July 22, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2007 film)

So Valerian is... okay. I hate to say that, as I hung a lot of hopes on this film, especially since I'm a fan of wild space opera adventures, which is a genre that's always struggled to take off outside of Stars Wars or, more recently, Guardians of the Galaxy. Jupiter Ascending was a painful film to see bomb, even though I fully get why it didn't take off, and I still want someone to adapt Lensmen, dammit, so we need something more to show this genre has viable legs. Unfortunately, Valerian isn't going to change that. I enjoyed watching it, it's funny, exciting, looks beautiful, and does a nice job exploring a James Bond-style globes-spanning espionage thriller in a setting filled with aliens and even tourist-rich alternate dimensions.

Valerian and Laureline are a pair of space agents (the time aspect of the comic appears to have been dropped) for the Earth government which unexpectedly found itself emerging as the center-point of the galactic economy. Cara Delevigne is great at Laureline. There's an edge to her looks that does a great job of backing her beauty with action and intelligence as she often solves the puzzles Valerian would dive head-first into, but she's not incapable of action herself, with her distinctive eyes steeling as she cuts into the fray. Less successful is Dan DeHaan. I like DeHaan as an actor, and it's been cool to witness his sudden rise as he gets one damned interesting project after another, but Valerian is a very specific character that needs the right swagger and lunkheadedness to sell what could come off as an overly macho and egotistical personality. Unfortunately, DeHaan just feels out of place, and instead of Valerian & Laureline having the Steed & Mrs. Peel charm this always dancing couple needs, he comes off as a creeper always pressuring Laureline to take their relationship to a place she's just not interested in going, and every time she tells him to back down, he instead leans further in. It's not charming, it's not fun, and beyond a few moments here and there, doesn't have that spark that made them such a great team in the books. There's too much tension for it to be casual. Too much pushing back and forth for them to move as a pair. By adding dysfunction to the team, Besson soured what made them work so well to begin with, and the two are now at their best when they're each on their own, either diving into the mission or to rescue each other from peril, making it all the more dissatisfying when they finally reach the arms of one another only for that tension and discomfort to again rise to the surface.

And I'm not putting this all on DeHaan, as most of these relationship issues are hammered right on the nose to us by Besson's poor dialogue, as this is one of the first English scripts in decades he hasn't co-written with frequent collaborator Robert Mark Kamen. Don't get me wrong, Kamen's not a great writer, either, and I've had plenty of issues with him over the years, but the dialogue in Valerian is frequently poor, stilted, and doesn't have an ear for how people talk. Even false, glamorous movie people.

And speaking of Besson stepping away from past collaborators, I was surprised to see Eric Serra, the composer he's worked with going back to Besson's directorial debut in 1983, wasn't involved with this movie. It was terribly obvious, as all the poppy beats amidst industrial clangs, and droning rises of emotions, the types of sounds which made the scores to Leon and Fifth Element two of my frequent go-to CDs, are completely lacking in a film that needed that sugar to punch the work up a little. There's some snatches of samba music, a little Bee Gees and Beatles here and there, we open with Bowie, but the majority of the film is a generic, forgettable score, no different from the basic soundscapes we've been getting from blockbusters of late, and it left many of the landscapes we witness lacking that extra bit of magic which would make them truly breathtaking. Nothing in the film itself even rises to that use of Beatles in the trailer. For something built so much on imagination, awe, and spectacle, very little of it resonates with the magic I hoped it would.

And the worlds are beautiful. They're richly designed, fun to look at, and Besson often brings them to life with that slapstick whimsy he's great at juggling with his darker moments. The problem is that, again, it doesn't build to much. The majority of the marketing was built around Alpha, the ever-growing space station which has become a mosaic world housing thousands of alien races, pooling their cultures and collective knowledge for the benefit of all. That's a great setting, but they never go anywhere with it. We never see how this knowledge is actually resulting in anything. We never see cultures weaving together or clashing apart. It's all just a backdrop, just a stage for our story to play out against, and it's a stage that ultimately doesn't have anything to really do with the story that's being told, which is about the most white and humanoid of all the alien races. Don't get me wrong, their story is ultimately a good one, and the twists and turns of the third act are nice and do make the build worth-while, but that build is fumbling and bland, takes too long to sink its hooks in as it wanders our heroes off on sidequests involving jellyfish penetration and Ethan Hawke as a pimp, and it hinges on a serene population of beautiful natives who seem to have blinded Luc Besson in much the same way that James Cameron thinks the Na'vi are much more interesting than they actually are.

And to follow one of the sidequests, without revealing too much, I love Rhianna in this movie. Her character is fun and injects some much needed energy into the story once she joins in, but it's still hard to get fully on board as I find the way she's introduced (the stripper dance equivalence of the opera from Fifth Element) to be exploitative, and the way she departs from the story to be disappointing and unnecessary.

Overall, the most I can still say is... okay. I enjoy the film. I'll buy the bluray and watch it again over the years. But it's just not going to become a passionate go-to. It's too empty and thin for that, without an emotional anchor that can really make me love the story and its characters. For all the thinness of its story, Fifth Element had that for me, with its color and pop bounciness, and the energy through which it dances from quirky character to quirky character. We don't get that in Valerian. It's almost too polished, too perfect to the point where it's become a bit dull. There's moments where it has life and spontaneity, there's a few genuine laughs, but those are moments instead of consistently running throughout. And while I have enjoyed the broader franchise as a whole that is Valerian & Laureline, having started working my way through both the original comics and the 2007 animated series, the film is very true to the source in that it's never been fantastic. I can see why the comics had the influence they did back when they started, and sparked the imaginations of children who would grow into the subsequent generation of European illustrators, but the actual books themselves are just... okay. They're fun, they're clever, they're consistently enjoyable, but there isn't much to the story or the characters to stick with you. They're perfectly consumable, but also perfectly disposable, and even the art, while nice, isn't mindblowing to the degree those later generations would explore once Moebius and his like hit the scene running.

I'm glad I saw Valerian, but also sad that it was merely okay. Which is partially on me given how much I hung on this film. I wanted it to do better, and still hope it does, I just wish a better film had resulted to be more deserving of it. And I don't get why it's just called Valerian, when much of the franchise also has Laureline in the headliner. They're a team, dammit!

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