Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: A Thousand Stories Too, by Josh Long
Science fiction film is in a bit of a strange place in the 2010s. Star Wars is back. Star Trek is back. Even Blade Runner is back. The majority of high-profile sci-fi fare banks on nostalgia, while remaining (intentionally or not) mired in a mise en scène redefined by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Outliers that buck the pattern are risky – the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending was a critical disaster and squeaked by on a narrow worldwide profit margin.
And now, here comes Luc Besson. He’s returning to his “space opera” a la The Fifth Element, but he’s not rebooting his former work. He does base his story on comic books, but on a Franco-Belgian collaboration that is likely unfamiliar to most English speaking audiences (even though Valérian and Laureline has been around since the 1960s). So is the visionary director back to revitalize the genre, and introduce a new and exciting universe to audiences? Sort of.
It’s hard to decide where to begin with the plot. There’s a lot going on, and the exposition comes in equal parts fluid narrative and clunky dialogue. Hundreds of years in the future, somewhere in the universe, a peaceful race of nature loving aliens (think Avatar‘s Na’vi) watch as their homeworld is destroyed. Flash – somewhere else in the universe, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are on a mission to infiltrate a black market deal for a Converter, a small creature that can replicate almost anything. This Converter is the last of its kind, and when Laureline and Valerian finally get ahold of it, they protect it with their lives.
They bring the Converter to Alpha, a giant space station with inhabitants from thousands of different worlds (the titular City of a Thousand Planets), where they are meant to turn it over to Commander Filitt (Clive Owen). But there’s a snag – someone has created a dangerous radioactive zone at the center of the city, which seems to be expanding. As Filitt meets with other city leaders, he is kidnapped by the same creatures whose homeworld was destroyed in the beginning of the film. It’s up to Valerian and Laureline to figure out who these creatures are, what they have to do with the Converter, and what Filitt is really up to.
The look of the film really is everything you’d expect from Besson. Vibrant and colorful, populated with whimsical to over-the-top characters, all in bright and exotic settings. They’re best used when almost throw away details (like rainbow colored clouds in the skies above Big Market) that authenticate the newness of the world without drawing too much attention to it. Visually, it’s a lot of fun to watch, though there are some distractingly showy moments of the “omnipotent camera” that has become so prevalent in CG driven films. From a production, makeup, and costume design standpoint, the film is firing on all cylinders.
After that, it gets a little messy. The script has its moments. The strongest ones are creative pieces of sci-fi, like a marketplace that exists simultaneously in two different dimensions, or a dart gun that allows attackers to take control of their targets’ bodies. There’s a lot of these smart details, though they’re a bit frontloaded in the 137 minute film.
In terms of the real nuts and bolts of the plot, there are a lot of unanswered questions. Perhaps it’s because Besson is doing his best to cram the entire Valérian and Laureline universe (which has been around for over 50 years) into one story. We’re not entirely sure what exactly Valerian and Laureline do (they keep telling everyone “I work for the government”), or why they’re sent to get the Converter, or why the weird jellyfish thing Laureline puts on her head can tell her where Valerian is. Conversely, there are overly long expository sequences that explain things we already understand or don’t need to know. Also damaging to the story is a weird, unnecessary second act side plot with a shapeshifter character named Bubbles (Rihanna – you heard me right) that banks on a big emotional payoff but really fails at making us care.
Really, the attempted emotional beats throughout the whole film are weak. Dialogue between Valerian and Laureline isn’t bad when they’re going about their mission, there’s almost a Thin Man quality to their bickering and one-upping each other. But anytime the plot requires them to cash in on emotional depth, the dialogue, the performances, and the emotional developments themselves don’t work. At the film’s climax, Laureline gives a cringe-worthy speech about the power of love that feels inconsistent with her character, and doesn’t earn the plot development it’s supposed to necessitate.
Luc Besson certainly brings his signature flair to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, but there’s almost too much world-building to fit into one movie. Unsuccessful attempts at emotional depth make the film’s huge universe seem surprisingly shallow. Besson’s feast for the eyes may be a famine for the heart. The question is, in 2017, do audiences care?
This decade has also given us Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, Edge of Tomorrow (less successful, but still apparently getting a sequel), Passengers (also unsuccessful, but certainly high profile), Transcendence (ditto), two Neil Blomkamp films, two from Bong Joon-ho, three films written by Alex Garland (one of which is admittedly based on an old IP), a partial attempt to make a superhero film also a Cronenbergian scifi in Fantastic Four, and more. Not only is there a new Alien movie (which has been called more of a Hammer Horror mad scientist film than nostalgia-fest), both Life and Morgan probably wouldn’t exist if not for the success of the original. Moon just misses the cutoff and I suppose wasn’t high-profile enough to count (although people talk more about that now than Source Code).
I’m now kicking myself for not including Tomorrowland among the unsuccessful high-profile films which helped to persuade Disney not to take such risks in the future, even coming from Brad Bird.