Friday, July 21, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Sci-fi twaddle

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action/violence and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang

Anybody in doubt about the crucial important of acting chops, need look no further than this misfired spectacular.

Despite having completed their assignment on the desert planet Kirian, Valerian (Dane
DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) aren't safe yet; the criminal marketeer they
robbed has just sent a giant beastie after them, propelled by the command "Fetch!"
Director/scripter Luc Besson has helmed a visually opulent adaptation of the famed French sci-fi comic book series by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières, which enjoyed a stunning run from 1967 through 2010 (and has been collected in 21 graphic novels and a short story collection, for anybody wishing to catch up). The narrative is based mostly on the sixth book, Ambassadors of the Shadows.

The film certainly looks fabulous, thanks to a worlds-building blend of Hugues Tissandier’s production design, Scott Stokdyk’s visual effects team, and Avatar-style motion capture creatures. The core plot is solid, with thoughtful messages about inclusiveness, environmental concerns, forgiveness and the unintended consequences of war.

Casting the heroic spatio-temporal agent Valerian, and his plucky, quick-witted companion Laureline, should have been a sacred mission on par with the careful selection of each new James Bond. The title role demands somebody with the grit, smug charm and hard-charging recklessness of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo or — to borrow from Besson’s own oeuvre — Bruce Willis’ Korben Dallas, in 1997’s The Fifth Element.

Besson didn’t even get close this time.

I’m sure Dane DeHaan is a nice fellow: kind to animals and dutiful about texting his mother at least once a day. But he’s no actor. He’s stiff as a board throughout this lengthy disappointment, has no facility with dialog, and couldn’t deliver a quip if his life depended on it. He’s a veritable black hole, sucking all life from the film.

Most damning, because he is so clumsy with the flirty banter that typifies the relationship between Valerian and Laureline, DeHaan turns his character into an obnoxious pain in the ass. He doesn’t merely drag the film down; he brings it to a grinding halt. I kept hoping that one of the oversize beasties in this colorful saga would swallow him whole.

DeHaan may be remembered as the beleaguered young protagonist in the loathsome A Cure for Wellness, unleashed earlier this year. He was quite bad in that as well, but it mattered less, because the film — as a whole — was such an unmitigated disaster.

Valerian had the potential for greatness. Several problems prevented that, and DeHaan’s laughably awful performance tops the list.


Cara Delevingne fares somewhat better as Laureline; she blends athletic grace with sass and cool-headed intelligence. Frankly, Laureline should be in charge of this adventure; she’s far more capable than DeHaan’s Valerian, their respective military ranks notwithstanding. Unfortunately, Delevingne is undone by another of this film’s failings: Besson’s relentlessly, insufferably stupid dialog.

Valerian and Laureline are introduced as veteran special operatives charged with maintaining order throughout the human territories, in space and on planets. They therefore should display competence and experience, while projecting an all-important attitude of command authority.

Instead, they squabble like mutually irritated high school lovers: not just when alone with each other, but also in the field, surrounded by far more military-crisp comrades who undoubtedly share our own opinion of this so-called elite duo: They’re embarrassing.

Matters aren’t helped by the fact that DeHaan and Delevingne share zero chemistry. (Is it possible to have negative chemistry?) That just makes Besson’s childish efforts at sex-tinged repartee even more wincingly maladroit.

All that aside, to the story:

A clever prologue shows how Earth’s fledgling space station — initially a means of détente solely between American and Russian astronauts — grows, over time, with the arrival of visitors not only from Earth’s many nations, but from planets throughout the universe. The station, now christened Alpha, swells to include massive environments designed to grant comfort for all manner of inhabitants.

Ultimately, this ever-expanding metropolis proves too large for Earth’s orbit. It takes off into space, becoming an inspirational jewel of cooperation, where — we’re now in the 28th century — species from all over the universe have converged for centuries, to share knowledge and cultures with each other.

Elsewhere...

