As anybody who has read this blog for any length of time knows... I am obsessed with Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. In some ways, it eclipses sci-fi greats like Star Wars and Star Trek for me because it was just so damn fresh when it was first released in 1997.
I've spent many days pining away for a sequel that never came.
So you can imagine my anticipation level when I learned that Besson's new film was being touted as the "spiritual successor" to The Fifth Element... even though the source material for the film actually served as the original inspiration for sci-fi films like The Fifth Element.
Thus the French comic book Valérian and Laureline becomes the movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets...
And... well... it's no Fifth Element.
What Valerian is can be summed up as "visually breathtaking and sublimely imaginative." Everything about the film is beautiful to look at and exciting to behold because it's just so fully realized. You get the impression that Besson must have spent insane amounts of time figuring out even the tiniest details of the Valerian universe... and it shows.
Unfortunately... there's too much else lacking for me to fall in love with the movie.
First of all is the casting. Dane DeHaan (Valerion) is certainly doing his best to be charming and interesting amongst the lavish scenery, but he never quite pulls it off. He's supposed to be head-over-heels in love with his partner in the Space Police (or whatever), but it never feels real. Instead of the roguish charms we got with characters like Han Solo, Valerian comes across as too stiff one minute, too detached the next, and downright wooden the next. I could never get vested in him at all. Slightly better was Cara Delevingne as Laureline, but it was hard to buy into her character when the sparring with Valerian feels so forced. The whole "Oh we hate each other, but the whole time we were actually falling in love" trope falls entirely flat, even though Valerian professes his feelings from the get-go.
Where the casting most decidedly did not fall flat was when we got to Rhianna playing a shape-shifting exotic dancer called "Bubble." She gave her performance everything, and the nature of her character's abilities lit up the screen. Sadly, near the end of her screen-time, Bubble condenses into tired platitudes of love that never came across as convincing, thus sabotaging my favorite character in the movie.
As I mentioned, the CGI work is mind-bogglingly good and, if there's a reason to see this film before it leaves theaters, this would be it. The reason would most certainly not be the dialogue that Besson came up with. Encrusted with enough corny lines about the nature of love to make you cringe, it's an even heavier ham-fisted effort than we got from Leeloo in The Fifth Element... which is to say that it was horribly distracting. Too many lines fell flat either by construction or delivery ("Time flies when you're having fun!" - groan, really?).
As for the story?
I don't even know.
Decades ago a peaceful race of beautiful beach-dwelling aliens on planet Mül are wiped out during a battle between two forces above their world. The small group of aliens that managed to survive are trying to get their world back by getting their hands on an adorable alien pet known as a "Mül Converter" who can shake out duplicates of everything it eats... including "pearls," a powerful energy source needed by the aliens. What follows seems to involve the aliens taking over a growing section of the massive space station, Alpha, which causes the Space Police (or whatever) to call in two of their best operatives, Valerian and Laureline, to solve the mystery of what's happening in there... because all other soldiers sent in have disappeared.
I'd hate to say that the story then becomes boring... the wild special effects are anything but boring... but it kinda does. It's also wildly inconsistent. One minute Valerian and Laureline's sentient ship ("Alex") is essential to explaining story elements... then it is completely forgotten and ignored the next. When Valerian enters the "mystery section" of Alpha, Alex loses contact. Then she gains contact. Then she drops off the face of the earth again. These kind of "deus ex machina" interludes drive me insane. If you can't be fucking consistent with a "character," or offer a clear arc for their time on screen, then it's probably best to not have that character screwing up your screenplay with inexplicable drop-ins that are more frustrating and intrusive than anything else.
By the time things finally wrap up, I was almost relieved that I wouldn't have to suffer through it anymore. There's only so far that incredible CGI effects can take you. This isn't "Star Wars Prequels Bad," but it could have been much, much better if there was something... more... to support the visuals.
So... overall? A disappointment. This was not The Fifth Element I was looking for. That being said, I'd still recommend seeing it in theaters just to experience the jaw-dropping beauty of it all the way it was meant to be seen.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is tanking hard at the box office. As I'm writing this, it's barely cleared $60 million against a production budget of $172 million. This is a real shame, because I think there was room for some very interesting stories to be told in that universe. Given a sequel, I'm confident that Luc Besson could have taken the criticism of what didn't work, fix it, then give us something that truly delivers on everything that Valerian could have been. Alas, it's probably not going to happen.
And now I'll just be sitting over here... still pining away for my sequel to The Fifth Element... something else that, alas, will probably never happen.