Thursday, August 24, 2017

Glitterbomb: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets wasn’t that a hard a sell for me. I’m drawn to outlandish action sci-fi fantasy like a moth to a flame – the weirder and more wondrous the better. But it’s easy to get burned that way, so it’s common these days for me to feel a twinge of excitement when I see a name I like attached to a project, and then immediately quash that excitement with a sober examination of the facts. Watching the trailer for Valerian was like being a juror in the Film Court of my mind. Points in its favour: Luc Besson is clearly back in Fifth Element mode; it stars Cara Delevingne; it looks colourful and vibrant; it’s not based on an existing property that’s been milked bone-dry. Points against: Besson hasn’t made a decent film since the mid-90s; it also stars Dane DeHaan; the visuals look to be heavily reliant on airy CGI; the source material looks trite and derivative. The Film Court ruling was clear: perform two hours and fifteen minutes of public service with minimum expectations (bail to be set at non-3D prices).

If it please the court, I will present my findings herewith.

Valerian is based on a series of French comics that ran from the late 1960s all the way up to 2010, which, I was not surprised to learn, captivated and entranced a young Besson. The pop-sci-fi influence of this comic is said to have bled into works like Star Wars and Besson’s own Fifth Element, combining vibrant depictions of alien worlds with trope-heavy episodic storytelling centered around the titular space agent and his buxom sidekick, Laureline. This trashy, pulpy material seems right in Besson’s wheelhouse, and his adaptation of Valerian feels all but inevitable. The fact that it’s awful is, therefore, surprising and disappointing.

Valerian comes close, many times, to being a coherent, compelling film, and bungles it every chance it gets. If it were worse, I wouldn’t have had a hard time accepting it – it’s the fact that it could be a memorable B-movie flick but succumbs instead to this bizarrely tenacious need to self-sabotage that so aggravates me. It’s rich in visual splendor, with jaw-dropping production design and special effects (which, I was pleased to see, skillfully combine practical effects with digital enhancements). But this dazzling presentation is draped over an awkward, knock-kneed story with godawful dialogue and a streak of directorial self-indulgence that drags the running time a good forty minutes past its best-before date. These problems wouldn’t be fatal if they were disguised by charming, charismatic leads, but of course Valerian decidedly doesn’t have those. Instead it saddles its C-list stars with a quippy will-they-or-won’t-they romance that trips over itself and constantly lands on its face. It’s a mess of a film, though I was still fascinated by its manifold contradictions.

A scene from Luc Bresson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

The plot, for example, tasks Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne) with finding and rooting out an unknown force that threatens the heart of Alpha, the titular floating space city. Alien gangsters, human military organizations, and a band of mysterious aggressors all have a stake in this conflict, and you can be sure the dynamic duo bounce like pinballs throughout the place as they navigate the perils and pitfalls of this storyline. You might be surprised to learn, though, that the film doesn’t open on the two main characters. (It actually opens on a utopian montage showing humanity’s ascension to peaceful coexistence with alien races and the formation of Alpha, set to Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” but I’m talking about the plot that follows.) Instead we spend roughly fifteen minutes with an unnamed race of peaceful alien beings, who look like something between James Cameron’s Na’vi and Tolkien’s elves, and grow to admire and feel for them as we see a perfect day turn into a world-ending catastrophe for them. It’s not a spoiler to say that the survivors of this calamity are central to the rest of the film, but it’s utterly bizarre to me that Besson is content to spend such time and attention characterizing and humanizing them at the expense of the actual human leads of the movie. I couldn’t bring myself to care about Valerian and Laureline’s relationship, which seemed fatally allergic to chemistry and sexual tension, or their dreams of a life beyond their space-agent adventures. Neither DeHaan’s teeth-grittingly unconvincing attempts at giving Valerian some roguish playboy charm nor Laureline’s questionable assertions that she has always been the most competent person in the room succeeded in capturing my interest as well as the weird beachcomber aliens with their pearl-farting lizard rituals. It was their story – the overarching background one, which most movies sadly underserve – that I cared about. We just get so damn little of it.

This kind of weird decision-making is central to Besson’s approach with Valerian. The script pays tons of lip service to Laureline’s abilities as a tough, independent woman, but frequently places her in damsel-in-distress situations (even in a literal cage!) so Valerian can leap to the rescue. In one sequence, he barks an order at her to retreat, and she retorts that maybe he should be the one to head back to base for once, before striding ahead without him. He ignores her advice and follows her anyway, because (and you can imagine Besson’s voice saying this) he’s the hero, and the hero couldn’t just head back to base! In another sequence, Rihanna plays an alien shapeshifter who performs at a strip club, whom Besson uses as a transparent mouthpiece for his feelings about artistic integrity, purpose, and drive (which Rihanna has trouble relaying convincingly) but who disappears from the film as quickly as she comes into it. Besson waves some intimidating robotic sentinels at you in the early scenes, literal Chekhov’s Killer Robots, goading you into anticipating the moment when they stop standing in the background and start wreaking havoc . . .  but then the moment comes, and they just pull out machine guns and shoot a bunch of people. There’s nothing unique or even interesting about them at all. Valerian is shot through with paradoxical choices like this; chances to compel and engage that consistently fall flat, for seemingly no good reason.

It’s not DeHaan or Delevingne’s fault that Besson handed them a script that wanted to be Guardians of the Galaxy, but also Fifth Element, but also Avatar, but was actually none of those films, let alone all of them at once. It’s not fair to blame shitty material on actors who can’t sell it – if the Star Wars prequels hadn’t taught me that years ago, I might hate Liam Neeson. (Well, I take that back: I still blame DeHaan. He is offensively terrible in this film.) But there’s no reason I can think of that Besson couldn’t have treated this particular shitty material with his usual breezy flair, and offer an experience that would at least be over quickly if it wasn’t going to be genuinely good. People love to rag on films like Jupiter Ascending, to which Valerian is being favourably compared, but I’m here to tell you, that movie’s a riot with the Wachowskis at the helm. I will say this about Besson and Valerian, though: I haven’t had this much fun in ages figuring out, with friends and drinks and many profane exclamations, why a movie didn’t work. I wish Film Court was always this deliciously puzzling.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

No comments:

Post a Comment