Published on January 18th, 2018 | by Pat Condliffe
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets Blu-Ray Review
Summary: Besson drags Valerian and Laureline from the 1960s to the 21st big-screen, but packs the dodgy social values along for the ride. A missed moon shot that could have been so much more, with a few minor changes.
Bombastic but with baggage
“Valerian and Laureline” was a classic French science-fiction comic by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières that ran from 1969 – 2010. Translated into English and many other languages, it was one of the longest running sci-fi comic serials and was beloved by many around the world. Valerian and Laureline is credited with inspiring many science fiction films’ design, setting, and plots including Star Wars and Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (where he used Mézières as a story-board artist and concept designer). It is only fitting that Luc Besson would once more venture into far-future science fiction by bringing to the screen the works that inspired him as a child. But is it any good? Read on and find out.
Valerian and the City of the Thousand Planets introduces us to Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevinge). They are intergalactic soldiers for the United Human federation -the representative body for humans in a diverse cosmos. They are tasked with retrieving a rare artifact, an animal called a “Mül converter.” This leads them on a series of adventures and into the depths of a conspiracy that threatens the peace and harmony of the Galaxy, and the economic viability of the human governed space city – Alpha. Valerian and the City of a thousand Planets is a wonderfully mad-capped adventure populated by a stellar and diverse cast including Rihanna, Rutger Hauer, Herbie Hancock, and John Goodman, but brought crashing to reality by some fundamental issues.
This complex plot is far more fun than it sounds. Valerian is a crazy series of fantastic set-pieces and spectacularly bizarre worlds lashed together by Valerian and Laureline’s journey through it. Valerian and Laureline’s relationship is the glue that holds these often disparate narrative threads together, and at the heart of this relationship lies the film’s biggest problem. Besson may have adapted a comic from the 1960s and 1970s to the modern screen, but he didn’t adapt its sexual politics. Valerian begins on a problematic note that sits like an uncomfortable black hole at the centre of the film, and it never really escapes the gravitational pull of that initial note.
After a brief montage of humanity’s venture into space and a dream sequence that introduces the plot, we meet Valerian and Laureline. They are on a beach, and in beach attire. Soon they wrestle on a bed while sipping cocktails, Valerian is trying to get into her pants. But she’s adamant they don’t have time and she seems quite disinterested. One could be mistaken for thinking they were a couple. But at this point in time they’re colleagues, he’s her superior and she’s his lackey. It’s an uncomfortable power dynamic that Besson tries to make playful and DeHann and Delvingne act out in a slapstick and comedic fashion, but it’s dated and more than a little disturbing. Perhaps it is the attention being focused on the relations between the sexes and gender politics because of the seemingly endless entertainment industry sex scandals and the accompanying #metoo movement that makes Valerian seem very anachronistic. Or maybe the film begins from a moment of workplace sexual harassment and never really escapes it. I know it’s being faithful to the comics, but it didn’t have to be. And there are other ways to handle it. This is where the characterisation of Laureline doesn’t really help either (and to be honest, the “boob armour” is probable not the best costuming decision in the film).
Valerian is a total badass, albeit a svelter and more acrobatic one than screens are used to nowadays, DeHaan is not your usual action hero. But he has the right swagger. Laureline is too, to a point. But where Valerian succeeds at action with aplomb, Laureline often fumbles as the comic relief. I saw echoes of the female sidekicks of Indiana Jones in how Laureline is one moment deadly but the next knocked-out in a bumbling moment. While funny, it undercuts her character development and her plausability as a capable soldier who is part of a special forces outfit. It’s disappointing and, to my mind, a step backwards after some of the female heroes that have graced our screens lately. This character imbalance is strikingly at odds with most of Besson’s films and was something I found quite disenchanting after Lucy and even Leeloo Minaï from The Fifth Element.
Why is it such a let down? It’s not just because I’m a Besson fan, though that’s part of it. It’s really because Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is big and bold and new in ways that are fun and innovative and very different to typical Hollywood fare. The script, aside from the misogynistic workplace harassment is funny and bizarre and touching in the offbeat tone that European film does so well. This is a big blockbuster out of ….. The Eurozone. And it has good fun direction. It is clear that the cast are having a ball and are enjoying their work. There’s a palpable enthusiasm throughout the whole 137 minutes.
Additionally, Valerian is a visual feast. Sure the CGI isn’t Lucasfilm spectacular, but the WETA special effects are still top notch. There are Easter eggs aplenty for sci-fi fans in almost every scene. The different settings are imaginative and beautiful. There is a cornucopia of creatures, aliens, animals, and fauna in many of the shots. Besson and the WETA crew have had a wealth of material to draw from in the “Valerian and Laureline” albums and it shows in the rich universe they’ve woven from its comic-book threads. But even some of this wonder is tainted by the problems that orbit Valerian and Laureline’s relationship – such as the remarkable but potentially problematic sequence with RhiRhi.
On the upside, the Blu-ray release is first-class. There are a wealth of featurettes and mini-documentaries. 20th Century Fox have really put some thought into this release. It’s great to see how this put together and how the different players see their characters. The picture quality is a crisp 16:9, which is good for almost everything but some of the CGI shots which aren’t as crisp as the others. The sound is well-mixed and level. It doesn’t suffer from the boom and whisper audio switch that often mar other sci-fi blockbusters.
In many ways the character imbalance in the film is encapsulated by its title, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and not Valerian and Laureline and the City of a Thousand Planets. It’s a choice that illustrates the missed opportunities the film had, the squandered chances for a new sort of universe in every sense. This is a good film with issues that could have been marvelous. I hope they get a shot at a sequel, although given its only take $225 million of a production budget of $177.2 million I think the chances are slim. It would be nice to see them get a second shot with something this different. This kind of imagination isn’t there in the big Hollywood tentpole features. As much as the Marvel and Star Wars, now Disney franchises, can be fun and entertaining, they’ve stopped breaking new ground in a big way. The Last Jedi broke some important barriers, but it didn’t innovate with world building and it didn’t break rules. In the end, Valerian is worth a watch for its effect and imagination, but be prepared for some worn stereotypes and exasperating moments and sense of disappointment at what the universe could have been. But don’t be surprised if this attains cult status in 5 to 10 years.
Director – Luc Besson
Actors – Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke
Film Genre – Action, Science Fiction
Label – 20th Century Fox
Audio – English
Subtitles – English and many more
Running Time – 137
Aspect Ratio – 16:9
Region Coding – B
TV Standard – HD
Rating – M
Consumer Advice – Science Fiction Violence
Year of Release – 2017
Primary Format – Movies/TV – Blu-ray