The Sixth Element
Further extracts from The Lacklustre On-line Film Critic's Guide to Behaving Badly at the Cinema:
June 10th, in the Earth Year 1997 – your correspondent and a bloke called Pete are leaving Huddersfield's premier fleapit cinema, having just watched Luc Besson's new sci-fi spectacular, The Fifth Element.
'I really don't know what to make of that,' I said. 'That was either one of the greatest, most imaginative films I've ever seen, or a massive load of poo.'
Pete considered this for about a quarter of a second. 'Poo,' he said.
I gave his answer equally careful appraisal. 'Yeah, you're probably right,' I said.
Not Long Ago – and, despite my experience a couple of decades ago, I make it to the front of the queue for Luc Besson's new sci-fi spectacular.
'Hello. One for Valerian and the Unnecessarily Long Title, please.'
I have to hand it to the serving minions at the city centre multiplex, they're getting quite used to this sort of thing, and I got my ticket with barely a raised eyebrow. I note that even the exhibitors agree with me on the name thing, for on the ticket it's just called Valerian.
The full title is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and it is based on the long-running French SF comic strip Valerian and Laureline. As you might therefore expect, this is a distinctly pulp-SF influenced movie, all served up with the restraint, self-awareness, and iron narrative control that are the hallmarks of a Luc Besson movie (NB: irony is present).
The movie is set in the kind of universe where you expect everyone to have 'Space' in front of their job titles just to make it absolutely clear what's going on. After some prefatory goings-on, we meet Space Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Space Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who are space government security agents. They are initially engaged in retrieving an extremely endangered space animal from the clutches of space gangsters in a very peculiar market, surrounded by space tourists, and things become a little awkward when Valerian gets his arm stuck in another dimension.
All this resolved, the duo head off to Alpha Station, which is basically the International Space Station, shoved off into deep space when it became too big and unwieldy (look, just go with it). Now it is the titular hub of galactic diplomacy and commerce, but a mysterious force is threatening to destroy it. Space Commander Filitt (Clive Owen), Valerian and Laureline's space boss, has summoned them (and the space animal) as he thinks it may help in resolving the crisis. But before they can get anywhere, the meeting of top space brass comes under attack from mysterious aliens…
I feel I should go on record and reiterate that I am genuinely a fan of Luc Besson and his uniquely uninhibited style of film-making – whatever else you can say about the Besson canon, the movies themselves are rarely dull. That said, my experiences watching The Fifth Element, together with the fact that Valerian (I'm not typing that whole title every time) has already been declared a box office bomb in the States, did lead me to lower my expectations in this particular case. Was this justified? Well…
Actually, for the first few minutes I had real hopes that the States had got it wrong, for the opening sequence of Valerian is very nearly magical: Bowie plays on the soundtrack, and Besson moves from the manned space missions of the 1970s into a lavishly imagined future depicting the human race spreading out into the galaxy and befriending alien races. It's rare to come across something so unashamedly optimistic in modern SF, and it's quite charming.
However, from here we go to the alien CGI planet of Mul, where androgynous aliens do peculiar alien things while conversing in an alien language. All of this eventually turns out to be relevant to the plot, but while you're watching it, it just seems like a lot of rather smug CGI aliens prancing about endlessly, and all that goodwill rapidly drains away.
The introduction of our two heroes doesn't help much, and here I feel we must digress momentarily to issues of casting: Valerian appears to have been written as a loveable, wisecracking rogue, someone who on the face of things is a slightly dubious character, but who's really a reliable and principled hero when the chips are down. The part is really crying out for someone like Guy Pearce – perhaps I'm thinking of him because his performance from the 2012 Besson movie Lockout would have been note-perfect here – or another actor who can do that effortless, tough guy charisma. Instead, they have cast Dane DeHaan, a capable actor but one whose most distinctive quality is that he always gives the impression he's in dire need of a nice hot meal and a long lie down.
On the other hand, one of the notable things about Valerian is that it reveals Cara Delevingne to be a rather engaging screen presence – she shows every sign of being able to act a bit, unlike many other MTAs, and (obviously) the camera seems very fond of her, especially when she's working with the right hair and costume people. Just goes to show you shouldn't judge anyone on the strength of their contribution to Suicide Squad, I guess, and given she's at least as integral to the action as DeHaan's character, I wonder why the whole movie isn't called Valerian and Laureline? Hey ho.
That said, DeHaan and Delevingne are not noticeably gifted with chemistry when they're sharing the screen, which is a problem as many of their scenes revolve around Valerian's somewhat febrile eagerness to take their relationship to the next level, and her problematic reluctance (I guess rank has lost some of its privileges in the future). Lack of chemistry, a shortage of snap in the supposedly snappy dialogue, and the fact that the two experienced space security agents seem to be characterised as snarky Millennials meant that it took me a long time to warm up to the duo.
In the end, what successes the film has are largely down to its visual imagination – this is a vast, whimsical galaxy that isn't obviously derived from any single source, although there are obviously touches of the stellar conflict franchise, Flash Gordon, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy sprinkled across it. It all looks very lavish and vibrant, even in 2D, but if you have an issue with endless CGI characters and backgrounds this is not the movie for you. There is lots of creative imagery and some inventively silly high-tech weaponry on display.
How much you enjoy Valerian will probably boil down to your ability to just lie back and enjoy the look and feel of the thing, while ignoring the many and serious issues with the plot and scripting. I've been assimilating every book on story structure I can lay my grubby little protuberances on recently, so perhaps I'm over-sensitive to this kind of thing, but given Luc Besson is credited with writing nearly fifty movies, Valerian is strikingly shoddy and haphazard in the script department. The plot is about trying to stop the destruction of an imaginary place we don't know much about by an abstract force, the hero seems more concerned with his love life than any weightier concerns, and there are vast rambling detours away from the main plot – a major, lengthy sequence featuring Ethan Hawke as a space pimp and Rihanna as a shape-shifting space pole dancer could be totally excised without materially affecting the actual story of the film.
People have a go at the stellar conflict prequel movies for focusing on CGI and spectacle over actually having a coherent narrative, but only at their very worst are they quite as self-indulgent and lacking in focus as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Now, I like this kind of sci-fi (I'm on record as preferring the prequel trilogy to the recent Disney-Abrams stellar conflict offering), but even so I find it quite hard to say anything especially positive about Valerian beyond vaguely praising its incidental imagination, and of course Cara Delevingne's hair. I'm not sure any audience will be quite captivated by the film's impressive visuals sufficiently to overlook its serious shortcomings in the storytelling department.