'Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets': Film Review

Ladies and gentlemen, your Razzie frontrunner.
7/21/2017

Luc Besson's new sci-fi extravaganza stars Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as 28th-century operatives racing to save the universe.

The Razzies don't need to wait until the end of the year to anoint a winner for 2017. The Golden Turkey Awards should be republished with a new cover. Euro-trash is back, while sci-fi will need to lick its wounds for a while. Dane DeHaan, who has starred in two of the most egregiously bloated misfires of the year with A Cure for Wellness and now this, should do a couple of indie films, while Cara Delevingne needs to learn there is more to acting than smirking and eye-rolling. Rihanna should pretend this never happened. And the Hollywood studio chiefs can breathe easy that, this time, at least, they'll escape blame for making a giant summer franchise picture that nobody wants to see, since this one's a French import.

Yes, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets really is that bad, bad enough that you don't know for the longest time that Valerian is one of the lead characters and not a planet or a spaceship. Sporting special effects and sets that smack of 50-year-old Barbarella-style tackiness, Luc Besson's $200-million eyesore will barely trigger a momentary blip on the American box-office radar screen, leaving Besson with the lone hope that there are parts of the world where the entertainment tastes remain, ahem, less discriminating.

The comic book-based Valerian et Laureline, created by Pierre Christin and drawn by Jean-Claude Mezieres, was a fan favorite in Europe from its debut in 1967 through 21 volumes, ending in 2010. For whatever reason, Besson hasn't cast leads who remotely approximate the looks of the comics' characters; Valerian on the page is a black-haired he-man, not a brownish-blond kid with the physique of a 1950s teenager, while Laureline's flaming long red hair has not been adopted by cat-like blonde model Delevingne.

But these differences are nothing compared to the staggering deficiencies of the screenplay, which Besson chose to write alone; any collaborator would have been able to point out that what the auteur has written provides absolutely no entry point into the would-be story that leapfrogs from 1975 to the 28th century with a few pit-stops in between. Given all the different worlds and populations on view, some witty exposition might have been useful, but the summarizing is saved until the end, by which time it scarcely matters. At no point along the way does the film provide a reason to invest your interest in any of this.

To pretend that there's a plausible or comprehensible narrative line to the film would be a punishable misrepresentation. At the outset, one is presented with an Edenic beach society made up of pale, slinky and hairless supermodel types where also to be found are pearl-like spheres of very special value and a rare converter of some kind that needs to be delivered to the apparent center of civilization on an enormous space station called Alpha.

What ensues is unclear, unfun, indecipherable, indigestible and, before long, an excellent sedative; anyone who could clearly lay out what takes place in this narrative in 25 words or less would deserve a small prize. Valerian and Laureline are armed forces “special operatives” who take orders via video screen from, of all people, musician Herbie Hancock. As the latter only pops up on a few occasions, the rest of the time it's unclear what the two leads' mission really is, as they seem to be shifting gears and tending to new emergencies every few minutes.

During lulls in the action, there are bumbling attempts at what seems to be Besson's notion of romantic banter between the two leads, with Valerian awkwardly gurgling sentiments about settling down somewhere (and where would that be?), while Laureline looks disdainfully skyward as the man-child eats her dust. Any old hack Hollywood screenwriter could have rewritten the “romantic” interchanges here to infinitely better effect in one night's bourbon-fueled effort.

Along the way, there's a pit-stop in a naughty district, where a guy named Jolly the Pimp (a brassy Ethan Hawke) draws back the curtain on a singer-dancer of shape-shifting talents (Rihanna) and, ultimately, a bad guy does emerge in the form of the top-dog military commander (Clive Owen). But by this time, most viewers will have long since checked out, as nothing ever seems remotely at stake due to a narrative whose navigator has lost his way and a drummer who's dropped both sticks.

The 3D here proves largely inconsequential but at least provides a minor distraction from the looming creative void.

Production companies: Valerian S.A.S., TF1 Films
Distributor: STX Films
Cast: Dane Dehaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, Rutger Hauer
Director: Luc Besson
Screenwriter: Luc Besson, based on the comic book series
Valerian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Meziers
Producers: Luc Besson, Virginie Besson-Silla
Executive producers: Mark Gao, Gregory Ouanhon, JC Cheng
Director of photography: Thierry Arbogast
Production designer: Hugues Tissandier
Costume designer: Olivier Beriot
Editor: Julien Rey
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Visual effects supervisor: Scott Stokdyk
Casting: Nathalie Cheron-Arda

Rated PG-13, 137 minutes

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