Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets (2017) (DVD film review).

January 9, 2019 | By | Reply More

I have been a fan of Science Fiction for over four decades. Over that time, though, I have almost exclusively read stories written in English. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve realised how much SF I’ve been missing out on because it was originally published in another language. After reading an excellent novella by Bao Shu, translated from Chinese by Ken Liu, in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ in early 2015, I’ve started to put this right, reading translations of fascinating stories from Russia, China and Germany. Now, ‘Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets’ has exposed me to SF from yet another country, this time France, even if it’s in the form of a film rather than a book.

Major Valerian was originally a French comicbook character, a 28th Century ‘Spatio-Temporal Agent’ who travelled the universe with his colleague and some-time love interest, Sergeant Laureline, fixing problems across space and time. Their adventures were created by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières and serialised in the French magazine ‘Pilote’, starting in 1967. The final Valerian story was published in 2010.

The French director Luc Besson, probably best known in genre circles for his 1997 SF romp ‘The Fifth Element’, read these comics as a child and wanted to bring them to the silver screen for decades. He sensibly waited until Hollywood special effects were good enough before filming Valerian’s adventures for an international audience.

I didn’t see the film at the cinema when it came out in the summer of 2017. Those who did weren’t overly impressed, with the critics giving it mixed reviews and the box office receipts being low when compared to the huge production budget. However, after I read and enjoyed a newly reissued English translation from Cinebook of ‘Ambassador Of The Shadows’, the 1975 graphic novel on which the film was based, I thought it might be worth getting hold of the film on DVD so that I could judge it for myself.

The movie adopts the multi-stranded nature of the original graphic novel’s plot, which can make it a challenge to summarise. However, if you put all the sub-plots to one side, the basic story consists of Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevinge) trying to address an existential threat to the Alpha Intergalactic Space Station, otherwise known as the City of a Thousand Planets. This space station originally grew out of humanity’s first attempts to live permanently off the Earth but, by the 26th Century, it is home to over 3,000 different species of aliens, in addition to many humans, all living alongside each other in relative harmony. That is, until someone places a Weapon of Mass Destruction at the heart of the station, shielded by a highly radioactive zone that is slowly expanding.

This threat brings to the station humanity’s most aggressive military officer, Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen), who intends to use his personal detachment of robotic soldiers to tackle the terrorist attack head-on. However, someone in the civilian authorities doesn’t entirely see eye-to-eye with Filitt or his methods, so Valerian and Laureline are assigned as his bodyguards, against his own wishes, to make sure that things are done by the book and the millions of alien life-forms on the station do not become so much collateral damage.

Things go from bad to worse when Commander Filitt is kidnapped in the middle of a council meeting. Left looking impotent and embarrassed, it’s up to Valerian and Laureline to search the station and find the Commander and his kidnappers before the growing radioactive zone at the core of the station contaminates everyone or the WMD goes off. No pressure then.

To start with the negatives, it’s impossible to argue with the main criticism the film received at the box office. The entire story is a vehicle to showcase the abilities of and the complex relationship between the two lead characters, Valerian and Laureline. They are the heroes of the piece and the ‘will they-won’t they’ nature of their potential romantic entanglement should hold us just as transfixed as, say, Princess Leia’s with Han Solo across the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy. It’s therefore somewhat unfortunate that Dane Dehaan has the emotional range of a water biscuit, while the sexual chemistry between him and his co-star, Cara Delevinge, is notable only by its complete absence. This is particularly puzzling if you watch the excellent DVD extras, where you will repeatedly see both actors having a lot of fun when working together and with the rest of the cast and crew, during rehearsals and between takes. Why they couldn’t bring this energy to the screen is beyond me. Delevinge tries her best but faces an impossible task as Dehaan repeatedly sucks all the emotion out of every scene he appears in.

By way of contrast, several of the supporting characters are brought fully to life by their actors. Rihanna, in particular, is outstanding as the tragic, shape-shifting, alien exotic dancer Bubble, while her manager, Jolly the Pimp, is a whirlwind of energy in the hands of Ethan Hawke. Similarly, the motion-capture performances which underpin some of the most interesting aliens in the film, such as the rather cute trio of platypus-like Doghan Daghuis, who finish each other’s sentences whilst buying and selling information to the highest bidder, bring genuine character and realism to these CGI constructions. Finally, the special effects are extremely impressive and fully justify Besson’s decision to wait a few more years before putting Valerian on film.

As briefly mentioned earlier, the DVD includes just under an hour of special features, which delve into the history of Valerian as a comicstrip before looking at the actors, the aliens, the stunts and the visual effects. These are well worth watching, although they did leave me wondering just how much better a film this could have been with a different choice of lead actor.

I’m glad that I got hold of a copy of ‘Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets’ on DVD, despite the negative reviews the film received at the box office. This is a sumptuous recreation of a slice of French SF comics history and I’m grateful to Luc Besson for sharing Valerian and Laureline with those of us who had never previously heard of them. I’m busy making my way through the reissued graphic novels and loving every minute. Although the film is deeply flawed by its choice of lead actor, there remains much to admire in it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a cult classic in years to come.

Patrick Mahon

January 2019

(region 2 DVD: pub: Lionsgate. 1 DVD 131 minute film. Price: £ 4.99. (UK). ASIN: B0749VPLCZ)

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Category: Films, Scifi

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