Valerian and the City of a Thousand PlanetsReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/23/17 00:45:21
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I forget whether I started buying the new English-language printings of "Valerian & Laureline" upon hearing that Luc Besson would be doing a movie or if reading the first few of those got me excited to hear Besson was making the film; it was about the same time. I say this not because I'm in the tank for this and you should downgrade my praise accordingly, but because I started out hoping for another fast, colorful sci-fi picture like "The Fifth Element" and wound up hoping they wouldn't change the comic too much. That's likely not a huge issue for most English-language viewers, who will hopefully embrace what bright, kinetic fun it is even if the script is lacking in spots.Centuries in the future, the International Space Station has grown to such a massive structure hosting hundreds of species that it was pushed out of Earth's orbit to push into the unknown, now called "Alpha". Two special agents of the Human Federation, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) have been tasked with bringing a strange creature that can replicate matter to Alpha from the black market, but something seems amiss - not only did Valerian receive a mental "wave" of a planetary disaster on his way to the mission, but there's a mysterious radioactive dead zone at the center of Alpha, and when Valerian and Laureline are tasked with security for a meeting to investigate, terrorists appear and kidnap Commander Arun Flitt (Clive Owen). Valerian pursues, but his ship crashes, leaving Laureline to find him despite feeling that things still don't add up.
Valerian & Laureline first appeared in print about fifty years ago, and that movie technology has just catching up to what writer Pierre Christin & artist Jean-Claude Mézières could do on the page in the past decade or so is a testament to what boundless imagination comics can achieve, although film has arguably strip-mined V&L for visuals for nearly as long as they've been around, from Star Wars to Besson's own The Fifth Element (which at least put Mézières on the payroll as a designer). Despite the fact that some of its more iconic visuals have been used elsewhere, Besson and his team still manage to find or design something spectacular to put on the screen in nearly every scene, creating a bustling sci-fi world that few live-action films have managed. It's a lively blend of design work, CGI, and practical effects, and looks good enough that Besson can spend a good chunk of the opening on an alien world with no humans in sight. It's definitely worth checking out on the biggest, brightest 3D screen one can find (even if some of those properties may occasionally contradict each other).
It's not just static images that will look good in a hardcover "The Art of Valerian" book, though; Besson comes up with fun action beats that play well with his sci-fi premises, from a heist at a market that exists in two alternate dimensions to a chase that crashes through Alpha's many environments to dropping a shape-shifter into the middle of a fight. It's breezy action so smoothly done as to make it look easy, but it's impressive as heck - while some bits have been pointed out ahead of time, Besson and his crew establish other things on the fly and do it well enough that both Valerian having a device that makes force-field stepping-stones and that thing breaking down at the least opportune moment needs much in the way of clarification. Besson wisely uses the action sequence that is most entirely digital as a centerpiece rather than the climax, making sure that the most important moments center on Valerian, Laureline, and the people around them, human and otherwise.
All that visual creativity and skill at using action tends to make some of the script's deficiencies a bit annoying, and while Besson is hardly the only person who has trouble with this - he's at least in good filmmaker company in how James Cameron and George Lucas would also deliver clunky screenplays despite seemingly having had a whole lot of time to polish this, Avatar, and the Star Wars prequels before cameras rolled and computers rendered - it's bafflingly unnecessary. It's not the plot that is weak, necessarily - as much as some sequences are uncomfortable in terms of being European men putting words of forgiveness into the mouths of people whose world was destroyed by a human war, Besson still manages to make his far-flung fantasy about something contemporary enough to give what is often a light fantasy a little weight. On a smaller scale, while I suspect that the tweaks he made to the heroes' background will not annoy most viewers that much (though Laureline should be a redhead from the Middle Ages who adapted to time and space travel quickly because she's just that cool, dammit!), you'd think that with all the time Besson spent developing this, he'd come up with a better dynamic than the stale "Valerian's a player who suddenly realizes that Laureline is the only girl for him" that he's got his main characters doing.
It's one of a number of choices that often has Dane DeHaan looking dumber than necessary as Valerian, though he banters well enough and does a fair job selling his interactions with the visual effects quite well; he's also able to make the character kind of likable in the moments when he's in over his head or when Laureline has shoved his heart into the right place. Laureline has often been the real star of the comics anyway, even though it took decades for her name to be part of the title (plus ça change…), and Cara Delevingne does a fair job of capturing the idealistic, BS-intolerant, but often playful character. The supporting cast is kind of a mixed batch - rigid military Clive Owen is the least interesting Clive Owen but Ethan Hawke and Rihanna pop up for enjoyable roles later on, while Sam Spruell and Kris Wu make the characters back at headquarters useful without distracting from the main group.Put it all together, and Besson has made a great-looking movie that captures the spirit and feel of the original comics, which may make for a weird experience for some - even at their most popular, European sci-fi comics are something of an acquired taste in the English-speaking world, even ones as poppy as "Valerian & Laureline". It may be odd, but it's entertaining, and I suspect the colorful earnestness will grow on people given time, so why not see it on the big screen now?
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