Luc Besson’s $200m movie flop: how bad can it be?

Valerian review: After a promising start, the film plummets into atrociousness

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
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Director: Luc Besson
Cert: 12A
Genre: Sci-Fi
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer
Running Time: 2 hrs 17 mins

We so wanted to get behind Luc Besson's big, silly spectacle. Shouting out for original science fiction, in this age of juggernaut franchises, is like supporting local shops and native produce. And Lucy was fun, right?

Unhappily, no film since Watchmen has started so well only to plummet so remorselessly into atrociousness and tedium.

What a lovely overture, though. David Bowie's Space Odyssey plays as the International Space Station evolves, over centuries, into an intergalactic United Nations, populated by thousands of extra-terrestrial species, and finally requiring new digs away from low Earth orbit.

And now the bad news. We cut to fake Avatar planet, where a race of sparkly emaciated supermodels live in harmony with their pearl-pooping multi-coloured pet armadillos. Suddenly, the sky darkens and their tropical paradise is destroyed by war cruisers. And another cut: this was all but a dream for the title character, (Dane DeHaan, a talented actor, sadly heading a second major box office bomb).


Or was it?

When Major Valerian is sent on a virtual-reality mission into a virtual market place that looks awfully like virtual Tatooine – pay attention down the back – he encounters some of the sparkly supermodel folk and retrieves one of their armadillos from fake Jabba the Hut.

Whither “original sci-fi”?

And then there’s a conspiracy, a lot of chasing through meaningless digital landscapes, and appalling (presumably Google-translated) attempts at screwball dialogue. “All of you Ivy League types love a bad boy like me,” Valerian patiently explains to his female sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), between repeated marriage proposals.

We're told that Valerian and Laureline, the original Sixties sci-fi comic, featured a red-headed proto-feminist. She's nowhere to be found in Luc Besson's $200 million flop. Delevingne's Laureline is not only blondewashed, and frequently in swimwear (or a space suit with breasts), she's a walking series of ancient, sexist punchlines.

We’re scarcely 10 minutes in before we’re cracking wise about her driving. Later, when muppety space station spies sigh: “You humans are so predictable”, she responds with stomp of her feet. “You’ve clearly never met a woman”. Ooh, kitty’s got claws, etc.

And just when you think things can’t get any more sexually retrograde, blink and you’ll miss Rihanna. Although that might be just as well. The pop star plays a shape-shifting “glampod”, who, having memorised the collective works of Shakespeare and Verlaine, hopes to become “the world’s greatest artist”. For a female that can only mean one thing: the medium of pole dance. Yes. Really.

Other fleeting cameos – Clive Owen's plainly evil general, Ethan Hawke's pimp – pad out the over-extended run-time. There have been many comparisons with Besson's earlier and superior 1997 space panto The Fifth Element, the film he ended up making when he first pondered adapting Valerian and Laureline. But, for all its technological advances, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets can't compete with Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich for charisma, nor with Jean Paul Gaultier's costumes.

The Fifth Element was all kinds of camp, but we understood its extremely loud universe. Even by its own ludicrous, gravity-free, uncanny-valley logic, Valerian is where continuity comes to die. Having been informed around 50 times (expect similar levels of exposition for every plot point) that all records of the sparkly supermodel planet are classified and redacted, Laureline trills "I read about you in history" at the top-secret armadillo thingy.

This film won’t be troubling awards season. Unless they’re handing out Oscars for leading eyebrows.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic