Ah, Luc Besson is back on our screens. We know Luc Besson - the only (currently) 58-year-old director who has the artistic sensibilities of a 15-year-old. How else could one explain his truly splendid yet overwhelmingly campy previous efforts Le Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element (the pinnacle of Besson's campiness)? After the ill-fated Joan Of Arc film and Arthur trilogy which steered wildly away from this previous work, Besson made a comeback of sorts with Lucy, a film that can stand toe-to-toe with Pacific Rim
as one of the smartest dumb movies ever made owing to its preposterous plot and kinetic pace.
In 2017, he visits his teen sensibilities again by adapting one of his most beloved childhood comic books, Valerian And Laureline. The cinematic version of the aforementioned comic Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets might possibly take up the mantle of the first big budget cult movie to emerge from the summer of 2017. Why would I assume this film will only attain cult status and not be a full-blown blockbuster? Well, dear reader, that has to do with its plot, characters, visuals and overall camp factor.
Valerian And The City of A Thousand Planets follows the titular Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) as they attempt to bring peace and prosperity to the sector of Mul (which is located in the vivid planet of Alpha) by providing its citizens with pearls which are inexplicably replicated by an alien creature that sort of resembles a dinosaur (called a converter) while keeping the evil Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) at bay. Yes, you just read that, and I have barely scratched the surface when it comes to all the other truly bizarre sub-plots, strangely compelling characters and paraphernalia the film has on offer.
One need not go any further before realizing that the film will not tickle everyone's fancy. It is in a league of its own for the reason that Besson is swinging for the fences, and any person who has even the slightest knowledge of how weird that phenomenon gets knows that the film has a limited scope when it comes to appeasing a mass audience. This is the textbook definition of a niche film, except that it cost about $180 million to make. The director tries to create a sci-fi epic for the ages, and falls short of the mark by about a country mile as his unique vision hampers the movie's overall appeal.
The film's frames are overstuffed with a motley of alien lifeforms (created with equal parts CGI and prosthetics), captivating worlds (a rare time I recommend watching the film in 3D) and colorful characters (who can bring a chuckle out of just about anybody), but as you try to fully absorb the sheer multitude of stimulating nuggets stuffed into the visuals, the movie's deficiencies in the dialogue, screenplay and thematic departments quickly become apparent.
It has been nearly eight years since James Cameron's sci-fi epic Avatar
laughed all the way to the bank while becoming the highest grossing film of all time. A film brimming with visual splendor, Avatar however sorely lacked thematic complexity and a persuasive screenplay befitting of a film of its magnitude, which led to a huge chunk of the population souring towards it over time. Valerian... follows in the same footsteps. While the imagination heaped onto the film's fragile plot is spell-binding, an audience member who takes a step back to examine the movie as the narration of a story will be left sorely disappointed. Bright lights and cool action (which are undeniably expertly rendered) overawe best when the plot is sturdy, and as it stands Valerian... might quite possibly be considered a gelatinous mass of eye-catching frames and not much more.
Carrying the film's overbearing sense of wonder and excess are its lead pair Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. DeHaan who has had an underwhelming 2017 after the lukewarm responses to the moderately interesting A Cure For Wellness continues to be a fantastic actor trapped in yet another underwhelming film. The man has talent and range, but that is yet to be fully explored since his breakout role in the shockingly under-viewed Chronicle. This could be attributed to weak characterization or to DeHaan's not so imposing physical presence, a lack of inherent coolth or the absence of chemistry with his costar Delevingne.
Besson's penchant for strong female action heroines is on display yet again as Delevingne's Laureline takes centrestage in most, if not all, action sequences. This role might act as a weak shot of adrenaline for Delevingne's floundering film career (which is not high praise) as she is required to display a myriad of emotions and is asked to flex her acting chops. She is serviceable at best, and sort of holds her own against the film's lush backdrops, various aliens and well-respected co-stars who include an ever-welcome Ethan Hawke, a strangely off-his-game Clive Owen and Rihanna in a refreshing cameo.
While the score is nothing to write home about, the film's visual effects, design and animation departments warrant a special mention. Their effort, which is seemingly beyond the call of duty, provides the audience with a rich set of worlds to explore while never overwhelming them with sheer sensory overload akin to a certain Michael Bay franchise
Valerian... is quite obviously one man's passion project, with a team of truly skilled people in front of and behind the camera. While there is an undeniable amount of soul in it, the film has all the downsides of a reputed filmmaker's long term project. It might be a tad too long, a tad too overindulgent, a tad too simple, a tad too overwrought and a tad too wacky. But all those issues stand toe-to-toe with merits such as a wholly unexplored and lovely sci-fi world, a cavalcade of interesting creatures, a few well-realized action sequences, and a generally fun time at the movies if you can just tune out the part of your brain that screams for overall quality instead of a smattering of it. Like The Fifth Element, this movie is quite likely garner a devout cult following a few years down the line, but unlike the former, it lacks a Korben or a Leeloo who were instrumental in keeping the audiences coming back for more.