An idyllic interlude spent with the peaceful inhabitants of the gorgeous planet Mül comes to a horrifying end when the sky is rent asunder by the damaged spaceships of two warring factions: a catastrophe that claims the life, among countless others, of a young princess. In her dying moment, she projects her being — her soul, her memories — in a mental supernova that arrives as a shocking dream in Valerian’s mind.

He doesn’t have time to think about it. He and Laureline have just been sent to the desert planet Kirian, where they’re to infiltrate the inter-dimensional “Big Market,” perceivable only by visitors who don special headgear. Intel has revealed that a hulking Khodar’Khan black marketeer (voiced by John Goodman) has gained possession of the last surviving Mül “Converter”: a tiny creature with the miraculous power to replicate — in large quantities — anything that it ingests. Valerian and Laureline are ordered to retrieve the little beastie.

Ah, but they’re not the only ones after the Converter. The subsequent skirmish, a thrilling bit of fast-paced suspense, is a nifty preamble to even better action sequences to come.

Our heroes ultimately succeed, bringing the adorable critter to Alpha, where they report to Human Sector Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen, deliciously condescending). In the grand tradition of classic space operas, he radiates “villain”; it couldn’t be more obvious if the word were tattooed on his forehead. Laureline doesn’t trust him, particularly since Filitt surrounds himself with huge mechanized soldiers dubbed K-Trons.

Again, though, there’s no time to contemplate Filitt’s behavior. The more pressing problem is a “red zone” at the heart of Alpha, which seems to be expanding; military squads sent to investigate have ... disappeared. Matters rapidly go awry, with Valerian and Laureline in the midst of considerable peril, and with all sorts of questions: Are these events — the red zone, the tiny Converter, Filitt’s behavior, Valerian’s dreams, the long-ago catastrophe on Mül — somehow connected?

Some answers could be provided by the three Doghan Daguis, a species of multi-lingual information brokers who finish each other’s sentences, and win the prize as this film’s funniest and most captivating ETs.

Subsequent adventures send our two heroes throughout Alpha’s various regions, from the underwater realm of the Mylea jellyfish and 300-ton Bromosaur, to the hedonistic delights of Paradise Alley, to the forbidden realm of the blobby Boulan Bathors.

The latter, in particular, brings up another problem: this film’s self-indulgent 137-minute length. That’s at least half an hour too long, due to an entirely superfluous chapter — dealing with Paradise Alley and the Boulan Bathor — that Besson seems to have inserted solely to grant gratuitous exposure to co-star Rihanna, as the shape-changing Bubble.

She dances. She makes goo-goo eyes at Valerian. She shrinks in fear from her “handler,” Jolly the Pimp (an equally pointless cameo role tossed to Ethan Hawke). This whole time-wasting sequence does nothing to advance the plot, and could be extracted without being missed.

Granted, such episodic diversions would be entertaining, if DeHaan’s Valerian were more likable to begin with. But he isn’t, and I could sense the rolling eyes and impatiently drumming fingers amid Wednesday evening’s preview audience.

While on the subject of perplexing cameos, Valerian and Laureline occasionally report via tele-screen to the Minister of Defense, a role given to no less than Grammy Award-winning jazz musician/composer Herbie Hancock. (To be fair, he makes an appropriately authoritative Minister of Defense.)

Rutger Hauer appears even more briefly, as President of the World State Federation; he gets to make an announcement that runs perhaps 15 seconds. And fan-cred goes to Sand Van Roy, who pops up in Paradise Alley — blink and you’ll miss her — as a “Jessica Rabbit creature.”

And that, ultimately, is what ails this film the most: It’s rather a mess. Despite a deeply moving core story, and despite the richly imaginative — and superbly realized — settings, it’s almost impossible to engage emotionally with these characters, or their rather random actions. Besson’s script is simply too dumb.

It’s as if he bought the world’s most expensive parchment, had every manuscript sheet painstakingly hand-painted by monks ... and then let a 2-year-old scribble each page with crayon.

All of which is a shame, because of the obvious potential and squandered opportunity. Christin and Mézières would have been served far better by a miniseries narrative that spent more time in the varied thousand environments, perhaps propelled by some overarching conspiracy, and (much) less time enduring Valerian’s insufferable behavior.

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