Not Unwatchable

Valerian buries a good message under a terrible script

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Opens July 21

Luc Besson is an interesting cat. Early in his career, he mixed action and art and, for the most part, succeeded (The Professional, La Femme Nikita). But after the epic failure of his 1999 Joan of Arc biopic The Messenger, Besson penned a number of forgettable thrillers with various degrees of success: for every Taken there was a Colombiana. All were kind of lazy and coasted on their actors’ charisma, but they made money.

Lately, Besson has returned to the director’s chair. His movies are still of dubious quality, but at least he scored one box-office smash (Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy).

Fueled by Lucy, Taken and Transporter’s profits, Besson is tackling his most ambitious film to date: a $180 million sci-fi adaptation called Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

It’s not fantastic, but it’s more watchable than half of this season’s blockbusters.

Based on the sci-fi comic series Valerian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézieres, the film is set in the 28th century, a time when humans are trying to establish friendly relationships with extraterrestrial civilizations  (the Star Trek vibe is not lost on anybody). Against this backdrop, two federal agents are ordered to track down and capture a converter — a cuddly critter capable of reproducing any basic element tenfold, including diamonds and pearls.

The operatives, Valerian (Dane DeHaan, Chronicle) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne, so much better than in Suicide Squad), soon realize all is not as it seems. Intrigue and action ensue.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is built like a videogame (the alien landscapes look like screensavers) and the set pieces are quite entertaining: Besson pulls off a complicated, multi-dimensional chase scene I can’t recall seeing before in a movie. The intro couldn’t be more promising: a montage of great moments in galactic exploration (real and imaginary) to the tune of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. Valerian’s problem is its flimsy connective tissue. The dialogue is phenomenally bad and the poorly-written relationship between Valerian and Laureline often sabotages any momentum. The film just dumps info on us (he is a cad, she is an overachiever) and expects to put together the dumb backstory. We barely know these people. Why would we care about their romantic dramas?

Unlike Besson’s shaggier, sexier The Fifth Element, Valerian is low on comedy, even though the setup cries for it. DeHaan and Delevigne couldn’t sell a joke for the life of them. The script would have benefited from a second pair of hands besides Besson’s. There are some elements that hint at a zanier approach (jazzman Herbie Hancock as the Minister of Defense, Rihanna parading one absurdly provocative outfit after another), but the movie steers away from wilder impulses.

At the very least, Valerian’s heart is in the right place. Under layers of special effects and plot contrivances this movie is an indictment of the treatment of refugees. First, their world gets destroyed by the actions of more “developed” societies and then they’re treated like criminals by those responsible for their hardships as they try to rebuild.

It’s a topic Guardians of the Galaxy wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Or maybe it would. If it did, I bet there’d at least be a joke or two. ❧