Those who hearken back to the golden Clintonian Summers of the 90’s might remember seeing The Fifth Element on the big screen during its maiden theatrical run. A blockbuster facing a mixed press at the time, but finding near cult status twenty years later. A defining moment for director Luc Besson. Or at least as defining as when he discovered Natalie Portman at a Pizza Hut and cast her in a hitman film with a coked-out Gary Oldman and Jean Reno. Or something like that.
Alas we arrive twenty years later at Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. A film that kicks off with Bowie’s Space Oddity and a comfortably anesthetic journey through space program history as a collage built around first-contact introductions on the international space station expands from astronaut to star explorer to alien life as time rolls forward fifty years and the station ultimately expands into its own technocratic empire – one that finally leaves our solar system for points unknown. Points unknown being this bonkers science-fantasy film Besson concocted from what must have been a barnburner of inventive postulating and a wildly optimistic estimate of the appetites of the modern global film market.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (based on a graphic novel series) certainly appears to be a Buck Rogers-era serial adventure, with its laser blasters and attractive young stars and starlets – through Besson’s direction it’s just been expanded into the psychosphere of Jodorowsky’s Dune. A 180 million dollar gamble on an aging French romantic’s vision. For that we must applaud its hutzpah, even though the film itself leaves precious little to applaud at all.
The story’s a bit of a gonzo swashbuckler. The planet Mul, (pronounced MULE) has had a relatively blessed existence. It’s inhabitants, the lanky and lithe Pearl people, (pronounced NA’VI) have been issued by the universe the sole vocation of looking gorgeous while collecting pearls and catwalking their way across the sandy beaches of their paradise planet and generally feeling absolutely wonderful all day long. It’s a tony gig. It also ends up being expunged by a war between two foreign worlds. With the planet Mul annihilated, and its single precious resource, a cuddly little armadillo-like creature called a “Converter” (a critter capable of spraying thousands of facsimiles from its belly of whatever material you place on its scaled back – this surprisingly may be one of the less strange ideas this film has to offer) now down to one remaining member of the species, a hotshot military operative and his master of arms are deployed to space station Alpha, (the selfsame prefabbed station from the movie’s opening montage and the titular “City of a Thousand Planets”) to retrieve the last living Convertor for Earth’s military by directive of their Defense Minister…. Mr. Herbie Hancock.
Yes, the synth musician who released the turntablist classic Rockit in 1983.
Starting off on the wrong foot Besson’s cast Cara Delevinge in the lead role of Sergeant Laureline – pre-conjugal sparring partner to young master Dane Dehaan’s Major Valerian. (Luc Besson writes romance like Julia Child prepares a chicken breast – by battering it heartlessly with a mallet) Cara’s a blue-eyed knockout, and proof that maybe after Anne Parillaud, Milla Jovovich, and Scarlett Johansson, 58 year old Luc Besson is still using his Hollywood player status to meet cute girls through casting. Delevinge is a genuine heartbreaker. A heartbreaker to men of all ages, as well as a heartbreaker to aficionados of the craft of quality screen acting. Her method is to permeate a quiet storm of zilch. In that the girl feels like a lost Olsen twin. The modern-era Olsens of prescription-medicated stares and trophy-dolling for old billionaires. She’s not good in this movie, nor must we believe she’ll ever be good in any movie hence. Adding to her gross inability to perform is a script with dialog so dreadful I’m sure the actors are still trying to scrape the taste of it from their mouths.
And yet one can’t help but be impressed by some of the think-work that went into whole blocks of this production. For instance, the early scenes in Valerian of a black market shakedown in a shopping mall that offers over a million stores, (less mall, more intergalactic flea market, but with a million different mercantile booths) so many stores in fact that they exist in other dimensions. Patrons must wear special headgear to see and interact with proprietors hawking their wares from the next star system over. There’s also an extremely clever way of transporting matter from one dimension to another upon purchase. Not satisfied with simply illustrating the appeals of intergalactic retail Luc Besson whips up a running multi-dimensional gun battle to keep things interesting. And yes, for a moment at least, things are indeed interesting.
Later in the movie we’re taken to Alpha Station. For all intents and purposes Baum’s mythical Land of Oz, or Carroll’s Wonderland. This set may simply be an amalgamation of a nutty Frenchman’s repressed memories of all 140 episodes of Matt Groening’s Futurama, all pressed and packed into one superstructure with no sense of architectural soundness, navigational integrity, or consistency of decorum really. If it’s a diplomatic experiment between alien worlds it’s a haphazard one at best. A big-bang-sized explosion of diversity with no sense of assimilation. Alpha station is, in a very real sense, Luc Besson’s brain suspended in space. (see photo below for optical confirmation) It’s a buzzing hive of industry on the edge of a mental breakdown. A Frankensteined super-freighter of fancy and frights – and the frights less intentional than the fancies – with corridors of half remembered dreams, great avenues of hyper-color neon, gangways, midways, superhighways, bottomless chasms, and chaos best of all.
There’s a moment on Alpha Station where Valerian is propositioned by a flesh and blood doppelganger of Jessica Rabbit, to which the young star captain says: “I think you’ve got the wrong guy.” If you were expecting a Who Framed Roger Rabbit reference in a science fiction feature film in 2017 – or any movie past 1989 really – you’re a better prognosticator than the pagan prophets of old. Excuse the pun, but outside of Zemeckis film nods, this rabbit hole only goes deeper. Our visit to Alpha includes a choreographed pole dance sequence by Rihanna – playing an alien shape-shifter named Bubble, who is, according to Dehaan’s character, the greatest performer in the galaxy. Among the diamonds and dregs of Besson’s onboard inventions we come across species of every size and temperament. Alien salamanders with the size and humor of sperm whales. A trio of gargoyle aardvarks who specialize in brokering illicit information. A horde of monsters who fish for human beings using fishing rods and butterfly lures. Included is a breed of jellyfish that once you jam your head up its anus, you can check in on what happened to your lost friends through scyphozoan-induced visions.
And then there’s the supermodels… always the supermodels with this French guy.
There are a thousand planets represented on Alpha Station after all, very much like there were a thousand corpses in Rob Zombie’s freshman horror film House of a Thousand Corpses. The key factor being a ridiculously hefty goal number to achieve for both films. The final result of either movie being extremely similar – volume doesn’t always equal value. Most of the time volume can be deafening. Ultimately Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is just too too slapstick. Too spastic. Too jumbotron. It’s a popcorn film tragically indifferent to energy and pace. It’s also exponentially encumbered by a script poured from pure lead. Valerian is lovely to look upon, but impractical and crooked in every sense of the adjective.
Not a good movie. Or at least the good movie The Fifth Element is.