The Sixth Element?
by Thom Yee
So. Summer 2017. It’s over. And it really wasn’t a very good summer now, was it? Adam West died. North Korea launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile. Some of the strongest hurricanes on record destroyed (or are still destroying) significant parts of the world. Interest rates went up for the first time in seven years. It seemed like the eclipse was the only thing people were talking about on that one day. Spencer Foo and Travis Hamonic signed with the Calgary Flames. Anthony Scaramucci. “Despacito”.
And those movies!
This past summer (generally considered May through September’s Labour Day weekend in the movie biz) saw the worst performance at the domestic box office since 2006. Now that may be neither here nor there for the vast majority of us who draw no personal income or gain no personal satisfaction from the success of Hollywood (and indeed may sacrifice some of said income in occasionally supporting it), but regardless of how you feel about these Hollywood son of a b*tches, these motherf*ckers, who continue killing creativity to make their precious millions that they deposit in their secret Swiss bank accounts, there’s a net effect other than simply negative financial growth that comes with so many mediocre-to-bad movies all coming out in one season. It’s depression. I mean, at one point we had plans to review Baywatch. At one point we were sort of excited about The Dark Tower. Did you know we scrapped plans for our Transformers: The Last Knight review because it was too much of a downer to write about? And do you remember our review of The Mummy? This summer also had some pretty big wins — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Dunkirk — but so many others movies were not only bad but so bad that it defied sense to even consider seeing them. It got kind of soul crushing. I didn’t see a single new movie in August. For me, that was a bad summer.
And somewhere in the middle of all of that was Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
What’s it about?
It’s the far-flung future, a time when humanity has long been a contributing member of the outer space community and Alpha, formerly the International Space Station, has become a city where millions of lifeforms from across the galaxy co-exist. The cocky Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and the confident Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are spatio-temporal agents and partners charged with the safety of their commanding officer, Commander Filitt (Clive Owen), but when the Commander is kidnapped during an interstation summit at Alpha, the two discover that there’s more to the so-called “City of a Thousand Planets” than they had been told.
Based on the French comicbook Valérian and Laureline, the property of Valerian traces its origins all the way back to 1967 when its first installment was released in the French comic magazine Pilote. Considered a landmark in European comicbook publishing, Valérian and Laureline is thought to have influenced major parts of our popular culture such as Star Wars and… well, that’s the only one most online articles seem to mention, but it’s probably a bit more wide-reaching than that. I don’t really know, I don’t know much about the Valerian comics myself, so that’s right, dear reader, you’ve finally hit one of the rare areas where my comicbook knowledge is somewhat lacking.
Probably more immediately important to moviegoers though is that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the latest work of Luc Besson, celebrated (?) French film director/writer/producer behind such seminal cult classics as La Femme Nikita, Léon: The Professional and, probably his biggest and most well-known movie to this point, The Fifth Element. The Fifth Element in particular is a strange movie for a number of reasons, plot, characters, setting, pacing, and direction primarily, but to me there’s nothing stranger about the movie than the fact that it actually made money. Two hundred and sixty four million dollars in fact, against a budget almost three times less than that, way back in 1997 when that was actually a lot of money. They’re the kind of numbers that are almost impossible to believe because, frankly, The Fifth Element sucks, an opinion I arrived at having only seen it recently, in the last month, specifically because I had just watched Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. In comparison, Valerian made a lot less money, about $220 million against a $180 million budget, in this year, 2017, when numbers like that aren’t really that much for a sci-fi epic, and in an age where we all know movies need to make at least twice their budget before they earn a dime. So not good news financially. But at least Valeran was a better movie.
Is it any good?
Listen man, you’re hip, you’re happening, maybe you work in a creative field, you’d like to think your tastes aren’t the same as everyone else’s, if you’re a man, you probably have a pony tail and you definitely have a beard, and so you’re into weird-looking movies like this that aren’t precisely mainstream but also aren’t so small and demanding of your attention that you have to seek them out or make sure to see them in their first week of release because you know the theatre owners aren’t going to play them for that long. I get it. And yeah, you will probably like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
I know I was rooting for Valerian all along, ever since I first saw hints of it near the end of last year, and with every early positive comment I heard about it from critics I respected in the lead up to its release I gained more and more hope that it could be exactly the kind of mid-summer break we needed. A cure almost, or temporary respite at least, and a beachhead we could stake our claim to in the midst of a summer movie season overloaded with excessive sequels, remakes, and reimaginings. In a lot of ways, Valerian is the kind of movie you’re not supposed to see, the one that was never going to do very well at the box office despite some decent trailers and a bit of enthusiasm built up from the more grassroots community who either know the original comic, love original-looking sci-fi, or just want to see something different. You’re in the know and not part of that whole scene, man, so you could proudly go see it while it’s still in theatres (the same sort of way I’ll always be proud of being one of the few who saw Office Space while it was in theatres), and it could then been your little secret, to be shared sparingly and only with those you knew who were with it.
