Luc Besson is an auteur; a visionary director who will put his hand to anything. More often than not it doesn't all work, but what he does produce is always interesting with the kernel of good ideas and so his work is always worth a watch. Harvey Weinstein called Besson a "has been" but I don't think that's true at all, rather Besson is a man with artistic ambition and seeks to realise but with varying results. So when the trailer for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets dropped a few months ago my interest was piqued.
Adapted from Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières epic French sci-fi comic series, Valérian And Laureline, Besson seems like the logical fit, what with his penchance for visual flourishes and elaborate set pieces. The comics series has been credited with inspiring much of the sci-fi media but what of this adaptation of the original source material?
The story is action sci-fi 101; In the 28th century, special operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) work together to maintain order throughout the human territories. Under assignment from the minister of defense, the duo embarks on a mission to Alpha, an ever-expanding metropolis where diverse species gather to share knowledge and culture. When a dark force threatens the peaceful city, Valerian and Laureline must race against time to identify the menace that also jeopardizes the future of the universe.
From the off the film is a sumptuous visual feast filled with neons and stunning detail. The beginning 10 minutes of the film is scored with David Bowie's Space Oddity and shows the space race to the expansion of Alpha, with the humans meeting the various alien races over time. It is an assured and beautiful start to the film. The world building is immaculate, which you would expect from the director of The Fifth Element, another cult sci-fi film. However once the story starts it falls woefully short of matching the brilliance of the visuals.
I've never read the bande-desinee source material but in this film Valerian is supposed to be a bit of a handsome womanising rogue, however DaHaan, who is a fine actor and does well playing the moody outsider, is woefully miscast. He doesn't have the presence of a young cocky Hans Solo type. The supposedly flirty dialogue between his character and Laureline comes across as wooden and poorly scripted. As a man who's supposed to have bedded tonnes of women his banter seems more like that of a horny teen desperately seeking a date for the prom. Delevingne does well with the role she is given and actually shows some range and the potential to be good actress but the dialogue doesn't do either actor any favours. At times the chemistry between the two protagonists feels forced, like students who had been forced to do a project together by a teacher, rather than a long-time partnership spoken about at the beginning of the story. There were some witty one liners but these were few and far between and the flirting is cringe-worthy and embarrassing at times.
However there are some highlights including an amazing star turn from Rihanna as the shape-shifting cabaret artist/lady of the night, Bubbles. In her stunning cabaret inspired performance she shape shifts into different costumes at stunning speed and pole dances with style. The mind reading jellyfish scene with Delevingne is funny and the creature designs are incentive and quirky, especially the 3 duck-like creatures which look oddly like Howard the Duck from the terrible 80's film, but grubbier.
The visuals could only have been done now but the story, which has inspired countless sci-fi films including Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy, feels old and in need of updating and refreshing. As a new film this feels strangely out of time. I'm sure when the comics were created it all felt very exciting, like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers but now these are old hat and so offer nothing new for todays plugged in audience.
So overall, the film is worth seeing but not for the story or actors but rather for the visuals and special effects.