Craig Johnson reviews Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets and finds a few interesting surprises…
Okay so maybe not quite that many surprises but more than a few without a doubt. Valerian is the latest science fiction adaptation to stick its head over the parapet which is currently manned by superheroes and comic adaptations. The mere existence of this film is itself a surprise; the comic book series which inspire and form the basis of the film are not particularly well known even amongst science fiction aficionados – despite being ground breaking. Anti-heroes, equal rights and a strong feminine lead are just a few of the elements which make up this fairly small series. Star Trek addressed many of the same issues and is far better known for it than this small French cartoon. So, the choice of it for a film adaptation struck me as odd, but having seen it; I must say that it works, and works well. Much has been made of the involvement of Luc Besson and the film undoubtedly carries many of his trademarks; particularly the visuals which are undoubtedly stunning. Recent years though have seen a number of visually impressive science fiction films, novel adaptation and comic book conversions which have universally flopped or been slammed by fans. The lamentable Jupiter Ascending and the annoying Ender’s Game are just two examples. Visuals, and /or a great set of source material, are simply not enough to carry a film through.
Valerian however manages to deliver more. It is not an adaptation of one of the comics but borrows heavily from them with the portrayal of the titular Major Valerian as a slightly reckless anti-hero whilst his partner is more straight laced and calculating. It is here that the next surprise is delivered. The casting of Cara Delevigne as Laureline has received a few eyebrows given that her past acting roles have not been well received. Here though she amazingly delivers, and I would go so far as to say that she actually covers for the weaknesses of her co-star Dane Dehaan, who in the early stages comes across as a bit of a playboy Han Solo – without any of the hard edge of that character.
As the film progresses this annoyance factor diminishes and both leads work off each other. Even Delevigne’s apparent inability to smile isn’t a hindrance given her take on Laureline as a slightly harder woman than portrayed in the comics. The writers also deserve credit for not repeating the mistakes of Ghost in the Shell by relying on sex appeal to try and cover gaps. So, it appears that the casting of an unknown, (in acting terms), has paid off and the two deliver some quite good comic moments through their interplay. The casting of Rihanna raises the profile of the film, and she is used for a measure of sex appeal, but the role she has is written that way so it is no surprise; and she does manage to turn in a decent performance.
The plot is fairly straightforward with the two leads being tasked to retrieve an object and then protect it whilst intrigue and deception goes on all around them. In the midst of this there is the romance between the leads which is, if I am honest, fairly hammed up but it doesn’t detract from the story. The leads looking to protect each other and the object, (I’m avoiding spoilers here), digs them deeper and deeper into the intrigue and conspiracy surrounding their boss, (played by the preposterously dressed Clive Owen), and ultimately they are forced to pick sides. For modern Sci-Fi the plot is reasonable, though there are a few holes which may well not have been plugged – due to the greater than 2-hour length of the film. Clearly time has gone into the film in that regard, and it is a pleasant surprise that the creative team haven’t just chucked all the elements in and hoped for the best, (Jupiter Ascending I’m looking at you).
The effects and imagery is undoubtedly first rate and probably the best I have seen in a film this year. Unlike other recent Sci-Fi films though it has not relied on them to get the film through and instead has used them to enhance the scene. One particular chase scene would have worked in a series of corridors but adding in different ‘worlds’ enhances it even more. There is also not the reliance on crazy camera rolls al la rebooted star trek, so the space scenes generate awe rather than an upset stomach. Likewise, the gunfights and fight scenes are kept simple and play a part in the film rather than being there for the sake of it. All of which makes for a better film experience. The score is not particularly pronounced but it has its high points and makes use of a mix of other artist’s music to enhance scenes. Like many films the influence of Guardians of the Galaxy is present here and the use of the Bowie’s Space Oddity kicks the film off without the script writers not needing to put much effort in. The initial song of ‘A million on my soul’ in the end credits is also a winner and undoubtedly fits the film; the artist (Alexiane) is unknown to me but her work is perfect here.
The negatives? Well Dehaan is initially rather annoying as a cross between a playboy and a lothario and his side of the romance story initially is more than a little desperate looking; but once the film gets going he becomes less annoying if not necessarily more likeable! There is a shortage of exposition to explain some elements of the story but this may be due to length and if I am honest it does not diminish the film in anyway. Other than that, though this is a film which has more positives than negatives.
Yes, the film lacks serious depth but it is an enjoyable Sci-Fi romp which has none of the baggage that Star Wars and Star Trek have accrued. Likewise, it is not constrained by having to make a point and can instead focus on being an enjoyable movie; and for that alone the parties involve deserve the maximum amount of credit. A surprising choice of subject which has been turned into a surprisingly likeable film.