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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Year: 2017
Studio: EuropaCorp
Director: Luc Besson
Writer: Luc Besson/Pierre Christin/Jean-Claude Mézières
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rhianna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Rutger Hauer, John Goodman

To appreciate Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets without putting the time into watching it, just go back to when you watched The Wachowski's Jupiter Ascending. Like that film, Luc Besson's years-gestating dream project (and the one that broke his studio Europa Corp in half after its financial failure) is an assault on your ears and eyes, all of it so overstuffed with swirling CGI it looks and moves like a bad video game, so full of creatures, mythologies, worlds and customs you hardly have time to notice them, let alone care. It's as if Besson wanted to create an entire Star Wars universe and cram it all down your throat in one film.

Not helping is the charisma vacuum of the leads. Dane DeHaan has neither the chops nor the impression of stature to carry a galaxy-spanning story on his shoulders, and Cara Delevingne looks distinctive with that perpetually dark and angry gaze you're sure many people wither under, but she can't really do anything else.

They play secret agents working for the human government of Alpha, a city floating in space made up of the denizens of countless worlds who inhabit very distinct environments, from a sleazy Mos Eisley-inspired metropolis to a vast undersea world and everything in between.

The scene that opens the film depicts a peaceful race of aliens that harvest pearls for energy (from a cute little animal that eats one and seems to shit more out) on an tropical planet when their idyllic existence is shattered as wreckage from a battle in space above rains down and destroys their civilisation.

When we meet Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne) they're on holiday on a beach world that's so obviously digital and looks so fake it straight away puts you in a frame of mind for the rest of the movie. Valerian wakes from a dream – the carnage from the opening scene – but doesn't pay it much attention as he gets back to romantically pursuing his partner as they prepare to return home for their next mission.

They're tasked with retrieving the last surviving creature from a lost civilisation, a being of unimaginable power currently owned by a black market gangster and which happens to be the animal from Valerian's dream. Getting hold of it for the powers that be of course leads to an ever escalating series of secrets and adventures that shakes their belief in their world to its core.

If you've watched any movie in the last three decades (even without having read the comic on which the film is based) you know very well it will lead to a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, and that there'll be lots of freewheeling, dizzying camera work, action sci-fi set pieces, creatures great and small, etc etc. Even little more than a week after watching the film it was hard to rustle up the enthusiasm to remember much about it.

That said, there are a couple of interesting ideas and quite cool executions of them. One is the market, shoppers wandering across a desert wearing VR headsets that plug them into a bustling bazaar in amonther dimension they use special gadgets to interact with. Like the best work of George Lucas there are also a lot of exciting flight and chase sequences, and for all the faults in the story and casting you can see Besson has tried his hardest to make a big screen movie – you lose a lot watching in on DVD.

There's just too much going on too quickly to really make an impact narratively with (or between) the characters. Pop star Rhianna gets an extended sequence as a striptease dancer managed by pimp Ethan Hawke, and the reason the story seems to concentrate on her versus dozens of other aliens as long as it does is just because she's Rhianna.

It's overloaded, it's loud, and it's so digital nothing feels real or has any impact. Where JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson at least had the good grace to homage the classics in their franchise by building real puppets and costumes to be shot in camera, Valerian feels like Besson just booked up every VFX house across Europe, pointed cameras at DeHaan and Delevingne and waited for sequences to come through to plug in behind them. I found myself waiting to spot a single shot that didn't contain some sort of CGI – even a sliver in the background – and it was a long wait.

Also worth mentioning is what you might consider sexism in the title. While the title of the comic referenced both lead characters, the movie's name only contains the male hero, even though they're very much a double act and equally important. If the movie had been more popular it might have been talked about a bit more in the equality and diversity and #MeToo era.

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