Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) Directed by Luc Besson. With Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna and Ethan Hawke.
Luc Besson’s screen translation of the French fantasy comic series, Valerian and Laureline, is an eccentric concoction of cinematic nods to Flash Gordon, Avatar Blade Runner and Star Wars, in which a pair of young mercenaries in the 28th century (DeHaan and Delevingne) find themselves in the middle of an intergalactic standoff between a peaceful alien race and a wicked Clive Owen.
In terms of storytelling, Besson’s best work (Leon, La Femme Nikita) is done with a simpler, less hyperactive method. It often seems that what he lacks in narrative discipline, he counterbalances with visual dazzle. Valerian has the look a Lucas-era Star Wars prequel on drugs, with its eye-popping design bursting out of the screen like some kind of wacky hallucination. And, thanks to an intriguing prologue and one clever set-piece, for around 45-mins it successfully coasts by, feeding our optical sensors a colourful rainbow beam of straight up fun.
Sadly, the visual energy lasts for only so long, as the story sticks in the mud and the characters aren’t afforded enough depth to earn our investment. DeHaan, and an ass-kicking Delevigne are fine, but an attempt to recreate Han and Leia’s ‘will-they’ love story of The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t resonate, partly because they look more like brother and sister than potential lovers, and partly because the writing offers little reason to cheerlead them.
As the second act loses steam, a wack-a-day Ethan Hawke bounces on as futuristic pimp, playing host to pop-star Rihanna, who swirls, twirls and gyrates her way through an indulgent performance that stops the movie in its tracks, and is a prime demonstration of Besson’s ill-discipline – a cinematic pleasure-seeker whose semi-worship of supermodels and pop-stars often lumbers his ability to tell a good story. That’s not to blame Rihanna, who isn’t awful..she’s just Rihanna.
This is above all a visual experience with thin characters and a waffling plot. Like Flash Gordon, it will thrill young eyes and has a good shot of finding cult popularity in coming years. Some of the creations are a true joy to behold, with an array of fantastical imaginings covering everything from costume design to sound effects. Besson has to be given credit for his ability to put the film on screen, with a frankly mind-boggling level of visual detail to absorb. It’s a shame to come away slightly fatigued (it’s too long) and underwhelmed by an experience that aims so hard to please.