Once upon a time in the land of the early-90’s an oddly revered sci-fi romp called The Fifth Element graced the silver screen. Sure, it was derivative, oddly paced and featured Bruce Willis in full Die Hard mode while surrounded by alien beings but it had a certain verve (and a breakout Mila Jovovich) that has cemented it as a nostalgic burr in our minds. Director Luc Besson had a string of interesting work in the 90’s and has worked steadily since, with less success. His 2014 film Lucy had ScarJo as a supped-up experiment gone wrong that was as stupid as it was mind-blowingly bat shit. Since then Besson has been fundraising to create Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets which – with its $180 million budget – is now the most expensive indie of all time.
And wow, can you see every single penny of that on screen. It was clear that if Besson was going to raise those kinds of funds, damnit he was going to spend them. Valerian is every one of his impulses – good and gloriously bad – that makes for one of the more unique film experiences in recent memory. That’s not to say it’s good, for much of the film that’s quite the contrary, but unique is something you can’t take away from it.
The film is based on a series of French comics that began in the late-60’s. It follows the story of two space-military cops (or something) named Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delivigne) who patrol the outer reaches of space for a shadowy human-based government. They are roped into a mission at what once was the international space station that – since growing for several centuries – is now the intergalactic space station (think the Men in Black underground alien-TSA…only on LSD.) They are to protect the human Commander (played by a scene chewing Clive Owen) as he and his team investigate a radioactive disturbance at the center of the station.
In terms of a core premise, that’s pretty much it. What gives Valerian it’s juice is what Besson has littered his universe with. This is the most colorful, visually inventive universe to come along in some time. It makes Guardians of the Galaxy look like Teletubbies. We’re whisked away to beautiful tropical planets where a species of very tall, slender space people harvest energy-marbles from the earth to an sludge filled underwater sewer filled with beings 100-times the size of a blue whale. There are alternate planes of existence, underground markets, duck-billed swindlers and blue-glowing jellyfish that help conjure your memories.
If this all sounds cool, that’s because it is. It’s just when the characters open their mouths that Valerian comes to a screeching halt. The fault lies mostly with the casting of Dane DeHaan as Valerian. The kid is clearly supposed to be a sexual dynamo – a snarky Han Solo-type that’s been around the block and will happily let you know. Instead DeHaan is just dead weight, delivering a weird Keanu Reeves, Bill and Ted type performance that isn’t sexy or daring…just limp and sad. Cara Delivigne does her best to play off of this and is given the better laugh lines which she mostly delivers admirably. But their entire relationship is contrived and silly and whenever they talk about it just plug your ears, you’ll be better off.
Even Rihanna shows up as a shape-shifting stripper in Ethan Hawke’s space club (Hawke, for what it’s worth, knows exactly what movie he’s in.) And it’s precisely when Rihanna shows up that Valerian goes from mindless pretty diversion to the kind of bad you can only dream of. The third act of this film hits notes only reserved for the finest of 80’s-trash that I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. Snickers filled the theater from all corners because onlookers simply couldn’t help it. It’s more cringe worthy than Larry David accidentally tripping Shaq on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
And even still, I kind of admired the whole enterprise. Besson is clearly having a ball putting absolutely anything on screen here and, like The Fifth Element, it only intermittently works. But we simply don’t get movies quite like this (and probably won’t ever again) and for that I tip my cap Mr. Besson and his acid-trip visuals and blockheaded characters – Valerian is absolutely ridiculous.