Luc Besson is a giant in the filmmaking world. He commands a great deal of respect by all, including millions of fans and myself. He is one of the pivotal figures in the change in style to French cinema and one of the founders of the Cinéma du look. After years of action movies and failed animation, he has found himself back in the land of Sci-Fi with adapting the French graphic novel Valerian and Laureline and putting it on the big screen. So, the question I am looking to answer is this; has his dream come true and if so, was it worth the wait?
The simple answer is, quite… Certainly, when it comes to writing and dialogue, Luc Besson hasn’t exactly got it right and in Valerian, it shows. Set in the 28th Century, the story revolves around two agents who work for the human government aboard Alpha, a space station that is home to the knowledge and experience of millions of alien species. Agents Valerian (Dane DeHann) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are tasked with solving a mystery behind the recent attack of a previously extinct race and why the station seems to have more secrets than previously thought. With meeting characters like Bubble, the shapeshifter (Rihanna), pirate Igon (John Goodman) and commander Filitt (Clive Owen), the adventure is certainly going to take the audiences places they have never been before. The best way to describe this film, is that it is bold; it has the guts to show people something new and unheard of, however, it isn’t enough to hide the fact that the story is overly predictable, lacking in substance, riddled in clichés and some of the worst humour in Sci-Fi since Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999).
That is the problem with the way that Luc Besson writes his films; the story is relatively easy to follow, but having too much style over substance isn’t always good. I admire his style for making big and interesting films, without it we wouldn’t have The Fifth Element (1997) or Leon: The Professional (1994) or Lucy (2014), but in Valerian, I’m not so sure. The dialogue and character interaction is way too simple and, in some ways, vulgar and this has rubbed off on the performances of the actors in this film. The casting in this film isn’t good, just look at the two leads and you’ll know what I mean; it’s like watching your dad dancing at your birthday party, you don’t want to watch, but you have to out of some sense of niceness and loyalty. Having said that, it is nice to see John Goodman, Ethan Hawke and Clive Owen in roles that suit them very well, the same can’t be said about Dane DeHann and Cara Delevingne who’s acting skills aren’t exactly up to the standards of Hollywood, much less independent filmmaking.
You get the picture already; style over substance, the question is, is the style worth watching? It certainly is. The visual effects in this film are nothing short of miraculous, very much early Oscar and VE awards contender. Everything from the surface of planets, the detailing of Alpha, the countless aliens onboard, the way even the universe behaves, it is truly astonishing on the big screen. The colours, lighting and detail of everything is great, but, like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), it doesn’t leave enough room for decent production design, in short, there is overabundance of CGI in this film. Sure, the film wouldn’t be possible without, but come on, some consideration is necessary!
However, unlike other summer blockbusters, they haven’t focused the VFX on action, they have focused it on creating the right feel and atmosphere to the film. The film just feels so much more alive and real than most other Sci-Fi movies of 2017 and part of this is also down to the sounds of Alpha. Humans and Aliens chatting away in 5,000 languages, ships buzzing around in over a million frequencies, going underwater, to deep space and the beautifully calm beaches of alien worlds, the universe is living, breathing entity and you can hear all of this throughout.
Another thing that you will definitely hear throughout is the pulsating score of composer Alexandre Desplat. This has to be the closest score for a Sci-Fi that is as good as that of John Williams or Michael Giacchino; you only have to listen to the first 20 minutes of the film to know just how many elements from different genres there are throughout the entire film. Pounding techno, retro rock classics playing in the background, sensual piano melodies when the mood turns sombre and forever brilliant Sci-Fi grand orchestra pushing the film forward with every note; the score, like the visuals and sound design, makes the universe feel so much more alive and fast than other films of this type. It is very befitting for Luc Besson and very befitting for a large production like this, except, this isn’t a Hollywood picture.
This is in actuality the most expensive European and independent film ever made; entirely crowd-sourced and personally financed by Luc Besson himself, in other words, it is the very definition of bold filmmaking. He has also been bold enough to not entirely exclude all forms of practical sets in his film; vast labyrinths of brightly lit corridors, haunting caverns within Alpha, fantastical alleyways of questioning nature, there is a degree of physical production on this film, but it is of course, completely overshadowed by the VFX. It is a shame that more of the film could’ve been like this, but in this day and age, VFX seem to take more president over sets and practical effects.
However, all of this doesn’t detract the visual style of this film and if there is any way to see this film, it has to be in IMAX 3D. Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast has clearly taken 3D very seriously and when you put the camera in conjunction with 3D rendered VFX, then the 3D of this film is nothing short of perfect. It certainly lives up to its advertising and the overall style of this film is actually very unique; there is deep focus on the use of colour and detail in the cinematography and then there is the editing of this film. Editor Julien Rey has gone for a sophisticated non-linear editing style and a very fast paced structure, even though the film is 137 minutes long; it feels very refreshing for the Sci-Fi genre and something that has been missing from it for a very long time.
In many ways, the film almost feels like a serious version of Rick and Morty; it carries similar concepts, but it clearly fails on the humour side of things. And like Rick and Morty, there is no limit to what things look like in the universe; women with peacock tails, miniature gargoyles, glowing jellyfish, morphing blobs from the 4th dimension and the costumes of Rihanna, all I’ll say about that, is watch her dance routine, and you’ll get the idea.
All in all, Valerian & The City of a Thousand Planets is a brave step in making its mark on Science Fiction in film, but because of the way it has been written and acted, it won’t be as memorable as we think it should be. With a bold visual style, score and feel, it isn’t bad, but it could’ve been so much more; my only advice is that if you are going to see it, make it IMAX 3D.
I give this film a 5/10.