VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS. Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer. Directed by Luc Besson. 137 minutes. Rated M (Science fiction violence).
‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ is a very risky proposition, a mega-budget adaptation of a long-running French sci-fi comic with limited recognition outside of its home country and niche international circles. Written and directed by Luc Besson, it’s evidently a passion project for the famed Frenchman behind classics like ‘The Fifth Element’ and ‘Léon: The Professional’, as well as recent hit ‘Lucy’. It succeeds on certain levels – Besson’s work is visually splendid and he knows how to construct innovative action set pieces, plus he has a strong grasp of story mechanics. However, some of the roles feel miscast, not helped by the often stilted dialogue and glut of slick CGI.
In a pre-title sequence, Besson tracks the creation of the titular city, Alpha, built around the remnants of the International Space Station. It’s upbeat and fun, scored by Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ and loaded with cameos by French directors (and frequent Besson collaborators) like Louis Leterrier (the first two ‘Transporter’ films) and Olivier Megaton (the two ‘Taken’ sequels). As human visitors are replaced by new alien species and the city reaches critical mass, the President of Earth (Rutger Hauer) announces that Alpha will be jettisoned from the Earth’s orbit to head into space.
We cut to 450 years later, where we find a humanoid species known as Pearls living in harmony with their stunning, tropical island planet, Mül, until the burning remnants of a destroyed space fleet begin nightmarishly tumbling through their atmosphere. A few of the Pearls take refuge in the hull of a wrecked ship before Mül is totally obliterated. Lightyears away, this sequence is revealed to be a vision experienced by spatio-temporal agent Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan), who is en route to a mission with his partner, Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne). Though disoriented by what he’s seen, nothing can stop the lothario Valerian from making aggressive advances on Laureline; while this relationship may be true to the spirit of the comics (I haven’t read them myself), that doesn’t mean it’s not misadvised and creepy. If it looks like a harassment lawsuit now, we must have regressed somewhat between the 21st and 28th centuries.
They arrive on a desert planet that’s home to an interdimensional marketplace, where their goal is to retrieve the last of a species of creature that has landed on the black market. What follows is a terrific set piece, as futuristic tech allows parts of Valerian’s body to separately traverse dimensions to locate and nab the coveted animal. A technological malfunction means that Valerian must improvise a new plan, avoiding the criminals hellbent on hunting him down amidst the crowded stalls. Cutting between the bustling market and vast swathes of sand, Besson puts together a taste of what he’s capable of, inventive and spectacular action full of colour and eye-catching designs. As with ‘John Carter’ in 2012, there’s a sense that the source material may have inspired so many other creatives in the meantime that plenty of elements feel familiar (their puck-shaped ship looks and sounds like the Millennium Falcon, for instance), yet there’s enough pace and fresh details to skate past these flashes of déjà vu.
Once their mission is over, Valerian and Laureline report to Alpha, where they’re informed by Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) that a mysterious source of toxic radioactivity has been detected in the heart of the city, and appears to be growing. Of several recon teams sent to investigate, none have returned. Our heroes are tasked with protecting Commander Filitt in the shadow of this threat, though the Commander may know more than he is letting on. Things escalate when a group of Pearls attack an interstation crisis meeting and kidnap Filitt – in the ensuing chase, Valerian and Laureline are separated, and between trying to find each other and the Commander, they move closer to solving the mystery at the heart of the city.
Everything coalesces nicely, in the sense that the mystery and action are carefully intertwined, but there’s ultimately a bit much going on. One gets the sense that Besson couldn’t decide which of his favourite moments from the forty-plus years of the comic’s history to adapt, so he’s shoehorned too many into the one feature. Some streamlining could have helped the plot define its stakes better. That said though, judicious cutting may have axed a sub-plot featuring Ethan Hawke as a demented cowboy slash club owner and Rihanna as an enslaved, shape-shifting performer, which would have been a shame. Hawke is in terrific, unhinged form, and leaves an impression only matched by Alain Chabat (who appears briefly as Bob the Pirate).
The key issue is that Besson’s writing isn’t up to snuff. Saddled with awkward dialogue, the rest of the cast can’t do much to stand out. As Valerian, Dane DeHaan reminded me once more that he’s not really leading man material. He comes across as too arrogant and coy to sell the heroic Valerian. It doesn’t help that his character’s introduction is physically tussling with and making advances on his co-worker. I liked DeHaan in his breakout ‘Chronicle’, but there he was an antihero, which could also be said of the other performance in which I didn’t mind him, headlining ‘A Cure for Wellness’. Opposite DeHaan, model-cum-actress Cara Delevingne is okay, but she has a tough time with Besson’s stilted wording and unlikely outpourings of emotion.
What ‘Valerian’ is probably missing is a second writer, who could have assessed Besson’s script with a little more objectivity and distance from the source material (to which Besson was introduced by his late father), and perhaps a stronger grasp on realistic dialogue. Most of the other elements are there. It just goes to show that, like the solitary threat compromising the titular city’s integrity, one core issue can compromise a potentially great film. It’s lacklustre box office makes a sequel unlikely, which is a shame, because Besson obviously cares deeply for this world, and a second shot may have proved a bullseye.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 10.