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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a film based off of a comic, that is supposedly among the most influential sci-fi serials of all time.
I say supposedly because I’ve never read it myself. Truth be told, I didn’t even know of its existence until the trailers for this film popped out. But what drew me to this film was its director – Luc Besson. He’s had an interesting career, directing film’s like Leon, Nikita and probably most famously, The Fifth Element (which apparently owes a lot to the Valerian comics). Besson has constantly made, throughout his years of directing, films that are fun, energetic, completely stupid, yet of surprisingly good quality – except for Lucy. So, with the man who made what many consider to be one of the best sci-fi films ever returning to the genre, what has he got to offer us with his latest labour of love?
Valerian and his lovely partner Laureline are governmental agents for Alpha, the city that houses innumerable species from a thousand planets.
All within Alpha live in what comes close to harmony, with a very basic peace between all species. But when one race of aliens is almost entirely whipped out, and the survivors find themselves battling a faceless foe, it’s up to our dynamic duo to save the now endangered aliens; and bring an evil villain to justice. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (a mouthful is there ever was one) has the strange feeling of familiarity and unfamiliarity. Everything you see does feel new and like its own thing. Yet you know the beats to the plot and the characters, and even the scenarios have all been seen before. This is most likely due to the influence the comic has had on sci-fi in film and pop-culture. It does make you want to read the comic to see the origins of many ideas for yourself; which can only be a good thing. One of the only good things you will take from this film.
I may have just given away the quality of the film itself; but wait, for there is a twist in our tale! Valerian is bad. It’s a really bad, bordering awful movie. And I loved every second of it! This is my favourite kind of bad; it lacks quality but is so energetic and full of passion that it ultimately becomes pure entertainment. I have not laughed at a film so much this year. In fact, I actually had more fun with this film than a number of films I actually liked this year.
There are a lot of parallels that you can make between Valerian and The Fifth Element. Both of them are very effects heavy, extremely silly and camp and they are both made in fairly similar ways – from shots and editing, to similar scenes and basic direction. But, The Fifth Element is a much better film. It’s Shakespeare compared to Valerian. It’s better paced and the story is tighter focused. There was also more reliance on practical effects in Element. But, the big difference was its characters. The Fifth Element had a cast of very loveable characters – from the everyday man hero, to the bumbling comic-relief, to the overly melodramatic and overdressed villain. Valerian has a cast of characters who I love for a very different reason.
Take Valerian and Laureline for example. They are awful characters! We learn nothing about them. Their dialogue is awkward. Their romance is beyond forced. They don’t even come off as badasses really. But they are so bad that they actually come off as hilarious, especially when they aren’t meant to be. A lot of this does come down to the acting. Dane Dehaan and Cara Delevingne, who still come out of this film with more dignity than when they played super-villains, are our leads. Both are proven actors and can deliver good and charismatic performances. These were not those performances. Delevingne I sometimes bought, but overs she was either wooden in her delivery, or overplaying here expressions. Dehaan, however, was bordering embarrassingly bad; trying and failing to play the part like 1990’s Keanu Reeves. It was with him that most of my unintended entertainment took form. To be fair to both of them, when esteemed actors like John Goodman, Clive Owen and Ethan Hawke appear to be giving up on the script and their dignity then the blame isn’t totally on them. Still, I never got tired of any of them.
Meanwhile, the story is an almost complete bust. The film is made of great ideas, but mediocre scenes, and is over all unfocused and disjointed. There’s a lot of side-tracking here. I guarantee that the sentence to leave your mouth most throughout Valerian will be, “what does that have to do with anything?” It’s very much like a videogame. Where you need something, but you have to talk to that person, who will only help you if you do this for him. That happens a few too many times to go unnoticed in this film. It also has the issue of being a mystery, yet it’s obvious who the villain is from the get-go. And while you’re at it you’d be able to work out his plans as well.
Where Valerian shines, in an intentional way, is in its action, effects and designs and pure imagination.
I wouldn’t dare call Valerian a shallow product. Real effort and passion has been put into this. We may have seen it all before, but it feels fresh. The actual story of the City of a Thousand Planets is original and extremely inventive. Not to mention beautifully told. The action scenes are almost always spectacular. The choreography is good, but it’s the imagination that goes into them that makes them. Like the bit in the trailer, where he’s running through all these different environments, using a shield gun to make a path over an abyss. Effects-wise Valerian is a little too reliant on CGI, even in moments where I feel make-up or set work would have done just fine. But overall, I was impressed by them.
Valerian and the City of a thousand Planets is benefitted by good imagination and by not taking itself the least bit seriously. That point alone improves it over the likes of Jupiter Ascending and Gods of Egypt. It was made as a labour of love by a good director – one who just wanted his audience to have fun. I cannot vouch for the films quality, and I will say that I can understand why some people will call this film awful. But I found it almost unparalleled in terms of entertainment. If you go in with the right mind-set that is. Valerian is one of the best bad films I’ve seen in years and I would gladly buy the DVD when it comes out. It’s a hard one to judge. My only advice is to see it – in the cinemas or on Netflix months down the line – and come to your own conclusions. All I can say is I’m glad I saw it.