Skip to main content

You're the best driver in the entire universe.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
(2017)

(SPOILERS) In the aftermath of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planet’s floundering US debut (unlike The Fifth Element, it seems doubtful that an international bonanza will compensate) and (mostly) critical mauling, there have been numerous post-mortems, ranging from the reasonable to the desperately lazy (audiences didn’t know the property; it wasn’t a sequel; it didn’t have stars; it had a weird title – none of which are an issue when something is a hit, Baby Driver, for example). Valerian was one of my most anticipated pictures of the year, in spite of what was evidently – as much as trailers provide evidence – dubious lead casting, on the basis that The Fifth Element is a profoundly wonderful, idiosyncratic science fiction movie, shot through with giddy Gallic humour, and this was Luc Besson returning to that genre. And it does have profoundly wonderful, idiosyncratic and giddy Gallic moments. As such, it’s much more interesting than most homogenous Hollywood product. Its fatal flaw, even more so than the charisma deficit of the principals, is one the director is usually on pretty solid ground with: pace.


Because Valerian barely musters any, even during its nominal actions sequences. It comes equipped with spectacle by the shedload, but Besson seems actively disinterested in maintaining a narrative through line or anything to keep his audience on the hook. There’s a mystery to solve, but when he’s not going off at tangents, such that you wonder if there’s any point to what you’re seeing, he’s labouring the explanations; Clive Owen is obviously a bad guy from the moment we set eyes on him (and five minutes after that he’s torturing one of the impossibly angelic alien race whose planet he decimated, just to make it abundantly clear), and there seems to be a need for Valerian and Laureline to explain who did what and why at least several times in case you didn’t get it, or weren’t paying attention. Or had nodded off (someone I attended the screening with did exactly that, but unfortunately missed both explanations).


Besson has been a master of ratchetting up the tension in the past (Nikita, Leon), and even the more recent and underrated The Family has that kind of flair going for it. Here, elements you suspect might be McGuffins (the converter) are put in Laureline’s pocket and forgotten about until needed, rather than, say, stolen and pursued until the vital moment they called upon to engineer the climax. The villain is incapacitated for much of the running time, and when his (very cool-y designed) robot soldiers are finally utilised, Valerian disposes of them in dismayingly easy fashion. If Besson always has a keen visual sense (one of the best), his storytelling nouse is thoroughly dislocated this time, odd for someone whose production house has made a hallmark of linear, stripped-down action movie models.


The consequence of this, particularly as there’s little entertainment value in kicking about with the leads, is that the picture relies almost entirely on vignettes or asides to maintain interest. As such, it starts off quite beautifully with the kind of visual and aural accompaniment you’d expect from The Fifth Element director, 20 years on; the development of the central space station Alpha is charted over the course of eight centuries to the soundtrack of Space Oddity (seriously, for such an over-used – but ever-brilliant – song, Besson makes it fresh again). It’s funny, clever, spry and deceptively simple. And then the picture proper starts.


But the establishing sequence, as Valerian and Laureline, mystifyingly experienced police special agents, intercept a black-market deal selling a converter (a cute little creature that replicates anything it ingests, including reproducing a planetary expanse at the climax), may lack breathless thrills or tension, but it is consistently visually intriguing, juggling as it does two simultaneous dimensional realities that Valerian must navigate his way through, particularly problematic when his hand is trapped in the more dangerous one. Indeed, Besson’s fluid sense of the “real” is one of the more engaging but undeveloped parts of the Valerian, playing with notions of holographic universes that run the gamut of dream states, actual events, and 3D-printed matter issuing forth from the coat of said snuffle creature.


There are other moments, such as Valerian crashing through a succession of alien zones in the station, that find Besson galvanised in terms of the mostly listless pace, and the countdown ending is reasonably effective, but in the main it’s with whacky Besson that the golden nuggets are to be found. In The Fifth Element, he assembled leads who were sympathetic to such shenanigans, but here there’s no such luck. Owen doesn’t seem remotely in tune with the picture in any way that makes him a remotely appealing or memorable antagonist (Gary Oldman may loathe The Fifth Element, but his loony turn is one of its highlights).


Dane DeHaan, a decent actor when cast well (some have cited his vocal similarities here to Keanu Reeves, the takeaway being that they are very different thesps who both clearly need sympathetic casting), be it in Chronicle or Life, is completely out of his depth when asked to play cocky, heroic, flippant, confident, playful and macho. There’s no point where you believe he’s one of the premier galactic agents around, and one can only reel at Besson’s choice.


