- By Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
One wants to adore the totally lunatic space opera “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.”
One really, REALLY wants to.
Two 28th century government agents traveling across the universe (not the galaxy — the UNIVERSE) on a sprawling mission that hops planets, dimensions and time itself, riffing on a French comic book from the swingin’ ’60s? As Philip Fry, hero of that other ga-ga sci-fi tale “Futurama” puts it, “Shut up and take my money!”
And yet, they do not make it easy.
Luc Besson’s newest entry into his Bananas Cinema Taken From the Comics of His Childhood is based on the remarkably influential French sci-fi comic “Valérian et Laureline.” Writen by Pierre Christin and drawn by Jean-Claude Mézières, the adventures of “Valérian et Laureline” ran from 1967 to 2010 and represents a shining example of genre comics at their most anything-goes bonkers.
Special effects have only recently started to catch up to the worlds you can build on pen and paper, so it’s no wonder it cost about $227 million — about the cost of your average American summer blockbuster but a staggering amount for a French film — to bring this planetary romance to the big screen. (And I do mean big — watch this sucker on the largest screen you can find).
The first half an hour delivers, well, the universe. Set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” we see generations of Earthpersons greeting each other in transnational friendship, then greeting other races from beyond the stars in an increasingly large space station that eventually gets so large it heads out to deep space. A few hundred years go by, and we cut to an entirely digitally (and gorgeously) rendered planet of sylph-like aliens cavorting in a desert paradise. It is weird, beautiful and utterly without context. Suddenly, horror — enormous ships crash to the surface, forcing the natives to flee. It’s perfectly planetary romance stuff (and exactly the sort of alien design that makes one think Besson should consider an adaptation of “The Martian Chronicles” — Luc, call me, let’s talk.)
When it comes to the “City of a Thousand Planets” bit, Besson goes all-in on show, don’t tell. His world-building is vast and layered, dozens upon dozens of alien races and weird tech done up in the most detailed, high-end CGI. The titular city is the “Star Wars” cantina scene on a grand scale — 30 million souls, thousands of species and languages.
The first mission undertaken by Valérian (Dane DeHaan, who seems to be doing Keanu Reeves) and Laureline (British model Cara Delevingne, who seems to be doing Emma Stone) takes place at a vast interdenominational mall — put on the special glasses and gloves, and a million stores are at your disposal. Without them, it looks like hundreds of folks wandering around the desert. It’s a tad on the nose, but well executed.
Soon we are off to the races, with the duo uncovering a vast conspiracy involving a race thought to be extinct, various criminals (including a lively Ethan Hawke as a pimp), a creature that poops copies of whatever you feed it and the complicity of the military. (Points added for making Herbie Hancock the president of the galaxy or something.)
But when it comes to what is coming out of Valérian’s and Laureline’s mouths, Besson submits the audiences to some of the most egregiously stilted chatter you are likely to hear in 2017.
It doesn’t help that neither DeHaan nor Delevingne (the latter of whom is better, overall) have a tremendous amount of experience carrying a blockbuster (DeHaan’s finest hour was as the really creepy psychic teen in “Chronicle” — weird is his wheelhouse). But the script itself is just jaw-dropping in its expository directness.
Is this the work of a guy whose first language is not English? Maybe; the whole thing really does seem awfully French (this is in no way a knock). But I don’t recall the chatter in Besson’s bonkers-fun “Lucy” being this rough.
Is it written this way better to translate the film to an international audience (think China, mostly), an audience who might struggle with colloquial English? Perhaps, but “The Fate of the Furious” is the second-highest grossing film in Chinese history, and “Valerian” makes that thing look like Aaron Sorkin.
And we haven’t even gotten to Rihanna, who shows up as a shape shifting, pole-dancing, plot-advancing creature.
It’s all massively frustrating; whenever an interesting theme is developed, it is stymied by the writing. Not to mention the fact that this thing is 137 minutes long; that’s the industry standard for summer tentpoles these days, but with something this visually dense, ones eyes literally get tired about three-quarters of the way through.
It is entirely possible that Besson was just a little too emotionally close to this one. From its visual ambition to its endless exposition to its weirdly traditional themes (love and marriage, no kidding), “Valerian” snatches mediocrity from the jaws of total lunacy.