Friday, 4 August 2017

Film Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a whole new breed of dumb-fun film making

Luc Besson's space opera Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets features entire planetary destruction, interdimensional shootouts and imagines the entire galactic future of the human race. And that's just the first act. From the awe-inspiring trailers it was possible to get the impression that Valerian was going to be pretty nuts, but nothing could really have prepared me for just how beautifully weird and lovably zany this film would end up being. Take Star Wars, give it an acid trip, shove it through a kaleidoscope and you're about half way there.

But this is the 21st Century and Valerian isn't directed by Nolan or Abrams or Villeneuve, which means that despite all the stunning spectacle on display, there really isn't much else going on beneath the surface. The characters are woefully thin, and their dialogue even more so, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne have less chemistry than two empty chairs at a table, and the less said about the film's gender politics the better, really. Yet, with its infectious energy and sheer visual splendour, Valerian manages to overcome all of these flaws. I'm not sure I can remember the last time I saw a film that didn't deserve to be as good as it was as much as this one.

The plot is barely serviceable. Set years into the future by when humanity has made contact with thousands of alien species and the International Space Station is now an inter species home ground called Alpha, DeHaan and Delevingne are Valerian and Laureline, special agents of a kind of human police force. After a mission to retrieve a valuable item from a black market, Valerian and Laureline are tasked with protecting their Commander in the build up to a potentially deadly attack. However, the attack comes sooner than expected and in ways different to how they predicted, resulting in their mission changing by the minute.

It's tough to properly summarise what Valerian is about. It isn't really a film that concerns itself with telling a coherent, consistent narrative. In fact, a great deal of the film's bloated 140 minute runtime is spent on subplots that don't actually serve the main story - they're all just distractions. But they're distractions with ideas, distractions with a big imagination and a talent for making them look breathtaking. There are moments in this film so delightfully weird I'm still not convinced they actually happened.

Valerian's action sequences are uneven in terms of execution but uniformly great when it comes to ambition. There's a particularly inspired one early on which sees Valerian attempt to flee a giant market while his hand and gun are stuck inside another dimension, it's entirely delirious but so excitably portrayed that you can't help but enjoy it. The film's final act feels a bit like an engine trying and failing to get started - it keeps almost reaching something worthwhile and then fading away again - but once the action does kick in its brilliantly choreographed. There are enough thrills here to warrant the cinema trip.

DeHaan and Delevingne also aren't as poor as the film's naysayers will have you thinking they are. Granted, chemistry isn't really something they excel at here - talks of marriage border on laughable - but I'd argue chemistry is almost impossible from a script so lacking in their characterisation. All we really know about Valerian is that he's a bit of a womaniser (but he does love Laureline, he says), and all we really know about Laureline is that she's a woman and can do things for herself (y'know, like that needs saying). Their performances are perfectly fine, and they land more jokes than the script deserves, just don't expect to fall in love with their love story any time soon.

It's probably not a good sign that the film's supporting characters easily outshine its protagonists. Valerian opens on a beach planet, a world of bright, dense colour that oozes tranquillity and homeliness, and the species that occupy it are instantly fascinating. I'd willingly have spent a whole film with them. Rihanna even pops up for a brief subplot in the middle act, playing a shape shifting performance artist creature that longs for Shakespeare but can't escape a strip club. It's all about as bonkers as it sounds, but there's a soul to her character, a simple but effective longing for something better than makes her impossible to dislike.

It becomes very clear early on that Valerian isn't really about the titular character, nor is it really about Laureline or any one character in particular. I'm not even sure if Valerian is a good film, per se - there are wild character inconsistencies, entirely pointless subplots, horribly disjointed tonal shifts - but it's an enjoyable one, for certain. This isn't a film about characters, but it's a film of character. A film of ideas and imagination and spectacle, even if its ideas never coalesce into a narrative at least it still has ideas - it feels new, and it feels exciting. Valerian is a comic book movie filled with ambition, it overflows with personality even if its protagonists don't, and it has more visual thrills than anything I've seen all year. I'll take that over an unambitious, derivative origin story any day.

In A Sentence

It's hardly a classic-in-waiting, but Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is infectiously imaginative and visually inventive enough to overcome its flaws.

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