2017 | rated PG-13 | starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Deleigne | directed by Luc Besson | 2hrs 17 mins
Studio Pitch: I know this is a bit out there, but trust me, I made The Fifth Element.
In a time when science fiction films are dominated by young adult dystopian satires, here comes Luc Besson flying in on a bright, colorful, flashing spaceship daring to deliver an optimistic old fashioned space opera. After years of toiling as a writer on revenge flicks like the Taken trilogy, Besson returns to his Fifth Element palette like a child with the resources to bring his wildest imagination to life. The result is a flawed film with it’s issues that I’m sure will be picked apart by a sci-fi crowd, but is also one heck of a lot of fun. I could have watched it all day.
Over the course of thousands of years Earth’s universal space station becomes the meeting place for a galaxy full of aliens, expanding in to a massive space metropolis hosting species from all over the universe living for now in relative peace. Teenage secret agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Deleigne) help keep that peace. The curtain starts to pull back after they are called on to investigate a mysterious gas that is growing at the heart of the city from which no exploration team has returned. More driving, Valerian is hit with a vision of a tranquil alien world that suffered an extinction level event and decides to get to the bottom of it.
Based on a comic book that inspired both The Fifth Element and Star Wars, “Valerian and Laureline” from 1967, Besson wholly immerses us in a rich and vibrant alien world that unroles new planets, dimensions, monsters, and sci-fi devices at every turn. The film is paced almost perfectly, quick but not to kinetic, allowing the viewer to explore this world, it’s populace and it’s endless inventions. Interestingly, Besson spins a pretty routine comic book title into a movie title with a wacky, contradictory Kubrickian quality. “City of a Thousand Planets” probably gave the marketing department heartburn.
But it isn’t just that Besson and the screenplay dream up an arsenal of clever devices, they think up fun things to do with them. The first act of the film features an extended set piece where Valerian infiltrates a tourist market in another dimension using a device that can transfer his hand into that dimension. The sequence escalates beautifully as Valerian’s arm is stuck in the device and a chase ensues back and forth between dimensions. At a certain point the film runs the risk of being without a sense of danger because it seems that for every problem our heroes can whip out some sci-fi devise to counter it and save themselves. But Besson wisely keeps upping the stakes, stripping them of some of those resources and wrapping the movie toward a central mystery involving the uncharacteristically hostile actions of the aliens from Mul, the collection of devices called Pearls and Converters and the yin-yang relationship between our two heroes. The film requires a lot of it’s audience to pick up it’s own alien language but never feels like slows to a crawl to dump a pile of exposition on us.
I was so swept up in it I didn’t even mind an expansive mid-movie sequence where the script takes a hard detour from an otherwise straight-line story down a series of rabbit holes. A running theme with Valerian is that it is constantly finding ways for our two leads to save each other and prove their worth to each other, pushing them at the forefront of the adventure. A massive side-quest takes us down a path of Valerian sneaking into a place, to get a person to find a key to get a costume to save Laureline and all that work just to get us back to zero. It’s another chance for Besson to indulge in some world building, this time featuring bit parts from Ethan Hawke and Rhianna (as a shape-shifting exotic dancer). The sequence goes on beyond the time when someone else would have allowed, but Besson is so committed to every corner and detail here that every set piece is given the heft and space to breathe on it’s own. We get the sense that this world lives beyond what we can see, every branch forking to ever more branches.
Which bring us to the film’s biggest problem. The two leads. DeHaan (the villain in Chronicle and The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Deleigne (the manic pixie dream girl from Paper Towns) are woefully miscast. Neither lack the personality and charisma to pull this off. DeHaan in particular is saddled with a wily rogue character who is constantly getting himself in and out of trouble, but is so dry and cardboard it makes you wonder what anyone sees in him. Halfway through the film I decided he was intentionally doing a spot-on Keanu Reeves impression. Deleigne is handcuffed into the wet blanket role, the pragmatic balance to Valerian’s flights of fancy that only gets to break out of Judd Apatow Nag Mode when it’s time to start kicking ass as an empowered space woman. Most importantly, there isn’t a spark of chemistry between these two which requires a lot of heavy lifting on the part of the audience to believe they would care for each other. And that’s the “emotional center”.
Imagine Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets like a donut. Yes there is a hole in the middle where charming actors in a convincing relationship should be, but that hole is small and forgivable when surrounded by such a sweet sugar rush of goodness. What this movie does right, it does to the nth degree. Besson’s vision is a rollicking, visually stunning, adventure the likes of which we rarely get nowadays with enough imagination to literally power a small city. If there is any justice in the universe it will join The Fifth Element as a cult classic.