Dazzling Valerian overstays its welcome
“Less is more” is a notion director Luc Besson has no use for. His penchant for excess is front-and-center in his latest, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, an adaptation of a French comic book that has more than a passing resemblance to the director’s 1997 cult sci-fi classic The Fifth Element.
It’s really no surprise these two features have so much in common – the search for an all-powerful McGuffin, a bickering pair in hot pursuit, a vision of the future on steroids. Besson has cited Jean-Claude Mezieres’ comic as an influence throughout his career. This is a labor of love for the filmmaker and it shows. The most minute details of the alien worlds and their inhabitants are meticulously rendered. However, Besson is so in love with what he’s created he doesn’t want to leave it, holding us hostage in the process. He drags out this threadbare story until it breaks.
Valerian (a weak Dean DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are officers in the Earth’s armed forces who are assigned to track down and bring in a small creature called the Converter. Seems this cuddly little furball is able to poop out (I’m not kidding…) crystal pearls that can be transformed into incredible sources of natural energy. Obviously, citizens from every planet in the universe would like to get their hands on this guy, but our heroic duo’s superior officer, Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen), has his own reason for wanting it. He hopes to use the Converter as a bargaining chip to negotiate with whomever has created a dangerous radioactive core at the center of the massive Alpha Space Station, home to over 3,000 alien species.
Tracking down and hanging onto the Converter proves to be a never-ending mission for Valerian and Laureline as they find it, lose it, nearly track it down, have it taken from them and…you get the idea. This slippery eel of a plot point is nothing but an excuse for Besson to introduce us to as many disparate aliens and cultures as possible, letting his imagination run riot in the process. This is one of the most visually dynamic films of the year, the kind that may have you wishing for a pause button in the theater, so you could stop the film and appreciate every detail on display. The white sand surface of planet Mul against its impossibly blue skies and orange clouds is a wonder to behold, as is the Big Market, a multidimensional bazaar that can only be seen with a special helmet. Without it, one appears to be lost in a desert landscape. Besson has great fun switching back and forth between and even melding the two locales in a single shot.
There’s never a moment when there isn’t something dazzling to look at. That’s probably for the best. The story is a rote exercise hampered by DeHaan, who couldn’t strike a heroic pose or dispense a savage witticism to save his life. Delevingne gives a surprisingly effective performance anchored by a healthy sense of irony, which helps get the viewer through some patchy narrative moments.
Of course viewers, and Besson for that matter, aren’t concerned with original storytelling or nuanced acting. They’re on board to be dazzled. Valerian far exceeds any other film to hit screens this year in that department. However, at a running time of well over two hours, Besson proves that you can have too much of a good thing.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.