When Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element was released in 1997, it stood apart from anything else released that year, both in tone and visual ambition. It was not a success, but over time, esteem for the film has grown, and rightfully so. Besson’s childhood dream come true was beautiful and silly and colorful and fun, and it consciously thumbed its nose at the narrative conventions of science-fiction adventure films. It also benefitted from an amazing performance by Milla Jovovich and a totally in-on-the-joke Bruce Willis, who actually appeared to give a shit about what was happening around him.
I’m not sure VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS will age as well.
Visually, the film is beyond reproach. It opens with a montage that shows how Earth went from the first international space station to our first alien contact to what eventually becomes known as Alpha, a junction point for thousands of civilizations. Set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” it’s bold and dreamy, and it got me hyped for what was coming.
As a profound fan of The Fifth Element, I’ve been excited about Valerian ever since Luc Besson himself explained his vision for the film to me at WonderCon in 2014. I was moderating a panel for his film Lucy, and we had some time to chat beforehand. He told me that he had visited the set of Avatar and seen how the process worked, and it had changed him as a filmmaker. When he made The Fifth Element, there were still giant models built, and while Digital Domain was a co-producer on the film, the majority of their work in it involves compositing, not creating things from scratch using CGI. It was a movie made at a moment caught between two radically different schools of big-canvas filmmaking, and Besson was frustrated by how hard it was to wrestle that world onto the screen. Once he saw what James Cameron was doing, he realized the rules had changed, and he wanted to take another shot at that kind of thing. Instead of going back to make Mr. Shadow, the Fifth Element sequel he originally talked about in 1997, he decided to adapt another childhood dream of his, the Valerian and Laureline comics by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières.
It feels like it should be the perfect fit. After all, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are super-space-spies who flirt constantly and have crazy colorful adventures together as they jump around time and space. Much of what I dig about Valerian is the way it feels like it belongs on a shelf with films like Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik, as well as 1980’s Flash Gordon and the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending. It is unabashedly bright and poppy and even cheerfully ridiculous at times. It is full of remarkable invention, including an early set piece staged around a massive trans-dimensional bazaar, and I enjoyed watching every single moment of the film.
But Besson’s normally keen eye for casting has utterly failed him here, and I’m not really sure what to make of the way he missed the target. We may just have very different ideas about charisma, although that seems odd based on how much I typically love the way he populates his films. Whether we’re talking about the once-in-a-lifetime discovery of Natalie Portman in The Professional or the deeply felt feral work of Anne Parillaud in La Femme Nikita or the daffy delights of Jovovich showing off her “LeeeeeloooooDallasmooooolteeeeepasssss” in The Fifth Element, Besson has always been good about finding people who twig in on the particular world he’s trying to bring to life. A great example is Chris Tucker’s performance in Fifth Element, where he’s basically playing Prince as a morning DJ. People love to hate that character, but I would argue they’re having exactly the right reaction, and it’s not an accident. That’s what Besson wrote and that’s what he cast, and Tucker crushed it. He gave him exactly what he asked for.
Maybe that’s the case here. Maybe Besson looks at what happens between DeHaan and Delevingne and it works for him. I just don’t think DeHaan is a loose, funny, charming leading man. I think he’s a solid actor who has been well-cast in certain films. Not every actor is right for every kind of film, and I’m pretty well convinced at this point that “heroic lead” is not in DeHaan’s wheelhouse.
Delevingne might be better than him, but I’m not sure because she’s curiously underwritten here. Normally, Besson is far more interested in the women in his films, and Laureline is the one who has the more keenly developed moral and ethical character in the film, certainly. But she still manages to get sidelined, enough so that her character clearly resents when it happens, and yet it still keeps happening. I wish that felt more like a clever nod to the marginalization of women in these types of films and less like an actual example of it, because I’m all for exploding tropes by steering directly into them. One of my favorite things about The Fifth Element is how the entire film manages to avoid putting the hero and the villain in the same room together, denying them any big showdown or any monologuing. They clearly do it on purpose, too. Gary Oldman and Bruce Willis miss each other by mere seconds at one point. Here, there’s no clever tweak that pays off all the ways Laureline feels undercooked. She’s the one who makes the film’s biggest choice, but because so much of the film is focused completely on Valerian, it gets lost a bit.
Whatever. It’s like having a ribbon of liver-flavored-ice cream running through the very best cake you’ve ever had. So much of this film is amazing that I can’t imagine telling anyone to sit it out. You could show up just for Rihanna’s turn as Bubble, a shape-shifting alien, and you’d get your money’s worth. You could show up for the eco-fairy tale about the planet of the hot, mostly naked aliens who share their world with animals who fart magic space fuel pearls, and you’d definitely get plenty to look at. You could come just to see Alpha itself, this amazing accidental planet that just kept growing and growing, and adding more and more species, and you’d leave fully dazzled.
I love the ideas in this film. I love its peripheral characters. There’s a weird alien who spends an entire scene showing Laureline dresses and helping her try on hats, and I want a spin-off movie just about that alien. I am fascinated by the strange little roving pack of information salesmen, the Doghan-Dagui, and how one of the programmers for the American Cinematheque ended up voicing one of them. You could come for Ethan Hawke’s quietly desperate turn as a pimp named Jolly, or because John Goodman’s weird gangster alien is so much fun to watch, or for “the butterflies,” as my kid put it.
This is the kind of film where Herbie Hancock is apparently the head of some sort of space police agency and there are cartoon sound effects, so even when things are serious, they’re not too serious, and I love that about it. Not all science-fiction should be super-serious or super-dark, and Besson is drawing on this rich tradition of European graphic work that has its own flavor.
Alexandre Desplat’s score is a treat, and Thierry Arbogast’s photography is so crazy pretty it’s not fair. By now, Besson has honed his process, both as a director and as a producer, and that kind of structural rigidity allows him real creative freedom. He can turn his production designer Hugues Tissandier loose in a way that he’s never been able to in the past. He has an army of art directors and set decorators working to bring the world to life, and the result is something genuinely new.
Is that enough? Well, I know that for me, fantastic cinema is about being transported, and this is a spectacular accomplishment on that front. I think the script is less successful as a whole than The Fifth Element, hindered also by the casting, but I think fans of that film will like Valerian quite a bit. Hell, I’d even be excited by a return to this universe, as long as Besson retains the freedom to do it the way he wants.
I’m just not sure these are the right stars to guide us through this amazing world.
Running time: 137 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic