T.O.W.E.L. Review - Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
So why is it titled "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" again? The name of the source material, "Valérian and Laureline", might mislead people to think it's a love story, even though it kinda is. But having Valerian in the title alone is still odd because neither Dane DeHaan nor Cara Delevingne's characters outweighs the other. The city in question, Alpha, really is the star of the movie, but ultimately not as relevant to the central story as one might assume. It's not the biggest issue, not by a long shot, but still interesting to think about.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is already three weeks old when I'm writing this, so chances are you already know it's getting mixed reviews and is a certifiable box office bomb, which is unfortunate, because there are definitely things to like in this movie. Costing at around US$200 million, its current international earnings of US$88 million is nothing less than utter failure, at least from a financial point of view. Yes, it hasn't been released in China yet, but don't hold your breath for that one.
Incidentally, this is not a Hollywood production, but rather crowd-funded and personally funded by Luc Besson himself, famous for directing classics such as Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element but hasn't quite found his spark in the recent decade. Even though the nature of funding might prevent EuropaCorp, the distributor, from any financial catastrophe, a flop at this magnitude will surely become a step back for non-US big budget productions, indie films and even originality in general, and lord knows movie fans could do with some more of that.
So besides the little "money" problem, how fares the movie itself? Well...
Technical and visual marvel
"The first 25 minutes of this movie should be mounted as an installation at the Louvre and played on an infinite loop." - Indiewire (early review)
Yep, that about sums it up. The universe that Besson and gang have created is visually impeccable. The movie used up 2,355 visual effects shots, after all. Is that a lot? You bet your a$$ it is, in fact that's 600 more than Rogue One! And those shots did not go to waste. The prologue to the film, a 10 minute sequence where nothing perilous is going down, is by far my favorite part. I was thoroughly entranced and awe-struck by the alien beings, strange creatures and the universe meticulously brought to life on screen. Part of me really wish the whole movie is a 2-hour documentary about their lifestyle.
Then there's the titular city, Alpha, formerly the International Space Station which has since left Earth's orbit, where thousands of civilizations from all over the universe live in peace and harmonious diversity. The best way I can describe this colossus installation is: Zootopia for aliens, just replace mammals with alien species. Imagination is the only limit in this place, because whatever wild ideas you might have for alien creatures, be it aquatic, multiped, gnomish, or a shapeshifting Rihanna pole dancing (wait what?), chances are you will find exactly that.
There's a ton to salivate at if you are in any way a sci-fi or tech geek. The cross-dimension bazaar which you can only see and shop at wearing a futuristic AR headset makes for some very creative action pieces. The money shot they've put in every trailer, where Dane DeHaan armors up and crashes through multiple walls across various cultural and natural sections in Alpha is truly amazing.
But visual and technical issues aren't what people have been worried about since before even the first trailer came out. It's the imminent danger of the movie becoming another Jupiter Ascending, with dazzling visuals and innovative world building, but terrible story and characters to populate it with. Well, I can kinda see where those concerns come from...
Bland, uninteresting characters
So in the city of a thousand planets, with eccentric creatures around every corner and aliens beings and cultures beyond measure free for the filmmakers to explore, how the hell did we end up with possibly the two most boring persons of them all? What about that fish thing with a wet handshake in the prologue montage? I bet he/she/it/whatever has some wild tales to tell.
Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne are typical cases of (1) miscast, and (2) studio betting on the wrong horse. For DeHaan, he has proved himself a capable actor on many occasions, but he's not your Tom Hanks or Daniel Day-Lewis who transforms himself into whatever character is required, hence in a role that ill-fits him, he's totally unconvincing, which is the case here. Never does he strike me as a top-notch space agent with 9 years of perfect serving records, but also a rebellious bad boy. Come to think of it, maybe the characterization is self-contradictory to begin with.
As for Cara, well, I'm sure somebody was ready to jump off a cliff by the time Suicide Squad rolled around late in this movie's production cycle. Even though I enjoyed her performance more than that movie, it was still underwhelming and forgettable. To top it all off, these two lovebirds have the chemistry equivalent to that between my head and the nearest wall that I'm banging it onto whenever I have to endure their awkward attempts at humor, which is: zero and painful.
The dialogue suffers from the "George Lucas syndrome" and in no way even begins to help the actors who tries but fails to make them work. Trust me, the parallel with the Star Wars prequels don't end here. Characters, whose actors admittedly have to work in entirely green screen environments and have little to no reference to work with, seem unable to express any emotion or personality other than physically speaking them out loud.
That is extra points off if you have a pair of keen ears for dialogue. It doesn't take a scholar on Quentin Tarantino to get annoyed by the cliched and trite bantering between the duo, a regular MCU fan would suffice. In a world where movies about caped and armored superheroes can deliver witty, smart and charming dialogue that entertains, foreshadows and perfectly encapsulates their individual traits, it is hard to stand for the likes of "you are afraid of commitment; you can't live without me; she's the most important thing in my life".
It's saying something that Rihanna might have actually outshined the two leads for the brief time she was on screen. At least that's a character I'd like to know more about.
Should have been a video game?
The story of Valerian is unfocused to say the least. Even though it rounds up the main plotline of the humanoids living on pearls (do they have a name?), there are way too many distracting subplots. A crisis of an infection of some kind is striking Alpha, and they held a meeting about it, but never fully explained (or was it?).
At some point, Laureline meets some new character for information, and they go to another character who leads her to a little side quest to retrieve an item, which gives her the desired information, so she can locate Valerian and get back to the main mission. It might work as a massive AAA RPG single player, but definitely not as a 2 hour feature film.
Come to think of it, maybe a video game on the same subject would've fared much better. An space themed RPG game a la Mass Effect may be the best platform for demonstrating the vast universe that Besson and co have taken such pains to bring to life. Wish to explore every last corner of Alpha? You'd be able to, no doubt raking in hundreds of side quests from every alien and their Mom, but sure, go for it. Bland characters? Since you'd be creating that character and choosing his/her/it/whatever's course of action, it'd be your own god damn fault.
With Andromeda dropping the ball for the entire Mass Effect franchise, a Valerian game seems nigh on perfect to fill that void. Well, coulda shoulda woulda...right?
Velarian and the City of a Thousand Planets ultimately is a hit-and-miss that simultaneously hit hard and missed hard. While not a trainwreck like Jupiter's Ascending, it also failed to capture the brimming charm and wonder of the director's previous The Fifth Element, largely due to, for lack of better description, really crappy story and main characters.
However, there are still many things to enjoy in this movie, and I do believe it has an audience that thoroughly appreciates its amazing visuals and designs, just not enough to justify the investment. In a summer occupied by great movies such as War for the Planet of the Apes, Baby Driver, Spider-man: Homecoming and Dunkirk, it's no wonder a middle-of-the-road feature such as Valerian would be left on the bench.
Final score: 6.0/10.