Thursday, 10 August 2017

IN THEATRES: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

A passion project for Luc Besson, Valerian stars Dane 'Eyebrows' DeHaan and Cara 'Mine are bigger' Delevingne.

Space cops! Space stations! Inter-dimensional malls! Clive Owen in a metal bib! Rihanna as a sexy octopus! Eyebrows!

There's a plot but it's too exhausting to recall in one go. There's a mission, our heroes have to complete it. There is much shooting and killing. Plus eyebrows.

I went into this movie thinking it would be a confusing mess, and it was. The script is not as confusing as I thought it would be but it is extremely sloppy. Character traits are set up in the opening minutes with audible clunks, are referenced throughout the movie, and then resolved arbitrarily at the climax. At no point does it feel like these set ups and payoffs are connected to each other.

As our heroes, the Eyebrow twins are extremely dull. Dane DeHaan plays his role like a cocky adventurer - only with no charisma or sense of investment. The script does not do him any favours, and he might be too much of a character actor to convince as a straight leading man. When he isn't boring stock action dude, he's a lascivious douchebag who is constantly trying to get into his partner's pants.

Speaking of which, Cara Delevingne is just as flat and vacuous as DeHaan. It might be a consequence of the bad script and the fact that both of them had to act against characters and environments who don't exist, but she brings absolutely nothing to the character.

Apart they might as well be invisible, but together they are a blackhole where excitement goes to die. Or it would, if this was not Valerian and the City of a Thousand Extraneous Details.

Because you know what? In this case none of these problems matter. At all.

Sure, the dialogue sucks and Luc Besson has no idea how comedy works but this movie is a case where the filmmaker's vision and imagination can over power these problems. I could hang this movie for a multitude of sins, but I enjoyed it so much I'm thinking I might see it again.

Right from the opening, Besson drops us into a literal universe of creatures, technology and future politics with little real exposition to introduce the viewers to what the hell is going on. And it's great! So many movies like this are terrified of keeping viewers in the dark, but this one just expects the viewer to pay attention. It's not that arcane or complicated, and is considerably more interesting than the bureaucratic nonsense in the Star Wars prequels.

Where to start? 

John Goodman as a pig-like alien? Herbie Hancock as the leader of the human race? A con man with three bodies? And an inter-dimensional mall? This review could just be list of everything in the movie. 

And I cannot believe I am writing this, but my favourite parts of the movie are Ethan Hawke and  Rihanna. As soon as they show up, the movie gains a couple of characters who are actually worth watching. Hawke plays a sleazy club owner, and Rihanna plays Bubble, a shape-shifting exotic dancer who appears to be the only other person working at said club. 

Hawke's role is essentially a cameo, but for a good 10-15 minutes the movie is a weird buddy movie between Dane Eyebrows and Riri. I think the reason why it works is because for this sequence it actually feels like the characters need things, and are doing tasks to get those things: Valerian needs a disguise to get into a section of Alpha where government agents are barred; Bubble wants to have her talents appreciated. 

Maybe my expectations were lowered by the leads, but Rihanna is great in this movie. Her dialogue is just as garbage as everyone else's, but she gives Bubble this earnestness that makes her the most sympathetic character in the movie. In fact, when Bubble and Valerian have to go rescue Eyebrows lady, it feels like DeHaan actually comes out of his coma to deliver a real performance. It's the one time in the movie that Valerian feels like a hero with a recognisable moral code. When Bubble dies (arbitrarily), the movie loses that chemistry.

Clive Owen plays the villain, a war monger determined to conceal his role in a planetary genocide. He is not in the movie a lot, and the most memorable part of his character is the strange medallion/bib that he gets strapped into at the start of the movie. He is nowhere near as interesting or over-the-top an antagonist as Gary Oldman in Besson's The Fifth Element.

Despite this, the final reveal that he is the movie's villain is interesting, and gives the world of Alpha a level of moral ambiguity that the movie does not quite earn, but it is another interesting detail in this gumbo of a movie. The movie's plot basically boils down to a cartoon examination of collateral damage in war, and how nations can develop an overriding desire to bury the more odious parts of their histories.

The ultimate saving grace of Valerian is its world-building. Luc Besson has been obsessed with bringing this property to the screen for decades, and his passion really shines through. So many movies fail to build a world you would want to return to (see The Mummy for a recent example), but Valerian creates such a multi-faceted and idiosyncratic world (and finds multiple ways to explore several different parts of it) that you just want to immerse yourself in it.

It definitely reminded me of The Fifth Element, but in the right way. If you are looking at it in traditional story-telling terms, Fifth Element is better. It has a clearer story, with more interesting protagonists and a better villain. But as a trip to another world filled with crazy characters, Valerian is just as much fun.

Besson recently declared that he is currently writing Valerian Part 3. With and without context, that statement is the height of hubris (especially after the movie's box office performance), but on the strength of this movie, count me in.

If this movie does not sound like something you would enjoy I can totally understand. But if you can get on its wave length, Valerian is a hell of a ride.

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