Film Torments: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

THIS TIME on Torments, Dan takes a look at a box office failure.

Luc Besson is one of Hollywood’s true mavericks. He’s such a maverick, in fact, that it’s somewhat misleading to even associate him with the Hollywood machine. Take one look at the projects he’s been associated with and you’ll find a wide berth of production and directorial credits, whether in his native France or the world at large. It’s an eclectic collection, varying from family-friendly animated ditties to neck-snapping action thrillers.

Adapted from the long-running and culturally significant comic series, Valerian was very much a passion project for Besson. Once inspired by its sci-fi sprawls in The Fifth Element, Besson’s name is written all over the project, taking director, writer and producer credits. Coincidentally, it is also the most expensive non-American, independent film in cinematic history.

Besson is no stranger to taking risks – merely looking at the film’s word-sandwich title should inform us of that – but a risk to the tune of $180 million is one of unprecedented magnitude. Though an extant intellectual property, and a domestically popular one at that, Valérian and Laureline was hardly a household name outside of France upon the film’s release. It was an enormous gamble from the outset, yet Besson approached this roll of the dice with the manic joie de vivre that characterises his best work.

Right off the bat, Valerian‘s most striking aspect is undoubtedly its visuals. The lush, opalescent vistas of the 28th Century are rendered in brilliant, vivacious colour, as if they’d leaped right out of the comic’s pulpy pages. The titular city is a cosmopolitan sprawl with the emphasis on the cosmic, and the audience is constantly thrust through seas of weird species and baffling galactic reliquaries. Not since Avatar has there been such a resplendent nugget of sci-fi oddness, and the effects wizardry on display cannot be understated.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the rest of the film is a tedious slog. The thousands of hours spent crafting the gorgeous miasma of Valerian‘s universe are made meaningless by how desperately unengaging its inhabitants are. Its protagonists – interstellar space-cops Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) – are some of the flattest, most boring characters I’ve ever endured. Dull characters can be salvaged with fun performances, but DeHaan and Delevingne share no chemistry whatsoever, resulting in a will-they-won’t-they that can only inspire narcolepsy.

Their lifeless scenes extend to the rest of the cast, none of whom are truly able to elevate the surprisingly mundane nonsense of a script that operates almost exclusively on jargon and vagary. Whereas the breezy direction and fun character dynamics of The Fifth Element managed to alleviate its more esoteric aspects, Valerian drowns in blarps and thwoms, unable to wrangle a cogent narrative from the myriad of alien stuff that floods the screen.

The audience is given no time to dwell on crucial plot details before we’re whisked off to yet another overlong action set-piece, where characters spin and warp and laser-blast their way with no consideration for physics or coherence. In Besson’s Lucy – another fascinating trainwreck – it didn’t really matter how absurd her reality-bending brain-magic became by its conclusion, because the batshit insane sequences in which they were utilised were filmed with clarity and focus.

In Valerian, there’s so much visual noise on-screen that it’s impossible to hone in on any single element, resulting in a cluttered frame of CGI gloop and jet-packed space-cops hurtling through nebulas at Mach 17. The tone is similarly muddled, lacking the carefree ambivalence that has become one of Besson’s trademarks. One minute we’re watching Valerian quip his way through a garish Mos Eisley slum; the next, the wreckage of a space fleet obliterates an entire planet. Valerian lacks the consistent, off-kilter charm of Besson’s earlier work because, unlike those films, there’s no compelling central figure to latch on to. Instead, we have Valerian and Laureline bickering so woodenly you’d be forgiven if you mistook them for wardrobes.

Valerian reportedly needed to gross $400 million to break even; by the end of its theatrical run, it had barely scraped $225 million. But the monetary return, or lack thereof, isn’t what makes Valerian such a disappointment. Besson is no stranger to bizarre concepts and has proven himself capable of weaving them into a cohesive whole, but here it all pools into a slurry of ideas and set-pieces that lack any emotional or narrative stakes.

Valerian demands we invest in characters without a shred of charisma between them, banking on actors that – aside from Ethan Hawke and Rihanna – don’t seem to understand what they’re saying. It demands we appreciate a universe that seems uninterested in grounding or establishing itself. Most damningly of all, despite the obvious enthusiasm that Besson has for the source material and the countless hours crafting its stunning visuals, it feels soulless, and desperately so. With only a little charm, this could have been a modern Flash Gordon; instead, it’s an even duller John Carter. Crikey.

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