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Valerian in the shadow of The Fifth Element

by Dancin' Dan

Luc Besson's comic adaptation Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a mess. But so was his magnum opus The Fifth Element, and that Bruce Willis-starrer went on to become something of a modern-day sci-fi classic. Only time will tell if Valerian will go on to a similarly charmed afterlife, but for my money it suffers under the weight of expectations...

Take the titular city for starters. It's called Alpha, and is essentially the International Space Station writ large. Thousands of different species live and work there, sharing resources and knowledge specific to their home planets. Looking at the picture above, you'd be forgiven for thinking it came from a sequel to The Fifth Element, bearing the heavy influence of the earlier film's future Manhattan:

Alpha is a fantastic setting for a space opera, and all the time Valerian spends with the different alien species there is time well-spent. But unfortunately that time isn't nearly enough - we mostly only get quick glimpses of the myriad inhabitants, which is a pity for all the production designers, visual effects artists, and makeup artists who had a hand in creating them. Like its predecessor, Valerian is a feast for the eyes, with so much detail packed into every corner of its beautifully rendered world. But the film isn't really interested in most of these fantastic beasts, as it has a plot with human characters to attend to.

And it's here that Valerian runs into its biggest problem. It's not just that Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne look like they're blood relations when they're supposed to be lovers, although that is a huge problem. It's more that neither of them have any clue how they're supposed to be acting. Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich, limited actors though they may be, intuitively knew exactly which parts of The Fifth Element could be read at face value and which needed a comic spin. DeHaan and Delevingne, whether through a lack of direction from Besson or through their own limitations, have no such intuition, and the result is a film that, for all its visual energy, feels flat for most of its running time. Say what you will about The Fifth Element, but "flat" is one descriptor no one could ever apply to it.

It's a shame, really, because Valerian starts out really well. The opening prologue takes place on a beautiful beach planet and completely immerses you in an alien culture with almost no understandable dialogue. And then there's a chase scene in an interdimensional alien bazaar that is one of the most original things I've ever seen onscreen. It gives you the giddy, can't-believe-your-eyes high at which Besson excels. But that's pretty much the only time you'll get that high in the whole film. To be sure, there are pleasures to be had here, but this film doesn't have the courage to go to the truly crazy, out-there places The Fifth Element went to way back in 1997. Or rather, it goes to pretty much the same places, but twenty years later they don't seem quite so crazy.

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Reader Comments (5)

The firs problem with the movie is the script- there is no story- and even space operas need a plot look at Flash Gordon.

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjaragon

I find the criticism about the story being non-existent or superficial pretty bizarre - this is clearly the kind of movie that does not need a deep plot, it's all about the adventure. For me the plot is no worse than celebrated movies like Star Wars or Avatar.

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKeith L

All these articles about why this movie failed make me want to watch it for myself to form my own opinion.

August 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Yeah I agree with Keith L. re: plot - I thought the plot wasn't any better or worse than other sci-fi stories that had more of an x factor for American audiences.. And as I said in another comment, the point seems to me to be that Valerian and Laureline's world is more or less a utopia. It's about how their jobs become an opportunity to acknowledge rather than erase a culture's tragic history. They're young people, so of course they don't burden themselves with the past but instead work through obstacles to help heal the wounds that others must carry. I admit that the lack of comic timing makes the film read weirdly, but its aesthetic and narrative messages were so positive and enjoyably naive! I found the whole experience infectious, and it stayed with me.

August 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDavid S.

I just saw it today. It started quite enjoyably but then goes on and on.

My biggest issue was Dehaan's voice - close your eyes and you'll swear it's Keanu Reeves speaking!

August 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Lewis

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