Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Bruce Steele: I often complain that most movies released in 3D weren’t directed to be seen in 3D, but Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets uses the effect to surround you with wonders from the first scene on. Some chases seems to exist just to have fun zipping through the depths. It’s as if writer-director Luc Besson was making up for the fact that his equally zippy The Fifth Element, with its flying cars and urban precipices, was never converted to 3D.
Edwin Arnaudin: As you well know, I’m a 3D agnostic (with a Fox Mulder-esque desire to believe), but if more films take advantage of the technology to the degree Besson does here, I could see myself become one of the faithful.
Bruce: We believers will keep trying to win you over. In return, you get to win me over to the rest of Valerian, which I found comic-bookish in the bad sense: overstuffed and made up of bright surfaces that don’t add up to much.
Edwin: Its busyness is key to its appeal for me. From the opening montage of humans and aliens shaking hands on an ever-growing interplanetary space station (set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”) and the subsequent stretch on the beach paradise planet Mul, I was taken with Besson’s colorful, weird vision. I kept expecting the visuals to lag and allow the admittedly flimsy storytelling to drag Valerian down, but the creativity kept flowing. I’m guessing you saw the seams early and often?
Bruce: Not too early. Like you, I liked the Mul prelude a lot. And the first mission undertaken by cocky space spies Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), in a market in another dimension, has a clear goal and snappy structure. But once they arrive at the titular city, the movie goes off the rails in a series of random encounters so disjointed it has to halt the story for about 15 minutes near the end to explain everything. That’s a problem.
Edwin: The info dump is unfortunate — and unfortunately necessary by that point — and brings to mind the dreadful writing of Besson’s recent efforts (e.g. Lucy; The Family). Though the sideline subterfuge of Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) regarding the citizens of Mul is poorly established, I felt like there was enough mystery regarding his actions to suspend disbelief…until there wasn’t. His strand is the film’s weakest part for me, but when Valerian and Laureline are away from his meddling, they atone for his clumsy involvement. Were you taken with their rapport and tangental adventures?
Bruce: I find Dane DeHaan just as hard to believe as a swashbuckling lady’s man as I did as James Dean (Life). He’s best cast as petulant man-boy (Chronicle; A Cure for Wellness). Valerian’s hard sell to get Laureline to hook up with him seems inept, not sexy, and I certainly wouldn’t follow him into danger. Delevingne is more comfortable as a quippy action hero. I think Laureline could wipe the floor with Valerian.
Edwin: I think you mean Young Keanu Reeves? DeHaan’s federal agent with beach bum speech made me think of Johnny Utah, and I’d argue that his Valerian is a comparably talented lawman who’d inspire confidence in me were I his colleague. So I understand why Laureline is professionally loyal to him, but other than the fun of toying with his emotions, I don’t believe this hyper-cool woman is actually interested in him as a lover.
Bruce: If there’s a sequel, which I doubt there will be, maybe we’ll find out she was just toying with him all along. We can hope. The person I felt the most sorry for was Clive Owen. This is what happens to your career when you lose the James Bond sweepstakes. You get to play a lame villain in a second-rate sci-fi movie who disappears for half the running time. On the other hand, Rhianna is like a cool breeze in a stuffy room when she finally shows up.
Edwin: Her shapeshifter is a lot of fun, as is Ethan Hawke as her, uh, employer. She ushers in a wild 15-20 minutes where I felt like Valerian achieves peak wackiness and entertainment. But as with other would-be series starters, I agree that this is likely the last time we see these characters for a while.
Bruce: Probably so, and the material may deserve better. A quick Wikipedia dive on the original French comic books turns up stories and characters that sound a lot more coherent and rich than those Besson provides. But he’s always been a theme park engineer of a producer-director, intent mostly on a quick, exciting ride. Valerian has some thrills, but at 2¼ hours, it’s not quick, and for me the storytelling slog was a big wet blanket on the visual kicks. I’ll give it a C-minus.
Edwin: Other than The Fifth Element and his reserved, unexpectedly terrific Aung San Suu Kyi biopic The Lady — featuring dual David Thewlis performances — I find Besson to be a lousy filmmaker. Back in Element territory and playing with 20 years of advances in special effects suggests weird, detailed sci-fi is where he’s meant to be. Other than the final act narrative pitfalls, I had a blast with Valerian, though seeing as the bulk of U.S. audiences aren’t familiar with the source material, I wish they’d kept Valerian and Laureline as the title to give its badass heroine her due. B-plus for me and I’d gladly see it again, but preferably not in 2D. Looks like your conversion plan is working.
Grade: B-minus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark.
(Photos: STX Entertainment)