But if there’s a word for most of this past summer’s movies it wouldn’t be “excessive” but “eschew” that I would apply, and if there was a word I would use for Valerian, it wouldn’t be “cure”, “respite”, or “beachhead”. It would probably be “meh”. Followed closely by “‘s’okay”.
From a high up enough point, I think it’s fair to say that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has quite a bit more going for it than against, including some interesting ideas, some great visuals, good special effects, and a story with potential. There are a few scenes that are really quite remarkable, including the movie’s opening, set to Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, showing us the gradual growth of Alpha, across centuries and generations, from its original form as the International Space Station and into The City of a Thousand Planets, and the first adventure we see with Agents Valerian and Laureline as the two infiltrate a multi-world market that exists on two different planes of existence at the same time. One scene in particular, with Agent Valerian hopping between the vastly different worlds that make up Alpha by suspending himself in mid-air with steps built out of pure energy is the kind of thing that will stay with me long after my thoughts and feelings of the movie itself have faded.
In fact, going even further than just a “more good than bad” label, I would say there’s not that much wrong with Valerian. But the things that are wrong with it are pretty obvious, and if you’re like me, they were big enough bug bears that it was tough to fully engage with the movie. And unfortunately those problems start right with the cast. As I said earlier, I had no prior knowledge of the Valerian property, and, therefore, no prior knowledge of the nature of Agents Valerian and Laureline’s relationship, but, just looking at the two actors in the posters and trailers, if I had to guess before actually seeing the movie, I would’ve guessed they were siblings. Just to look at Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne you should notice the two have strikingly similar features (and no, I don’t think all white people look the same just because I’m Chinese [though even I think a lot of Chinese look the same]). Similar bone structure, both have big eyes of a similar shape, and their lips even have the same prominent, feminine fullness, colour, and bent. It was enough to make me think the two had been cast for their ability to convincingly play brother and sister.They’re lovers.
It wasn’t the kind of thing that struck me immediately, though “lovers” might be too serious a word for it as Valerian spends most of the movie in romantic pursuit of Laureline (whose hesitations toward him have more to do with his personality than how much they look related), but it’s something that grew harder and harder to ignore, feeling more and more odd and off-putting the further the movie went. That’s an immediate divide I felt innately and unavoidably no matter who these people were supposed to be, but even simply ignoring that vibe wasn’t enough to overcome how much neither Dane DeHaan nor Cara Delevingne felt like they fully embodied their roles. For the most part I just don’t think either is leading actor material (which isn’t to say either is bad at acting), and the nature of the story and the knowledge that it’s a property that’s endured for more than forty years makes me think there must be a dynamism to the comicbook characters that I didn’t at all see translate to the screen. DeHaan does a weird surfer dude impression that feels like he’s acting and Delevingne seems uninvolved in what’s happening, almost bored but more unaffected.
As for Valerian’s story, there’s something a bit deeper going on than just what’s put in front of us, but there’s rarely a sense of an overarching throughline to carry any of that depth through or, really, any overarching story whatsoever. For one thing, it’s hard to ever get a sense of who the bad guy is in the movie, and then, once the bad guy is revealed, it’s both a fairly obvious choice (though not a choice set up particularly well) and a bad one considering that he/she/it [I’m leaving it ambiguous here so as not to spoil, the characters gender and species is perfectly clear in the movie] is basically absent through all of the movie’s middle portions. The whole movie’s kind of like that — it fails to introduce any of its widely-varied elements to the point that you might feel like you missed something if for no other reason than you’re left wondering why you should care about any of it. Probably the best and most prominent example of this is when Rihanna’s character shows up, a shapeshifting lounge dancer who might make the world of Alpha seem a little bigger and more diverse but who doesn’t fit the narrative as presented and is then forced into a central role that doesn’t feel right or nearly as affecting as it was probably meant to be. There are things like that all over the movie, it feels scatter-brained and unfocused, and combined with how often the sets feel like just another series of dark, cramped corridors rather than the diverse environments that would make up a thousand different planets… well, it ultimately just feels kind of cheap.
So should I see it?
Whooh! That’s a lotta complaining I just did [above]! And I don’t want to give the impression I didn’t enjoy the movie. It’s kind of like Star Wars meets Star Trek meets Mission: Impossible meets The Muppets. Only worse. Than any of them. But still kind of okay in the end.
If the trailer for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets [above] intrigues you at all, there’s definitely going to be something in the movie for you. It’s visually stunning in a way you really should see, even if a lot of those stunning moments are brief, it’s sometimes imaginative, and I liked parts of it very much, but it’s far from a must see, it doesn’t all add up, and what does add up doesn’t add up to a whole lot. If you’re familiar with and fond of The Fifth Element, in all of its weird, unfocused, self-indulgent, and ultimately meaningless glory, you might already be familiar with and okay with having that same feeling again, 20 years later, in another of these weird but at least different Luc-Besson-directed sci-fi movies. Though Valerian is, for the most part, guilty of all of the same things that are wrong with The Fifth Element, I think it’s also better enough in each of those areas that it won’t feel like as big a waste of time. And I’m just fond enough of it to give it a decent score.
Thom’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets final score
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