Filmmaker, writer, creator and producer Luc Besson (born 1959) is the author of his own work, or in French terminology, an auteur, and like most auteurs his work is distinctive. French film critics classify him as a proponent of a method called ‘Cinema Du Look’, where a director is said to favour style over substance, spectacle over narrative.
Among the many genres he has tackled is sci-fi. The Fifth Element (1997) misses greatness but has its fans, and mega hit Lucy (2014) was a messy bundle of ideas that dissipated the moment the lights went up. And that’s what the Besson experience mostly is for me, in the moment.
He is to France as Spielberg is to the USA, Miyazaki to Japan, Gilliam to the UK, Joon-ho to South Korea and Jackson to New Zealand, an idiosyncratic artist who has managed enough commercial success to attract the kind of money required to service a singular vision.
Talking of Jackson, his Weta Workshop did the special effects for Besson’s latest, and they work a treat. The result is somewhat akin to seeing Star Wars for the first time back in the summer of ’77: revelatory. Starships, strange alien planets and the aliens themselves have seldom looked better. Oh, and this was my first 3-D movie! It reminded me of a stereoscopic toy from my youth, the View-Master – an interesting gimmick but little else. (And what do you do with the 3-D spectacles afterward. Are they rubbish or recyclable?)
After an inspiring start that would make the Federation Of Planets (Star Trek) proud, we do more Star Wars, some Battlestar Galactica, a little Avatar and a whole lot of French animated sci-fi classic Fantastic Planet (1973). On top of all this, paying homage to every classic scene of the original Star Wars as it does, makes for exhausting viewing.
It draws from everything that has gone before while offering little of anything new and on and on and on it goes, throwing up set piece after dazzling set piece, straining the edges of a standard hero’s quest to breaking point. “It’s a good story, but they overdid it,” says Mark, a middle aged father of one excited 11-year-old boy. I agree, and suggest it could have dropped 30 minutes and been a whole lot more compelling as a result.
“The acting was B-Grade,” continues Mark. I agree again, thinking that Besson’s characters lean to cheesiness and Dane Dehaan (Valerian) in particular was pretty bad. ‘Weak’ was the word that kept popping into my head, and it’s a word that sums up the dialogue, too. It was clunky like he was clunky.
Model turned actress Cara Delevingne as Sergeant Laureline, Valerian’s partner and romantic interest, is only slightly better. She has her lapses, and when you consider the attention lavished on the technical detail it seems strange that they got it so wrong with the performances. Besson’s problem is that he’s a technician first and an actor’s muse second, and all the clever tricks in the world are no substitute for good acting and tight narrative construction.
Among the international cast are Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Clive Owen, John Goodman, Rutger Hauer and Rihanna. Mark is impressed by Hawke, who shows one and all (including the director) how to ham it up yet keep it real. He also rates Rinanna and I have to concede that she was a pretty good, though I don’t think she should give up her day job just yet.
But none of this matters much to kids, and Mark’s boy is mesmerised. He likes Avatar and Guardians Of The Galaxy and does not rate his Dad’s Star Wars, but declares Valerian City Of A Thousand Planets amazing, and gives it an unhesitant eight out of 10 stars.
The most expensive European film ever is not as bad as the critics have been making out. It’s almost good. No, it’s not going to steal the space opera crown from Star Wars, but it’ll probably entertain a cult audience for years to come, much like The Fifth Element.
Valerian And The City of A Thousand Planets is adapted from the French graphic novel series Valérian And Laureline (1962-2010), which means there is plenty of room for sequels, but with the huge losses the film has accrued so far (a projected $80 million down the drain), I suspect that this ain’t going to happen anytime soon.
Be thrilled, bored, delighted and inspired in turn. Besson’s Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is not the new frontier of sci-fi, but it is far from a dunger.