Friday, 11 August 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Luc Besson, director of the Fifth Element, is back with another costly space oddity

Written by Jason Solomons


Even for a cinematic high-wire act such as French director Luc Besson, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a hell of a gamble. At an estimated budget of $180 million, Valerian has earned the label of most expensive European film of all time, probably the most expensive movie ever outside of Hollywood.

Consequently, there’s always a risk it could go down in history as Europe’s biggest-ever movie disaster. The first weekend at the US box office was dreadful ($17 million) and trade bible Variety gleefully termed it ‘a flop’ but a poor American performance doesn’t always signify failure. The rest of the world may take more kindly to the film’s interplanetary quirks and jokes, as they did with his now-cult sci-fi from 20 years ago, the Fifth Element. Film-Jul17-JasonSolomons-176

Besson’s Euro-style is frequently a rebuke to American studios and I don’t think he cares what they think. He’s a big, lugubrious shruggy Frenchman and bats off homogenous us tastes. Valerian is, without a doubt, fairly bonkers.

It may have similarities with Star Wars – jazzy space bars, faceless corporate soldiers, a teeming bazaar – but it pushes far weirder boundaries, with more levity than actual humour. Even though it’s in English (well, here and in the US), it’s bound to be seen by some as a giant French folly, all a bit ‘concept album’ in places.

You might find it naff, but there’s a decent chance a new generation could see it, through their 3D goggles, as mining a fun retro vibe, like the knowing disco kitsch of French dance outfit Daft Punk. If Cara Delevingne and Rihanna’s Instagram and Twitter followers (combined total of well over 100 million) can tear themselves away from their phones long enough to sit through a film, they alone could power a hit. They’ll be rewarded, I should say, by new songs from both.

Valerian is based on a French comic series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières who started the stories in 1967. Besson admits that at 10 he fell in love with the drawing of Laureline as whom Delevingne impresses in her biggest role yet. It’s up to her to save the universe – and the movie itself. there’s still a little too much eye-rolling and pouting but she handles the one-liners and action sequences with physical prowess, energy and a natural elan.

Pity, then, that Dane DeHaan as her time-travelling detective partner Valerian hasn’t the lightness of touch to pull off a young Hans Solo act, and his yearning to get in Laureline’s space knickers too often gives him the air of a pitiful puppy.

The plot follows the fate of paradise Planet Mül, whose tall, slender, bald-headed natives (essentially fashion mannequins – a very Bessonian fantasy) have their placid way of life threatened when the awesome power of their sea pearls is discovered by renegades in the United Human Federation (represented mainly by Clive Owen).

Working out what Ethan Hawke’s flamboyant Tom Waits-ish club owner has to do with it is part of the fun. Then there’s his shape-shifting star performer Rihanna, who shows off that pole dance as well as a nurse’s outfit, a chair-straddling cabaret act, a catsuit and a French maid costume. (Wot no umbrella?)

You fear you’ve been set adrift in Besson’s universe, but the director just about pulls us back through sheer energy. Elsewhere, John Goodman, Elizabeth Debicki and jazz pioneer Herbie Hancock appear on a far-from-usual cast list.

I do hope Valerian’s bright, pop silliness will stave off financial disaster – a blast of cheery originality amid the summer’s bland superhero blockbusters. While it is still likely to go down as a self-aware space oddity – David Bowie sings over the film’s opening credits – at least Besson is aiming for the stars in his own defiantly Gallic way.


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