Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (12A)
Running time 2hr 17min
IT’S easy to forget, in the face of recent misfires (The Lady, The Family), that Luc Besson once held his corner as a visual director like no other, bringing a pop-video sharpness to the lacklustre ’90s run-and-gun field. Unsurprisingly, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (breathe now) is a bid for his old mantle, caked in CGI Day-Glo to such an extent as to put 1997’s The Fifth Element to shame. Paradoxically, it’s everything his Bruce Willis-starring classic wasn’t, a dull and outmoded sci-fi ‘blockbuster’ that appears to have missed a decade’s case notes vis-à-vis audience taste and sensitivity. Paradoxically, in grasping for his creative roots, Besson has set himself even further apart from his former self, the bright young thing that turned the action flick on its head with Nikita and Léon.
In all fairness, there’s probably a good hour of ultralight entertainment in here somewhere, but Valerian is a downright clunky (and, by turns, curiously plagiaristic) comic book adaptation. Its plot, pitting benevolent alien tribesmen against the malignant influence of spacefaring civilization, has more than a stinking whiff of Avatar about it (the former tree-huggers, in fact, bear a striking resemblance to the Na’vi); the titular cosmopolis recalls the most crude and garish of George Lucas’ creations (think Phantom Menace garish), and there’s an unfortunate Spy Kids vibe about proceedings, as the teenaged heroes (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne) dodge all manner of overanimated nasties. It’s fantasy in desperate want of a mojo, its kinetic vigour unable to salvage it from its own thematic levity and crippling derivativity. Ethan Hawke and Clive Owen figure throughout, but there’s an uncomfortable look about both that suggests they’ve been forced into this project against their will.
Besson sure can direct the hell out of a set piece – even a confused segment featuring Rihanna as a shapeshifting dancer in the mould of Liza Minnelli is not without its imaginative flourishes – but, beyond that, you’re left with a highly-dubious picture that’s content to flit randomly between the tolerable, the tedious (while I’m usually averse to this kind of thing, it doesn’t juggle the dense lore of its source material particularly well) and the offensive (fear not, there’s plentiful Binks-ian racism to be found among the various alien species). While The Fifth Element balanced its weightier sections with an air of
playfulness, Besson seems to have lost his signature sense of humour, and it’s this that ultimately drags Valerian down; the lazy wisecracking of its protagonists will leave you longing for the tongue-in-cheek savvy of Guardians of the Galaxy. With a budget approaching 200m euros, this is the most expensive European movie ever made; one might suggest the moolah would’ve been better spent helping orphaned dolphins or something, but that’s a debate for another day.