In 2008 two films came out, big important films by established visionaries given a lot of money to tackle popular, established licences. Both were positioned to take the reins, be cinema’s shining light, dictate the course of filmmaking for the next ten years. One of them did.
Now 2008 has a bunch of good films and I’ll admit I left it purposefully vague so you could try and guess which two I was talking about. They are, of course: Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Lana & Lily Wachowski’s Speed Racer. The seismic impact that The Dark Knight had on the film industry is clear to see, we’re still feeling its aftershocks years later. I will always maintain though, that Speed Racer could have been every bit as meteoric as Nolan’s work. It still might be, I’m hoping time will put me on the right side of history.
Bearing that in mind, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets makes much more sense as a movie that fell to us from an alternate universe. From the universe where 2008’s biggest film was Speed Racer and ever since movies have just been trying to achieve something close to its unparalleled majesty. That don’t mean it’s a good film, its fine actually, but I’m just super jized to see something with its grand, maximalist tone get into theatres. It’s gonna lose a lot of money.
I mean one of the key problems here is Valerian himself. I’m not sure who in the past year decided that Dane DeHaan was going to be a star but it ain’t working for him right now. I mean, he scraped through A Cure for Wellness on the merit that his character supposed to be a creepster, but Valerian? Well, Valarian I’m assuming is supposed to be this cool cocksure dude, a little bit Han Solo, a little bit Starlord, a little bit honest cop just doing his duty, and he comes across like the most unlikable arse in the universe.
Like what is supposed to be a winning smile comes across a smirk so insufferably smug that you’d wish Cara Delevingne’s Laureline would just slap it right off his face. Especially when he be asking her to marry him like fifteen minutes into the joint. It’s not that this couple’s chemistry is non-existent, it’s just that the script rides all its assumptions through without ever giving these actors the chance to inhabit them in the moment. Oh, and Valerian describes a strip-tease as one of the most beautiful works of art he ever seen so, come on guy.
I ain’t even gonna bother explaining the plot to you, it’d take up too many words, be far too confusing and I’d probably get it wrong anyway. Valerian and Laureline are two space cops, after they complete a mission to obtain a stolen artefact (in what is unquestionably the film’s best sequence by far) they’re assigned to guard a high ranking military commander (Clive Owen) on the galactic capital space station. A surprise attack leaves them unable to assist as Clive is kidnapped by an alien race that Val dreamed about the day before. They take him into one of the station’s dangerous criminal dark zones and the two cops break into pursuit to try and figure out where he is and why these mysterious aliens snatched him.
Along the way they’ll get into all sorts of fancy hijinks and meet a wide variety of colourful characters who assist them on their quest. That’s it. That’s the brass tacks, but such a description ain’t gonna key you in at all to this film’s profound weirdness. There so much going on, it’s been Luc Besson’s passion project for over a decade, he’s been adapting it from the over 40 year run of the comic series. You get the sense that he knew he’d only have the chance to make one, so all the ideas went in there, all his favourite characters, all the moments that he loved and couldn’t get enough of.
It’s a wild, frantic, uneven thing which only comes to me now through a haze, and that’s because it comes outta the screen that way. It has a very interesting approach to plotting, one which defies traditional notions of cause and effect and instead takes its lead from the guy holding a joint trying to walk you through the massive trip he went on last weekend.
Like, I’ve only brought up Val and Laureline and Clive Owen because they’re basically the only three characters in the whole movie. Rihanna is the sexy dancer who turns up for fifteen minutes (and who in that time makes a far more appealing impression than our leads) and Ethan Hawk is her pimp who manages to last about five. Aside from that there’s no one, a huge variety of bit players and extras and aliens, but like the way aliens used to be drawn in those trippy eurocomics.
None of them are characters though, just cool interesting things that pictures can be taken of. Which is probably how you can tell if you’re going to have patience for this self-indulgent mess. If you’re down with a relentless, nonsensical barrage of crazy imagery and story happenings that don’t quite make sense you might be able to make it through Valerian. Even for me there was times it felt like a challenge.
Seriously once it drops on Netflix or Amazon or whatever skip the five minute prologue and then watch the bit on the desert planet, you can stop after that, film never gets that good again, but that is legit one of the best and most creative action scenes we had all year.
This film gets the ‘I liked it but,’ grade.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets in currently screening in UK cinemas.