as tourists in order to retrieve one of the Muppet-y aardvark beasts from the prologue at something resembling a decaying flea-market/refugee-camp on a very Tattooine-ish planet. What makes this sequence incredible is the fact that the flea-market exists in another dimension and all of its customers are required to wear a special VR Helmet in order to visit it. Throughout these moments Besson juxtaposes footage of DeHaan and Delevingne attempting to navigate through a separate dimension, in which everything seems to exist within one giant alien bazaar, while they clumsily stumble into various unseen obstacles in their own dimension. Although, flashy and CGI driven, there’s a sense of playful invention throughout this sequence the rest of the movie mostly lacks. Once they acquire the aardvark thing and escort it back to the titular City of a Thousand Planets (a/k/a Space Station Alpha), Valerian morphs into something inert and conventional.
It’s strange that Valerian falls apart the moment they arrive aboard Alpha, especially considering this is the exact moment when the film should be gaining even more momentum. If Alpha is the home to thousands of different alien species, why does this film world suddenly seem so narrow? Probably because this is the exact moment when Valerian drops its surreal set pieces and the plot kicks in. Valerian and Laureline are tasked with protecting Clive Owen as a space commander and not-so-secret badguy whose evil intentions Besson telegraphs almost immediately. If it isn’t obvious when Owen is rude to Herbie Hancock for no particular reason, it will be when it’s revealed he has a private army of killer robots that only listen to him. At any rate, the aardvark thing that Valerian and Laureline retrieved from the Phantom Zone garage sale holds the key to destroying a perceived threat that’s hiding in the center of Alpha. However considering just how transparently oily Owen’s character is, it’s easy to figure out that not everything is as it seems. As the story becomes more mechanical and the weirdness goes on an extended intermission, everything bad about Valerian is magnified. Dialogue, never Besson’s strong suit, is atrocious. The phrase, “We’ve got company”, may or may not have been uttered in this movie but it feels like that was the only thing the characters ever said. The dialogue carries the generic, unmemorable, fuck-it-there’s-going-to-be-a-laser-here-so who-really-gives-a-shit qualities of STAR WARS knock-offs and, let’s face it, STAR WARS itself. Making matters more unbearable is the fact that this bad dialogue is mumbled out indifferently by DeHaan and Delevingne who, again, are so sorely miscast in this movie. In a just world, they would have been models who made one ironic cameo appearance in a Larry Clark movie as junkies ten years ago before being mostly remembered for a mildly controversial VMA Awards scuffle in 2002. Maybe Marilyn Manson threw a phone at one of them or something. My point is, they both have the generic qualities of someone a decade ago whose fame was defined by the fact that they were hot enough for Wilmer Valderama to fuck and discard. Even worse, the film’s points about multi-culturism and the environment are heavy-handed but also unfocused and secondary. It’s like being lectured by someone about global warming who keeps forgetting what their point was and, instead, starts talking about their favorite episodes of FARSCAPE.
But sandwiched between these elements and way too many “funny” bits in which a trio of sleazy, alien informants speak in that sing-songy way Huey, Dewey and Louie completed each other’s sentences are genuinely amazing moments. At the end of the second act, the film diverges briefly from its storyline as Valerian and Laureline separate briefly. Laureline finds herself held captive by Ogres after she was snagged by fishing lure made specifically for tricking humans. Valerian is forced into enlisting the help of shape-shifting stripper (Rihanna) in order to rescue Laureline. For just a brief moment the anything goes craziness of THE FIFTH ELEMENT returns with a slapstick fight scene, Delevingne decked out in a strange ceremonial outfit that at first glance seems gratuitous but reveals a more practical, sinister purpose and a show-stopping music number in which Rihanna (who is fun, charming and underused) morphs into every possible stripper persona in a manner of seconds. But once this tangent ends, VALERIAN goes back to trying the audience’s patience for the remainder of its overlong running time.
VALERIAN is not a successful movie. It’s uneven and, at times, surprisingly predictable. But, it’s not the trainwreck Rotten Tomatoes would lead you to believe. With that said, VALERIAN is still a disappointment. It’s probably one of the rare films that’s improved if you go to the bathroom a lot in movie theatres because you’ll miss a big chunk of the dialogue.