Valerian Borrows,
Seeks In Moral Tales

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets
France 2017 Directed by Luc Besson
UK cinema release print.

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is based on the famous French comic strip Valerian And Laureline and stars the always interesting Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Laureline. And there’s my first little problem with this movie right there... the strip is called Valerian And Laureline because they are both equal characters with Laureline often saving the day and rescuing her ‘male headed’ partner. Her role is in no way diminished in this movie and they are pretty much joint protagonists in this one so... why the heck has the girl’s name been left out of the title? What the heck is going on here?

So, anyway, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is the latest movie from Luc Besson and, when I first heard he was taking on this project it didn’t set me to cheering, I have to admit. I used to love the films of Luc Besson... I remember seeing Nikita five weeks in a row at the Lumiere cinema, as it was in the day, in St. Martin’s Lane near Covent Garden when I was studying for my degree... I would probably have gone more if it had played longer than it did there. Nowadays however, I tend to see him more as a bit of a hit and miss director. He gave us some of the best French movies going but, somehow he lost his way and, for me, the first chinks in the armour were when he made his other big sci-fi opus, The Fifth Element. That could have been a really great movie but he made the mistake of having this truly irritating character played by Chris Tucker which made the movie practically unwatchable in places so... yeah... wasn’t too sure about that and nowadays I prefer him as a producer than a director, truth be told. Out of his more recent directing work, for every great movie like Angel-A and The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (reviewed here), you also get good looking but ultimately vacant junk like Lucy (reviewed here) so... I wasn’t holding my breath with this one, to be sure.

As it happens, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is a pretty good sci-fi movie... and although it’s been shot in English, it does have a very 1960s French feel to it... kinda like the movie version of Barbarella but without the sex (to a certain extent... it’s a 12A over here). It’s beautifully shot, well acted and really nice to look at. A fun romp and one which I was hugely entertained by although, I have to admit, I’m not too sure if I could ever sit through it again. I’ll get to why in a minute.

The film starts off fairly strongly with a montage of the history of a space station, starting off in 1975 and working its way to the far future which uses a bunch of human/alien handshake scenes to establish how the ‘City Of A Thousand Planets’ came into being and all set to David Bowie’s awesome second version (the version which became a hit) of Space Oddity. Now, I have to say that this sequence kept me on the absolute edge of my seat... not because of anything that happens but because of what I was expecting to happen. All these alien handshakes at the start set me up to expect the good old “Arghhh. It’s pointing its finger pistols at us... kill them first.” gag which is a bit of an old one, to be fair but, no, nothing like this happens and so I was teetering on my seat for no reason. This is followed by a long introductory scene set on an alien planet called Mul which is pretty cool and which, this time, did go exactly as I was expecting because, in cinematic terms, why spend so long setting up an idyllic and peaceful race of beautiful aliens without following it up quickly with disaster striking with a bang at the end of the sequence? Without giving too much away, when the bang comes a certain kind of ‘shockwave’ (I’m being deliberately cryptic here because I don’t want to post any spoilers) catapults Valerian and Laureline into the movie length adventure. And that’s as much as I am giving away of the plot.

The film is fun to watch and has some nice concepts. The two leads are both excellent and the chemistry between them is good in that they work well together. That being said, it does kind of highlight a big problem with the film which, again, I’ll get to that in a minute. There are also some excellent performances and a lot of cameos too by actors such as Clive Owen, Rutger Haur, Rihanna and Ethan Hawke. The special effects all work well and the movie has a really well written and complex score by Alexandre Desplat. My understanding is that this is the score he had to leave Star Wars - Rogue One (reviewed here) for when he was required to 're-compose' for the version incorporating all the re-shoots (I wonder if we’ll ever get to hear what he did for that original cut sometime in the future). It’s a good, audio glue for the film and, though it does get into the broad stroke, ‘comedy scoring’ style for certain sequences, it’s still quite subtle in places, despite this element and I have to say he does a really good job with it here.

Okay, so let me tell you why the film is probably not going to get me back for another sitting and where I think it’s problem areas are.

Problem area number one... although there are some nice but incredibly old, seen-it-all-before, hard science fiction concepts in the movie, it never once seems to have any kind of surprises up its sleeves. Even the main ‘twist villain’ (and I use the term loosely here) is easy to spot the first time that the character comes on screen and, all the way through, you are just left wondering when the heck the penny is going to drop for the rest of the characters. So, while this film does have a certain ‘wow-factor’ in the beauty of its visual effects and the way some of the shots are put together, there’s nothing really outstanding or ‘next level’ in concept in the story. Maybe it’s because the comic has been around for 50 years now (at time of me writing this, it was first published in 1967) and so I’m pretty sure a lot of the things on show here have been cribbed by many movie makers over the years. Like the excellent John Carter movie (reviewed here), it’s probably been plundered so all the unique things about it nowadays make it look like it’s copying from other things. This film would have gone down really well in the late 1960s or early 1970s though, I can tell you.

The other thing is, as good as Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne are together here and as emotive as the ‘beautiful aliens’ element of the story is... it’s a surprisingly emotionless experience, to be honest. It’s not that I didn’t care about the characters (well maybe not much at all but I was at least on their side), it’s more like the direction is just so clinical and spectacular that the director just forgot to put a huge dollop of emotional warmth in it... or at least didn’t really highlight it as much as it was needed here. So even with Desplat’s stunning score, the movie really doesn’t match the emotional heights of something like, say, the new version of Wonder Woman (which I reviewed here). Which means I’m not invested enough in the characters as they are portrayed here to really get into things with them again. So no repeat business from me on this one, I’m sad to say.

However, I would recommend it as being an entertaining watch for the first time around and if you want to make the most of the stunning photography, then probably it’s something you should see at the cinema. An excellent time filler for people who like science fiction (especially if they liked Besson’s The Fifth Element) but I don’t think it will be everyone’s cup of tea, truth be told. Definitely worth a ‘first look’ though... not to mention a first listen.