Saturday 5 August 2017

Luc Besson's Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is extremely flawed but kind of fun

Lost in space: Luc Besson's space opera is in need of a better script

Ratings guide: WWWW - Wonderful  WWW - Worthwhile  WW - Watchable  W - Woeful

Please note: This review contains spoilers

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets
Director: Luc Besson
Starring:  Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna
Running time: 2hr 17min

Like many of Luc Besson's films, this – his 16th as director – is a likeable mess. High on spectacle, crammed full of mad ideas and smile-inducing eccentricities, it is a sci-fi comic-book adaptation nevertheless hamstrung by the clunkiest of scripts and a sprawling plot that takes far too many detours and diversions. On Besson's cinematic gravestone will be inscribed the words: 'His films were fun... but also kind of annoying'.

Set in the 28th Century on a vast floating space metropolis, called Alpha, it sees two government operatives – the titular Valerian (DeHaan), and Laureline (Delevingne), his partner/object of desire – caught in the middle of a murky conspiracy to cover up the real story behind the destruction of the planet Mül, 30 years before. Their investigation takes them on a roller-coaster ride through some of Alpha's crazier climes and brings them into contact with a host of bizarre extra-terrestrials, including pop star Rihanna's shape-shifting adult entertainer, Bubble.

Pure Bubblegum: Rihanna plays a shape-shifting burlesque performer

It's best early on, as one bravura sequence follows another: a wonderful potted history of Alpha, Mül's heartbreaking destruction and a gloriously inventive sequence with Valerian and Laureline pulling off a heist at a sprawling extra-dimensional bazaar, called Big Market. At this point – and buoyed by cameos from Rutger Hauer, Herbie Hancock and a bevy of French filmmakers, plus Bowie's sublime Space Oddity on the soundtrack – Valerian seems to be shaping up as one of the year's better comic-book blockbusters.

Unfortunately, just before halfway, things start to slow as Clive Owen makes his entrance as Arün Filitt, Valerian and Laureline's commander, a man who couldn't be more obviously rotten if Besson had tattooed the words 'DON'T TRUST HIM' on his forehead in bright red ink. He's kidnapped by Mül's last survivors (a gentle, spiritual race cursed to remind me of the Na'vi from Avatar) and our protagonists chase around Alpha's insane multiverse looking for him, something which goes on for far too long, despite the agreeably exotic fauna and flora we encounter along the way.

Starship troopers: Valerian and Laureline are on a mission

DeHaan and Delevingne are well cast as the space-faring heroes. They both exude a sort of seen-it-all-before jadedness, and you get the impression Alpha's city of a thousand planets is small potatoes to the mad stuff Valerian and Laureline have experienced on previous adventures. In keeping with the film's Gallic origins, they exude a certain studied cool but, sadly, both are poorly served by a script that required some serious punching up. In a multiplex world full of Joss Whedons and James Gunns, you need quips and zingers so sharp you could cut yourself on them to make your movie stand out from the crowd. Alas, you get nothing of the sort here and a lot of the dialogue falls disappointingly flat.

Most egregious of all, though, is Valerian's constant attempts to woo his partner into marriage. In fact, there are times when his pursuit of Laureline borders on harassment, and there's something noxiously old-fashioned about it. If such unreconstructed exchanges took place in, say, a 1970s cop film starring Clint Eastwood, you'd probably raise an amused/appalled eyebrow but this is supposedly set seven centuries in the future. Marriage? Really?! Why not book the registry office and invite Uncle Squidward from Alpha Centauri for the reception while you're about it. Every time the pair have one of these romantic tête-à-têtes, it brings proceedings screeching to a halt. It's like watching a bad soap opera, albeit one with bug-eyed monsters and laser gun battles.

Even when presented with a golden opportunity to do something interesting with the pair's relationship, the script ducks it. Part of the story sees Valerian playing host to the soul of a long-dead princess from Mül. Surely there was an opportunity for a bit of All Of Me-style comedy here as Valerian and the princess tussle for control of his body. Perhaps her spirit suddenly starts bringing out this male chauvinist's feminine side and Laureline decides she likes him after all? Nope, not a bit of it. In fact, it's hardly mentioned until right at the end when a plot point needs tidying up. 

Alien nation: Valerian is packed with bizarre extra-terrestrial life

But let's try and accentuate the positive because there's some terrifically enjoyable world building going on here and a fair few treasurable moments. The film's Bowie-tastic opening sequence, for instance, tells you the story of Alpha, showing how it started off as a humble space station orbiting Earth, before growing exponentially the more alien life flocked to live on it. It's a lovely, utopian vision, as a variety of human astronauts meet stranger and stranger visitors from other worlds, without a cross word between them. Alpha might be a blessing and a curse as far as the film goes – the story's numerous digressions all involve Valerian and Laureline exploring its various nooks and crannies – but it is a fabulously-realised backdrop and Besson makes sure you see every cent of his movie's reported  €197million budget up there on the screen.

The scenes on Mül and in Big Market are just as dazzling, while a great many of the creature effects are also impressive. I particularly liked the Doghan Daguis, three weird and creepy little duck-like critters frequently tapped by Laureline for information, and the beyond-cute converter, able to poop multiple copies of whatever he is fed. Like the best of Besson's fantasy films (The Fifth Element, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec), Valerian is full of these smart and entertaining little touches (most presumably taken directly from the original '60s French comic-book), but, ultimately, you wish he'd sacrificed some of it to lend his film a bit more pace and a lot more focus.

Rating: WW½

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is in UK cinemas now

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