‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’
Director: Luc Besson
Stars: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne
3 (out of 5) Globes
In 1997, the summer movie season was considerably weirded up by a pricey sci-fi extravaganza called “The Fifth Element.” To unsuspecting Americans, it didn’t look like it would be all that different from “Men in Black” or “Batman & Robin.” It had famous American faces, including a top-billed Bruce Willis. It was in English. But the finished product seemed, well, French. And it was. It was the nation’s costliest ever film, casually slipped into multiplexes across the ocean. If it was, like all films by Luc Besson (“La Femme Nikita,” “The Professional”), imitation Hollywood, something, maybe everything seemed gloriously lost in translation. It starts with Luke Perry, well past his sell-by date, dooming space robots to death. The president is played by a wrestler. And baddie Gary Oldman sweats chocolate while shooting guns shaped like bread. Eventually a tentacled blue space diva croons a hip-hop aria while John McClane tears up.
Jump 20 years and it is happening again. But the times, oh, they have changed. Back in 1997, “The Fifth Element” felt like a non-sequitur. In 2017, Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” plays like much-needed relief. It’s a Eurotrash space opera dropped into a desert of interchangeable franchise movies, plus a director-driven film that, like Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver,” stands out for the simple fact that it actually has personality. Of course, it's easy to overrate films like these, only because they once weren’t this rare. And to be frank, Besson's return to space isn't as sharp (or as bizarre) as it was the first time. It's proof you can't go home again.
Still, when the film’s “The Fifth Element,” even a second-rate knock-off will do. Based on the old French comic, “Valerian and Laureline," Besson's latest is set in a deep future in which which humanity improbably got their stuff together and formed some galactic federation with far-flung beings. (Worth noting: The comics, with their utopian view of universal semi-harmony, debuted only a year after “Star Trek.”)
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Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne — in performances best described as “affordable” — play our hot-shot agent heroes. They’re a bickering will-they-or-won’t-they pair — he sarcastic and cocky, she basically just pissed-off. (Delevingne’s version of Blue Steel has rarely been put to better use.) They must save the titular metropolis, which is like a space hub for the universe’s best species. Still, maybe the culprits — a race of fragile space hippies who worship nature and are introduced being nearly bombed-out of existence — aren’t the real baddies.
The half-century-old source is obviously influential, which is to say it’s been picked dry by imitators, from “Star Wars” to “Battlestar Galactica” to, well, "The Fifth Element." Besson knows he’s not reinventing the wheel, but he can give this belated film adaptation the gee-whiz feel of reading an old comic. At its best, “Valerian” has the dense, madcap rush of a comedic cartoon sci-fi — think “Futurama” or “Rick and Morty,” though neither as funny nor as inventive as either. (And, coming from the guy who made the moronic yet dazzling “Lucy,” it’s more or less the opposite of smart.) The snaky, digressive plot is purely foundational, there to prop up as many alien beasties and bizarro tech and Besson insanities as it can without breaking.
Insanity is where Besson shines anyway. “Valerian” boasts sights you won’t want to un-see. Cara Delevingne puts her head inside a jellyfish so she can spy on Dane DeHaan’s memories. A cute reptile creature thing poops a flurry of pearls and diamond earrings. Rihanna shape-shifts into Herbie Hancock. The casting often plays like Mad Libs, which would explain why a game Ethan Hawke swings by as a blinged-out cowboy pimp. These are momentary pleasures, coming at ya early and often. Still, "Valerian" peaks early with a lengthy and sustained set piece that’s like the bi-temporal car chase from Tony Scott’s “Deja Vu,” only with aliens and a sly reference to the 3-D glasses sitting on your head as it unfolds.
Besson’s filmic universes are fun places to return to, even if he’s not much for story or world-building. The characters, here and in “The Fifth Element,” are thin, the actors usually confused. (Of course, this can be entertaining, too.) DeHaan is miscast, as he usually is in big films; the only pricey product that gets his sickly grouch vibe is "The Cure for Wellness." Or maybe the casting’s secretly smart? Maybe we’re not supposed to actually like this entitled cad, which then subtly upends the oh-so-’60s macho vibe, making Delevingne’s Laureline infinitely more sympathetic. But that may be assuming too much of a film that drops the female hero’s name from the title (but keeps the one named after an herbal supplement) and was made by a director who loves ass-kicking, powerful women but only when they’re played by models. Then again, a summer blockbuster in 2017 that’s colorful instead of drab, that isn’t aimed specifically at Americans and is kind enough to give us “Space Oddity” in Dolby Surround ought to be welcomed as a liberator.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge