Friday, July 21, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Whether you are an optimist and view a glass of water as half-full or a pessimist and view it as half-empty, the fact is that there's only water in half the glass. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a lot like that. Sure, half the glass is filled with terrific imagery and an impressively designed world. There are creatures, gadgets, and CGI aplenty. And even when the sci-fi plot gets a bit dicey it still has a cohesive plot (which is more than I can say for all films released this week). It would be easy to praise Valerian for only the things it does right and just as easy to slam it for all it gets wrong. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

The latest from director Luc Besson is based on the French comic series Valérian and Laureline. As in the comic, our story centers around a pair of spatio-temporal agents Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne). The script offers a glimpse into the contastly flirting partners' lives aboard their ship and a mission that gets out of control before the film begins in earnest as the pair are called back to Alpa (the future version of the Intranational Space Station with thousands of aliens on board hurtling through space).

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets reminds me a bit of Flash Gordon, not in quality (Valerian wishes it was as good as the 1980 film) but in terms of one of its most glaring weaknesses. It's nearly impossible for a film to succeed if the film's star is the weakest link. Flash Gordon manages to navigate that landmine by the quality of the rest of the film, its acting outside of Sam J. Jones, its design and style, and the undeniable cheese factor which gives it a certain charm. While Valerian also exhibits a tremendous design and imagination, it struggles with the problem of not one but two main actors who, based on what we are shown here, can't act (at least not consistently or well).

Now, to be fair, both DeHaan and Delevingne are saddled with some unbelievably bad dialogue. This is particularly true in the scenes between the two where they discuss their relationship ad nauseam. It's awkward at the best of times and truly groan worthy in others. So of course Besson gives such scenes as much screentime as possible. Sadly, neither Valerian nor Laureline are anywhere near as cute nor funny as they think they are. In what passes for humor, Besson's screenplay throws in a joke about how women are terrible drivers even in the future. The script also throws in a hamfisted message to the audience about love and acceptance that has all the subtlety of a grand piano dropped on a cartoon duck. And then the movie abruptly ends not with a bang but a whimper, making you wonder if all the pretty imagery actually justified your time.

Besson's team does a find job in crafting the setting of the adventure. Alpha is an amazing backdrop for such a story and the odd assortment of characters gives the film an unique feel. Much like Zootopia, the setting becomes a character of its own. The story involves our pair of space cops called home on a mission to discover trouble within the heart of Alpha which will tie back to Valerian's mysterious vision and the dark secret of one station's highest ranking officials. Even when the sci-fi elements get the story into trouble, the world is so interesting we can forgive quite a lot... just not always Valerian and Laureline speaking.

The movie's supporting cast is highlighted by Rihanna as a beautiful shape-shifter dancer whose help Valerian desperately needs. It's obvious her dance sequence was given extra care. It's also too bad that she's in so little of the film and such care wasn't taken with making our leads more likable (hell, even acceptable) in their roles. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is equal parts inept and remarkable. So is the glass half-full or half-empty? I'll leave it for you to decide.

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