While Marvel and DC rule the roost in the United States, that same kind of comic domination isn’t quite as prevalent in other parts of the world. I myself grew up on a diet of Asterix and Tintin, both of them considered hugely popular comic books in Europe, with sales reaching into the hundreds of millions.
As such, I always pay a little more attention when a non-Marvel or DC property is elevated to the silver screen. And in Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets (VATCOATP), we have an adaptation of the popular long-running comic, Valérian and Laureline.
Being that this massive co-production now officially holds the record for most expensive European and independent film ever made, it seems there is a lot riding on Luc Besson’s newest feature. But as it’s been just shy of 50 years since the first issue was published, does VATCOATP still have relevance in our already sci-fi heavy world?
Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are two special agents working to protect human society from a range of alien troubles. (Think an intergalactic James and Jane Bond.)
Interrupting a black market deal, they recover what’s know as a “converter”; a small lizard-type animal that can replicate anything it swallows. As you might expect, such a unique creature is highly prized by many different groups.
The two agents take the creature back to Alpha, a massive space station made up of thousands of different species and languages (the titular City of a Thousand Planets.) But a problem has arisen. After standing for nearly 500 years, Alpha has been infected by an unknown virus which threatens to destroy the entire station.
In response, they are tasked by Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) to investigate and protect Alpha at all costs. But it soon becomes apparent that the problems of Alpha might have a lot more to do with their previous mission than they originally thought.
Opening with a David Bowie “Space Oddity” backed montage, director Luc Besson takes great pains in illustrating how space and our desire for exploration has brought us together as a species. It’s definitely an upbeat vision of our future, and one that hews far closer to the buoyant attitude of Star Trek’s Federation, than it does to the fascist Empire of Star Wars.
Such optimism is only matched by Besson’s obvious love for visual extravagance. Like The Fifth Element, the world Besson has built has shades of our own, but is infused with an abundance of unique ideas and technologies. If anything, this might be the first film which I criticise for having too many original ideas! From the alternate dimension marketplace to the shape-shifting dancer called Bubbles (don’t ask); VATCOATP seems happy to introduce amazing and intriguing ideas, before tossing them away, never to be seen again.
Such a reckless (or brave approach, depending on how you look at it) might be overlooked if the characters were ones that you enjoyed tagging along with. But alas, when watching DeHann’s Han Solo-type lothario, and Delevingne’s no-nonsense professionalism; there’s no escaping the fact that both of them are far too young for the experienced characters they are expected to play.
Perhaps older actors (such as a Tom Hardy or Rachel McAdams) would have been able to bring life to such underwritten roles. But in VATCOATP, DeHann and Delevingne look like children trying to play make-believe while wearing mummy and daddy clothes.
As you might expect from a film with two hot young sexy things, there is the obligatory “will they/won’t they” approach. But even this stretches the suspension of disbelief, as the duo’s chemistry is about as red hot as two White Walkers getting down and dirty. Add in the soul-crushing dialogue that sounds like it was written by a GCSE film student, and you might even start praying for your ears to be granted the sweet release of death.
VATCOATP is what many of us would desire from a sci-fi spectacle. A movie with big ideas that takes the audience on a ride that they’ve never experienced before. It has “future cult film” written all over it.
While it’s clear that Besson is deeply in love with the universe that Valerian and Laureline inhabit, unfortunately his grand attention to the cinematic details doesn’t extend to any of the characters, relationships or dialogue.
Ultimately this leaves the film as the equivalent of a hollowed out Death Star: mesmerising on the outside, nothing of substance on the inside.