In the 28th Century, humans have spread out across the universe. Many live in a city called Alpha which started life as the International Space Station. It’s a vast, labyrinthine structure of different environments and it houses millions of beings from many planets. The multitude of species co-exist peacefully and share their knowledge. When there is trouble, the police have two particularly effective operatives to deal with difficult cases, Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline.
Valerian and Laureline travel to a hyper dimensional mall called Big Market. Their mission is to retrieve something called a converter from a black marketeer. The item turns out to be a small, allegedly cute dragon. It was originally possessed by the people of the mysteriously-destroyed planet Mül and the few remaining survivors want their tiny dragon back.
However, there are other parties who also want the creature, so our heroes have to sort out these competing interests while staying alive. The various peoples of Alpha aren’t always happy to see their cops. Running in tandem with the adventure tale are Valerian’s attempts to persuade Laureline to marry him. She doesn’t take him seriously and views him as a playboy rather than a viable fiancee.
The movie’s source material, Valerian et Laureline, is the French science fiction comic written by Pierre Christin and drawn by artist Jean-Claude Mézières. It began life in 1967 in the magazine Pilote. It ran until 2010 and has been cited as one of the visual inspirations of the original Star Wars.
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is directed by veteran filmmaker Luc Besson. He was influenced by Christin and Mézières’s vision in childhood and attempted to adapt the comic series to the big screen more than twenty years ago. He decided the sheer difficulty of creating the multitude of alien races was too much and instead, developed an old sci-fi idea of his own, that became THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997). It was James Cameron’s AVATAR (2009) and its creation of the Na’vi that convinced Besson that movie technology was now sufficient to do justice to the world of Laureline and Valerian. Indeed, the aliens of Mül have been made to look more Na’vi-like than Christin’s original drawings, by way of tribute to Cameron, one imagines.
The movie is a true passion project for Besson. It is even dedicated to his father; and believe me, Besson has delivered a dazzling, visually awesome recreation of the science-fiction universe he fell in love with. There are brilliant sequences, such as the hunt for the dragon creature in Big Market. This virtual market world operates in multi-dimensions simultaneously and the directorial mastery required for this action sequence is impressive. The opening scene is also a corker. We see the development of the world of Alpha. A series of world leaders greet each other through future history and eventually welcome alien races to the space city. (Here Besson does a John Landis and slips in cameos from director buddies like Louis Leterrier and Olivier Megaton). There is much to appreciate here.
Sadly, the title characters are duds. Dane DeHaan puts in a listless performance as Valerian. Cara Delevingne has the occasional good moment as Laureline, but doesn’t seem ready to carry a movie. They are further hampered by old-fashioned dialogue which I hope was lifted from the 1960s issues of the comic. Any chat that refers to their possible marriage is extremely dull and sounds like the kind of thing that prescription tranquillisers were invented to silence. This bickering carries on between the running and explosion bits and reminded me of the misunderstandings of the young couple in Neil Simon’s BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1967), rather than a futuristic take on relationships.
Unfortunately, the action doesn’t balance out the movie’s other flaws, either. It ranges from so-so to adequate. Here, I thought the movie was burdened with too much computer-generated imagery. Specifically, when the bad guys were substantially CG-creations, the action seemed muddled and slow-moving.
It is to be expected that a film from Besson will lead with its imagery, he is one of the Cinéma du look guys, after all, however, the other parts of the package needed to be stronger. For audiences hoping for a kind of partner to The Fifth Element, this current film is a match for the earlier one visually, but it lacks compelling characters and a strong story.
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS runs for 2 hours and 17 minutes. My rating (5/10)