Filmmaker Luc Besson has twice made the most expensive French movie ever. The Fifth Element held the title back in 1997, it cost $100m, and twenty years later he’s grabbed it again, for around $100m more, with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Both movies are science fiction/fantasy adventures, heavily influenced by the comic book work of Jean-Claude Mézières. Whereas The Fifth Element was based on a screenplay Besson wrote when he was sixteen, and inspired also by the fantasy art of Moebius (Jean Giraud), his new movie is based strictly on the comic books of Mézières. Both are two sides of the same coin, and both are space junk, or cosmic bubblegum, depending on one’s sensibilities.
Yes, I freely admit The Fifth Element is not my cup of cartoon tea. It rubbed me up the wrong way back in 1996, and I voiced my opinion in the local newspaper. I got a fair amount of flak for it, but I continue to stick by my guns. I attempted to watch it again around fifteen years ago, but I couldn’t finish it. It’s a pet loathing of mine, you could say.
So, I’m not quite sure what compelled me to run Luc’s intergalactic gauntlet again, but I did. Perhaps I was appealing to the residuals of joy that Besson’s early movies gave me. I saw Subway, The Big Blue, and La Femme Nikita at film festivals when they were first released and, yes, they definitely have silly moments, but the screenplays and characterisations aren’t as obnoxious and offensive than in Besson’s later work.
I’m not going to bore you with the plot shenanigans of Valerian, suffice to say that it’s as ludicrous as The Fifth Element, which Besson co-wrote. Besson wrote Valerian on his own, using the central characters from Mézières’ comic book stories, and conjuring his own space opera. But both The Fifth Element and Valerian come across as written by a fifteen-year-old. They are as juvenile and puerile as they are colourful and comic. But Besson doesn’t really know any better, he creates extravagant, flamboyant, self-indulgent cartoons that the French seem to love, and which polarise audiences elsewhere.
Okay then, two special operatives, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), are assigned to investigate and sort out a mysterious situation that has arisen on Alpha, a mega-city in space, home to a thousand interstellar species. The two challenged romantics must safeguard a threatened alien race and serve justice, and maybe, just maybe, Valerian will get Laureline to marry him too.
If you’re not easily annoyed then Valerian might be enjoyed on a so-bad-it’s-good level, but I’ve always found that defence a cop-out. A bad movie is a bad movie is a bad movie. If Valerian’s lead roles weren’t so poorly written and badly cast, but DeHaan is woefully wooden and bleary-eyed. There is zero chemistry between DeHaan and Delevingne. She certainly has charisma in spades, and she does the best she can with what she's got, but, really, the movie should be called Laureline, not Valerian.
I have to concede, the people who loved The Fifth Element will probably love Valerian. Both movies are cut from the same cloth. Which brings me to aesthetics. Other critics are hailing Valerian for being gorgeous and beautiful, but it’s not my style of science fantasy. The production design and art direction is cheesy, too clean and smooth, the lighting reminds me of flat 80s television, and the costuming is like a camp carnival parade. The entire movie is a trainwreck of nods and inspiration from half a dozen or so other movies and television; Barbarella, Flash Gordon, Return of the Jedi, Babylon 5, Doctor Who, Avatar, even the worlds of Jim Henson are present.
Throw in cameos from Ethan Hawke (mildly amusing) and John Goodman (voice only), a sexy, but utterly indulgent cabaret performance from Rihanna (Besson couldn’t help himself, he does this kind of thing in almost every movie), and Rutger Hauer (billed on the poster, but has about 30-seconds screen time, and acts terribly), and a supporting role by Clive Owen (who really should've known better, but I guess the pay cheque was too good to resist).
Yes, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is one very hot cosmic mess.
Or, as I mentioned earlier, you could treat the whole thing like bubblegum. It might taste full and fruity for the first twenty minutes or so, but the movie runs for nearly two-and-a-half hours. I never chew gum that long.