Pure, unadulterated spectacle

Rihanna in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Rihanna in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets
2 stars
Director: Luc Besson
Stars: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen
Duration: 137 mins
Class: 12
KRS Releasing Ltd

In a career spanning over 35 years, French director/producer/screenwriter Luc Besson has contributed to over 90 movies in one capacity or another. These include worldwide successes like 1988’s The Big Blue; 1994’s Leon; 1997’s The Fifth Element and 2014’s Lucy. There were also, it must be said, his fair share of duds – 2009’s Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc; 2014’s animated/live-action combo Arthur and the Invisibles; and misguided Mafia comedy The Family in 2013.

Hit or miss, no one can deny the outlandish imagination Besson channels into the worlds he creates, and his latest Valerian and the City of One Thousand Planets certainly provides pure, unadulterated spectacle. The downside, however, is that the narrative and characterisation never match up to its visuals.

It is the year 2740: human and alien civilisations are now inhabi­ting a system of planets and space stations across the universe and beyond. Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are members of an army of human government operatives tasked with retrieving a mysterious live being whose powers are necessary to save a lost civilisation.

Once they successfully accomplish their task, however, they are soon the target of various nefa­rious forces who want the creature, and the duo find they can’t even trust those around them.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way – for the better part of its two-and-a-half-hour running time, Valerian inundates the viewer with a series of explosively colourful landscapes as the protagonists travel from location to location in their quest.

The movie opens in the indescribably beautiful civilisation of Mul, a planet that boasts dazzlingly white sandy beaches that stretch for miles; a sky of myriad azure hues; and an atmosphere of tranquil, magical paradise inha­bi­ted by strange, tall, ethereal peace-loving creatures known as The Pearls whose fate is at the heart of the story.

The narrative and characterisation never match up to its visuals

The action then moves to Kirian, whose dry, desert-like landscape hides the dark, seedy underbelly inhabited by criminals of all shapes, sizes and hues.

Finally, Valerian and Laureline land on Alpha, the titular City of a Thousand Planets, a colossal, sprawling metropolis where alien and human races live alongside each other in harmony, sharing their knowledge and culture.

Besson’s production team is certainly to be lauded for creating such diversity both in the backgrounds and environments of the various locations and in the menagerie of creatures that make up the ensemble; clearly a painstaking process that paid off in spades.

And yet, for all its exquisite, flamboyant and oftentimes eye-popping visuals, there comes a mo­ment when you itch for something resembling a story to kick in, and it never really does. Besson’s eagerness to cram as many kinds of species and worlds into the mix means that any coherence in narrative is shunted aside.

Little meat is added to the bones of the story, which at its basest is nothing we have never seen before; the script also aiming for a jocular tone but fails to touch the funny bones with its basic and rather cheesy dialogue.

To their credit, DeHaan and Delevingne do what they can with what they have, but they are constantly upstaged by the unrelenting action they form part of and the dizzying atmosphere that surrounds them. This barrage only hampers anything resembling character development, while robbing the viewer of the possibility of relating to the characters in any way.

Besson tries to add a soupçon of romance by having a lovelorn Valerian’s making constant advances to the clearly uninterested Laureline at the most appropriate moments – and so uninterested is she that when they do (spoiler alert!) finally get together, it doesn’t somehow ring true.

It helps matters little that she is kidnapped and he has to rescue her. One would had hoped that 500 years in the future, these clichés would have become as extinct as planet Earth.

The rest of the ensemble includes blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos by Rutger Hauer; acclaimed musician Herbie Hancock; Ethan Hawke as a pimp; while Clive Owen as Arun Filitt, Alpha’s Commander, is too sneering to be taken seriously.

In the meantime, clearly fulfilling her desire to be in a sci-fi movie, superstar Rihanna ap­pears as a shapeshifting pole-dancing creature named Bubble…

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