Throughout his career it’s fair to say Luc Besson has often had the same criticism levelled against his work, that it is more style than substance. While his work is often visually high concept, in the likes of Leon aka The Professional and (more relevant here) The Fifth Element he has created films that are engrossing, energetic, eccentric but, above all, enjoyable… And now has come Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
Fairly quickly this looks like it might inhabit similar territory to The Fifth Element as we are rapidly sent from the first meeting in space between the US and Soviets to the creation of Alpha, an enormous space station inhabited by species from around the galaxy heading off to explore the cosmos.
We also witness what at first appears to be an unrelated planetary apocalypse of a fairly psychedelic race’s home world getting destroyed by mysterious star ships leaving only handful of survivors.
We then meet our two leads, Dane DeHaan’s Valerian and Cara Delevingne’s Laureline, members of the military that controls Alpha on a mission to recover a mysterious artefact, while indulging in some of the most chemistry free romantic entanglements ever committed to celluloid.
From there the story is fairly episodic, giving the impression that Besson has taken a selection of ideas from the source comics and thrown them all into the movie script whether they fit or not.
This is particularly noticeable when the lead pair encounter an apparently xenophobic race who like a tasty human brain and, improbably, pop star Rhianna crops up to save the day for about five minutes and is then never mentioned again (its hard to avoid the feel of misjudged ‘stunt casting’ at this point).
Along with the slightly too episodic nature of the plot (the whole planetary apocalypse thing is present throughout but only really comes into focus again in the very end, by which point you’ll be at least one step ahead of everyone on-screen) the characters and performances have no sense of consistency or believability.
Now, I’m a fan of sci-fi so it’s not because of the setting or anything like that, but rather because they change entirely almost scene to scene giving particularly the leads and the main villain an almost schizophrenic edge that makes them impossible to get along with, care about or anything else.
Where the film does succeed is in its visuals, I don’t think there’s a single shot without some visual effect and in some cases entire scenes are entirely CGI but fit in with the live action elements (for the most part) excellently and the production design and costumes look, in their way, excellent (though what’s with Rhianna’s Cabaret moment?).
While the script and dialogue are never great it is in the closing scenes, where one might expect something to tidy up the various threads, it all just descends to into what is at best laughable and worst cringeworthy and, while it can be credited for not having a standard city destroying battle in its final act, what it does have just falls flat so, while the ending feels like it should be the beginning of the adventures of Valerien and Laureline, I honestly hope they are lost in space (though part of me was hoping for Roger Moore-era James Bond like final pay off gag).