There may be no clearer demonstration of the artistic failure of Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets than my exhausted disdain for nearly every bit of it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I was an easy mark for the movie, but I was definitely inclined to buy into its vivid lunacy. I’m one of the rare souls who will expound joyfully on the many pleasures to be found in the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending, meeting practically every dismissive complaint about outer space roller blades and volcanic Eddie Redmayne overacting with the eager retort “But that’s what’s great about it!”
I had the highest of hopes that I would get a repeat experience out of Besson, who found his own levels of beautifully unashamed absurdity with his prior film, Lucy. He even had the benefit of the hefty undergirding, since he was adapting the long-running French comics series Valérian and Laureline. He could reach back across fifty years of stories to find the chunks that work well for his big screen science fiction film adaptation. Surely, there could only be so many stumbles.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the result when a film is assembled in a confused, poorly thought out fashion around wildly imaginative concepts. The title character is Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) an intergalactic agent. His partner — important enough for equal billing in the comics, but not here — is Laureline (Cara Delevingne). The two engage in quasi-flirtatious banter as they bound across missions and sidebar adventures that barely make any sense, not because of the futuristic complications, but out of a misguided belief that playing coy about motivations will create suspense. Instead, it drains the narrative of a sense of purpose. The movie flits from one shiny digital bauble to another.
While it begins with a very shaky script — credited solely to Besson — it’s the landslide of other problems that do in the film. In particular, Besson has presided over the largest number of wooden performances in a major feature in recent memory. It’s probably not surprising that Herbie Hancock (whose jazz legend status hasn’t translated into more than a handful of true acting roles over the years) is leaden as a governmental official reciting orders over via hologram. It’s more problematic that presumably skilled actors are entirely. No one really excels, but poor Kris Wu is especially disastrous as a military right hand man laden with constant worried exposition. Even he’s enough of a novice to give him a pass. There’s no such free spin that can be afforded to the likes of DeHaan and Clive Owen. Acting is their day job, and they seem disinterested at best, cartoonish at worst.
I was genuinely eager for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to be a goofy, spirited romp, and I was prepared to accept a lot of nonsense as payment for this experience. Instead, ineptitude reigns. There’s no pleasure to be found in that.