I saw Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element on release in 1997, and immediately hated it. Being a cynical, sneering teenager, I had no time for the bright and colourful visuals, the self-consciously wacky characters, the broad, slapstick comedy, the baffling Lee Evans cameo. Eventually though, as the real world grew progressively duller and my hair increasingly greyer, I came to appreciate the film for what it was rather than what it wasn’t, and it’s now a film I check on every few years. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has a lot in common with The Fifth Element, and having trained myself to appreciate the former, I found it easy to appreciate the latter.
Storywise, Valerian is a straightforward, quick-paced action adventure of the sort that’s been missing since the annual brace of superhero comic adaptations blocked out the cinema every year. Though what drives the plot ultimately turns out to be pretty dark, the film never wallows in it, moving briskly between alien beaches, space stations, invisible market places, brothels, and so on. There’s so much going on in that it feels like the filmmakers had a lengthy brainstorming session for ideas and then just said fuck it, let’s put it all in.
What’s ended up on screen is a film of stunning, otherworldly beauty; alien landscapes like the covers of 70s pulp sci-fi novels; space stations the size of planets; robot mercenaries; more alien species that you can count; giant fish. There’s barely a single scene that couldn’t be extracted and turned into a film in its own right, and the fantastic opening sequence that shows how the titular “City of a Thousand Planets” came to exist boldly sets up a dozen or so species and characters before quickly moving on to others.
The film’s one glaring weakness, though, is Dane DeHaan in the role of Valerian, one half of a military special ops partnership with Cara Delevingne as his partner, Laureline.
I’ve no problem with DeHaan when he’s in a role suited to him, and I particularly enjoyed him in Chronicle and The Place Beyond The Pines, but he absolutely isn’t the roguish, charismatic ladies’ man the film presents him as, and when Laureline is reeling off his military accomplishments and lengthy list of female conquests, it doesn’t ring true. Where this style of film needs its leads to have the sparking back-and-forth of, say Harrison Ford and Karen Allen, or Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, the chemistry between DeHaan and Delevingne is non-existent, so much so they may as well be brother and sister. Valerian’s perpetual nagging of Laureline to marry him isn’t cute or endearing; it’s the behaviour of someone who’s going to scurry off to Reddit to complain about being friend-zoned as soon as his advances have been politely but firmly declined.
Delevingne, on the other hand, owns the film in a way that DeHaan never could; she’s perfectly at home amidst all the European sci-fi weirdness, confidently strutting and punching and sweet-talking in a role that once upon a time would have gone to a younger Milla Jovovich. It’s never entirely clear why she puts up with Valerian as, despite what the film insists, she doesn’t even seem to like him all that much.
Still, if you can get past the awkward flatness of the leads’ interactions, there’s a lot of fun to be found in Valerian, a film that at times feels not only like a a descendent of The Fifth Element but also Barbarella and Flash Gordon. It looks great, it sounds great, it’s full of weird characters and it never gets dull. I liked it, and maybe 20 years from now, the disgusted-looking teenager I saw leaving my screening will like it as well.