I still think of Luc Besson’s Léon, (1994) with affection despite the plot being one hell hole of an immoral tale. A solitary professional hit man, (the great Jean Reno, chin stubble de rigueur) reluctantly befriends a little girl, (12 year-old Natalie Portman) in the apartment block where they live, and then teaches her how to kill, after she witnesses the massacre of her abusive parents. For some reason Besson thinks it more acceptable to have nasty parents wiped out as opposed to those who are loving and caring. And hey, what’s wrong with teaching a minor to shoot straight?
On the other hand, I look back at his Joan of Arc biography The Messenger, (1999) and see a director completely out of control, politically all over the place, unable to hold tight to the narrative’s trajectory, or give characters more than a cursory backstory. The project had all the hallmarks of a ‘special’ conceived for a muse.
And if there’s nothing else to engage my brain, I’ll watch television reruns of the taciturn, self-regarding Bruce Willis and leggy, pigeon English Milla Jovovich slug it out physically and verbally in the enjoyable The Fifth Element, (1997). For mad keen Besson fans there are other diamonds to cherish: the deep-sea worlds of The Big Blue, (1988) and Atlantis, (1991) plus the verve he brought to the female kick-ass genre in La Femme Nikita, (1989).
But like all prolific film directors Besson seemed to burn himself out, (with the notable exception of his science fiction caper, Lucy, (2014) as he grew middle-aged. Besson’s output this century shows all the signs of exhaustion – as do photographs of him – tired ideas, and a camp imagination.
If what you’ve just read seems an over-long introduction to this film review it’s because the film is a noble failure, and consequently I don’t have a great deal of praise for it.
Besson claims he has wanted to make Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets since he was ten years old. Yes, really 10. Presumably that’s when he discovered Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ French comics Valerian and Laureline. That he conceived of the stories as a film at that age is a bit far fetched. Then again, Mozart composed his first violin and piano piece at five years of age.
Did Besson conceive Valerian as a series of sub-plots within subplots, like a Russian doll – who knows? It’s all visuals, no script, plot and visuals, often very silly, and far too long. And how many clown aliens do we need in a Besson sci-fi epic?
Valerian cost a staggering $200 million USD, and yet they couldn’t afford a scriptwriter. I came to the conclusion many years ago Besson can’t write dialogue, even in his features that are an interminable length, so don’t expect memorable phrases or one-liners.
What’s the story about? Well, I’m not altogether certain. Here is what I managed to glean: There are two yoofs we are expected to relate to, both chosen because they are beautiful, and yoofful cinemagoers can project themselves onto as their ideal.
Our heroes are involved in a journey as interstellar federation agents Valerian, (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline, (Cara Delevingne) – Besson has a taste for catwalk models as actresses. As faces they are a youfful pair of flighty eyebrows – Delevingne wins on that score – who spend most of the film’s length trying to find the missing commander of an humungous, ancient-old space station.
I have no idea why they bother going on their quest, for the commander is played by the duck footed Clive Owen, and it’s pretty clear from the get-go that he’s a kind of a sinister fellow. Why they don’t spot that immediately and take a body swerve is one of the mysteries of the plot. Characters and storyline are as thin as potato crisps.
What holds our interest – kinda – for a great deal of the time are Besson’s images. They’re immensely more attractive in comparison to that other sci-fi turkey, David Lynch’s 1984 dystopian, muddled mud pie, Dune. I can still see a scene in Valerian in which mauve coloured aliens wake up beside a beach on the far side of the universe, to stretch in the morning light. But the scene goes nowhere, a side story that loses momentum.
There are a whole list of marvellous images for out ticket money: fishlike beings in diving-bell spacesuits, monkey-anteater hybrids and other tentacular marvels that look as if puppets from Jim Henson’s workshop, and elongated stick aliens with bubbling-liquid necks. Outer space and under water look a wondrous playground. Besson’s creatures put J.K. Rowling’s in a peep.
Try to see it in the 3-D version; it will make up for the poor story.
What about the actor’s performances? They all do pretty well, no Oscar performances, but more than acceptable. They are not given any character development, none see life differently by revelation or experience. They stay pretty well the same from start to finish. Valerian and Laureline begin at loggerheads, have an infantile courtship before falling into full, passionate love.
A singer called Rihanna (am feigning ignorance of her) does a good shape-shifting pole-dance routine not in the least erotic, more plain eye-popping stupid. The film is all razzmatazz and glamour and no substance.
I am sure Besson knows well his limitations and plays to his strengths, but of late too many of his films have been hit and miss affairs. As a summer blockbuster Valerian and a Thousand Planets is a flop unless you like science fiction. Followers of the film site Rotten Tomatoes give the film only 51% rating.
And before I finish, did I mention that Besson cannot write dialogue? Just saying.
- Star Rating: Two stars
- Cast: Cara Delevingne, DeHaan,
- Director: Luc Besson
- Writer: Luc Besson
- Cinematographer: Thierry Arbogast
- Music: Alexandre Desplat
- Duration: 2 hrs 17 mins