If you read interviews with Luc Besson, one of his frequent refrains is how hard it was to make The Fifth Element and how constrained he was by the effects technology of the time. That’s a crazy thought, considering The Fifth Element, released in 1997, is one of the all-time high-water marks of production design and even 20 years later doesn’t look especially dated (other than perhaps Bruce Willis’ frosted hair). The obvious question (and surely the one Besson was hoping we’d ask) is, how much more insane a space movie could this guy make with a giant budget and 2017’s seemingly unlimited visual FX tech?
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is transparently an attempt to resolve that question. The answer, as it turns out, is, “pretty insane, actually” — an expectation-fulfilling spectacle of eye-popping bug f*ckery that’s precisely as advertised, but also vaguely, existentially disappointing, in the manner of Homer Simpson getting that giant beer he always wanted (“Oh. It’s pretty big, I guess“). And that’s before the moderately disastrous final act.
The plot revolves around a kind of space hedgehog that shits pearls, and the opening sequence, an expository time lapse showing the evolution of the titular “city of a thousand planets,” a massive space station that eventually comes to encompass all of the knowledge of the known universe, is one of the greatest examples of opening scene-setting since Zack Snyder’s Watchmen opening. This could be, you think, everything a $200 million Fifth Element follow-up promises.
Unfortunately it’s not just visual effects technology that’s evolved in the past 20 years. So has the Luc Besson brand, the expectations that go along with making a Luc Besson movie, and the pressures those expectations exert. Pressure to repeat oneself (specifically from investors, presumably) rarely has a positive effect on the final product, and Luc Besson doesn’t handle it notably better or worse than other filmmakers in a similar position.
Over and over you can feel echoes of The Fifth Element, and not just a stylistic similarity you might expect from the same director adapting a long-running comic book (Valerian and Laureline) co-created by a guy (Jean-Claude Mézières) who drew concept art for The Fifth Element (if only costume designer Jean-Paul Gaultier had also come back). No, I mean echoes of specific images and plot points, like “The Diva” giving Korben love advice with her dying breaths, characters fainting, and Korben and Leelu getting it on inside a space pod as the camera pulls away. These regurgitory moments don’t ruin the film, even for those of us more geared towards pattern recognition, but neither do they help.
A much bigger issue is Valerian‘s glaring charisma gap. Dane DeHaan (Valerian) and Cara Delevingne (Laureline) both seem stuck in their respective phases of arrested development, DeHaan as an awkward loner who delivers even his most energetic lines in a raspy stage whisper and seems like he’d rather be playing Elliott Smith songs in his room; Delevingne as a bratty, eye-rolling teen who always seems like she’s about to stick her tongue out. DeHaan seems to have more range as an actor, but he’s also the more badly miscast of the pair, playing a rakish, womanizing intergalactic military officer — Han Solo with bedhead, Korben Dallas with conjunctivitis.
Some of the cameos and minor roles fare better — Ethan Hawke as a weaselly space pimp, Clive Owen as an authoritarian general, Sam Spruell putting in solid work as General Okto Bar — but even those are partly undone by another attempt to make K-Pop boy band-er Kris Wu happen. (He previously played a member of Xander Cage’s gang in xXx: Return of Xander Cage.) His mealy-mouthed turn as a government functionary ruins two or three scenes. (Imagine an ER scene where the surgical assistant barking jargon was played by some conspicuously overscrubbed, lost in translation Drake impersonator.) It really makes you miss The Fifth Element‘s collection of pockmarked weirdos, lazy-eyed oddballs, and beefed out freaks.
A boy band dork in a minor role can’t ruin a movie, of course, and even DeHaan and Delevingne not being quite up to the challenge isn’t an insurmountable obstacle — especially in a movie where the draw is about 90% production design and 10% everything else. But even as I wore my “whoa” face for the first two thirds of the film, thanks to series of mind-blowingly bizarre set pieces, I couldn’t help thinking how much more fun this all would’ve been with actors who had some spunk. Valerian has no one approaching a Bruce Willis, and Rihanna’s turn as a shape-shifting space stripper helps you imagine what it would’ve been like if Ruby Rhod had been played by Besson’s first choice, Prince, and it had been a mild disappointment, instead of a defining performance by Chris Tucker.
All that said, the cast can’t entirely be blamed for Valerian‘s final 20 minutes, which take the hokey broad strokes of The Fifth Element‘s finale (far and away its weakest element) and make them talkier, longer, and more tedious, with a weird Holocaust allusion thrown in for bad measure. Turns out, the best way to wrap up a visually exuberant, two-hour chase sequence is not 20 minutes of breathless dialogue and two false endings. Nor do we especially want to wait for you to resolve the romantic subplot between the two bratty teens.
And so we’re left with a film that’s neither a perfect triumph nor an unhinged, Jupiter Ascending-style disaster, pearl-shitting hedgehogs notwithstanding. Can a movie fulfill expectations and still be a disappointment?
Valerian is the massive-budget, unlimited FX version of The Fifth Element Luc Besson always wanted to make, but also the version that reveals how much of The Fifth Element was a result not just of careful craft and well-laid plans, but also cosmic kismet and personalities coming together just so. Valerian has twice the craft and half the magic.