Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – movie review

by James Robins / 22 August, 2017

Special agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne).

A lack of basic storytelling mars an ambitious trip through imaginary worlds. 

Gird yourself. Another Luc Besson movie has arrived, gleaming and pulsing like something untoward from outer space or another dimension altogether. Twenty years after he brought us The Fifth Element – featuring Bruce Willis in a bright orange emergency vest designed by Jean Paul Gaultier and Milla Jovovich as a kind of striptease mummy – Besson has come up with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Based on a celebrated French comic series, Valerian conceivably exists in the same universe as The Fifth Element, with its intense neon flashes and canyon-like cities in the stars. Impressively, it makes even less sense. Any attempt to convey its plot risks immediate admission to an institution and a dose of heavy sedatives. Let’s just say that it involves a doe-eyed, pearl-farming species who look like paler cousins of the blue bunch in Avatar, a sequence at an intergalactic market that takes place simultaneously in two realities, jazz musician Herbie Hancock playing a government minister, enough brain-frying CGI to send George Lucas apoplectic and a fluorescent hedgehog that giggles as it disgorges diamonds like a waterfall. Among all this are special agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who must solve a mystery threatening the heart of a galactic outpost called Alpha.

The picture is wonderfully baffling and confounding to watch – a lightspeed 3D lurch through imaginatively rendered worlds that barely lets up over two hours. It’s also a remarkable thing that Besson can bring these spaces, extraterrestrial warts and all, into existence with such vividness and alacrity, yet struggle to master the basic patterns of human speech or storytelling. One feels especially bad for DeHaan and Delevingne, who probably spent most of the film’s shoot in front of a green screen uttering Besson’s clunky dialogue, which lacks even a hint of cleverness.

Perhaps the future will bring us a Besson cyborg with enough literary skill to match his aesthetic ambition. In the meantime, watch on, but with trusty earplugs firmly in place.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

This article was first published in the July 15, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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