If he picked DeHaan and Cara Delevingne to make everything else “pop”, well, that kind of worked, I guess, but why you’d be comfortable with a void at the centre of your movie is beyond me. Every time they fling romantic barbs/deflections at each other (I’m guessing a Han-Leia vibe is being aimed for), the picture assumes a state of abject lifelessness. They have no chemistry and inspire no desire to accompany them on their mission. I’m loathe to compare this to the Wachowski sisters’ Jupiter Ascending, as Valerian at least maintains a sense of fun amid the stodge, but both go fundamentally wrong in picking performers who disappear into the material, never to be seen again.


Develingne fares better than DeHaan, such that when Valerian absents himself for a stretch and Laureline embarks to find him, you entirely don’t miss him (added to which, there’s never a point where you have the remotest idea what she sees in him, or even what kind of relationship they’re supposed to have – the marriage proposal looks like a joke, until it isn’t, and even then, you’re left waiting for the punchline). But she still ends up impassive much of the time and lacks a discernible sense of humour – she ought to have one, with those eyebrows – so the scene where she sticks her head in a jellyfish’s bottom is never quite as amusing as it ought to be.


I’m a big fan of Europudding casting (see The Adventures of Gerard for a tip-top example), where stylistically mismatched performers of various nations are thrown at each other on screen, but you tend to need big performances to make that kind of thing work, and here Besson is too often in error (Ethan Hawke, really?), or wastes an opportunity (we see Rutger Hauer for about a minute, which is a crime). As a consequence, you remember smaller parts, such as Eric Lampaert’s guide Thaziit (camping it up like Russell Brand back on drugs) or Bob the Pirate (Alain Chabat), appearing popping a champagne cork, or the Howard the Duck-like (that’s the ‘80s movie version) trio of Doghan-Dagui, like diminutive Ferengi only endearing.


There’s also a rather wonderful sequence, illustrative of Besson at his lunatic best, in which Laureline is captured by the Boulan Bathor and required to try on various dresses before being taken before their emperor to “serve” dinner. The emperor has been studiously showing his distaste for the endless procession of menu choices, but Laureline arrives wearing a ridiculous, monstrously-brimmed hat (so large, it reminded me of a sequence in The Adventures of Gerard in which the base of Jack Hawkin’s dinner table is one of his men with his head poking through a hole in the middle) with the top of her head displayed so as to be nicely snipped off. It’s the kind of thing twisted idea that brings out the best in Besson (the ensuing fight, in which Valerian dispatches numerous Boulan Bathor, including the emperor, is appropriately unrestrained).


I was a fan of the juxtaposition of almost childlike sincerity and utmost goofiness in The Fifth Element, but it doesn’t really land in Valerian, even though there are strong echoes. In both movies, there is a proclamation from the female protagonist that love conquers all (which is when you find out, in this one, that apparently, the male protagonist goes strictly by the book, all evidence previously to the contrary), and in both, an alien singer is sacrificed on the journey to that realisation. Rhianna has an enjoyable, show-stopping cabaret number as shape-shifting Bubble, although the Bubble sequences are the most fun when she’s impersonating one of the Boulan Bathor.


Thematically, though, you’d have to be pretty dense to escape the message in The Fifth Element. In Valerian, there’s little in the way of takeaway. The Mül-ians are nature-lovin’ willowy types straight out of Avatar, only a touch less boss-eyed and a whole lot less blue, so naturally they’re due the restoration of their realm; the ever-variable Alexandre Desplat really lays on the treacly score in this regard, so as to let you know just how serenely heart-breaking their beatific existence is/was.


Design-wise, well the costumes are every bit as good as The Fifth Element’s if not quite as outrageous as you’d get from Jean-Paul Gautier, and the CGI creature work is varied, impressive, and often amusing, albeit you’re constantly wistful for the tangible prosthetics and animatronics of his earlier SF feast. A marriage of the two would have been preferable.


I doubt Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets will be the undoing of Besson or EuropaCorp, and I’m sure the “auteur hack” (whatever that is), as a typically hacky Guardian piece labelled him, will be moving on to other pictures before long.  Another article in the same rag labelled him “the unsung hero of world cinema”, before dismissing his entire output as “part brilliant, part terrible” (cherry picking like that, you could level the same charge at Coppola, but no one would argue his ‘70s work isn’t that of the bona fide auteur). It’s a shame though, that this picture sags the way it does; a re-edit might solve some of the problems, but, alas, nothing can change the leads.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.

I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sh…