Roundtable: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Context: The Appeal of a European Sci-Fi Action Blockbuster

Anton: One of the most appealing aspects, for me, of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is that it’s a big cinematic spectacle, but not a Hollywood movie. Now, I think it’s fair to say that I don’t maintain knee-jerk antagonism or an automatic sense of critical superiority to Hollywood and its many products. And I’d say the same for you two.

Aren: We’re all appreciators of mainstream Hollywood in the general sense. You’re probably the most enthusiastically traditionalist of us, which in film terms means you appreciate the classical Hollywood style the most. Anders is probably the least, as he loves art cinema, and I’m more in between the two of you. But yes, we all appreciate a good Hollywood film, as one should.

Anders: I love classical Hollywood, but you’re right that in today’s filmmaking landscape I’m definitely more intrigued by what’s coming out of independent and foreign filmmaking environments. As Hollywood ownership is more and more driven by studio mandates, and executives for whom the studio is only a small piece of a much larger media and corporate structure, I’m convinced that much of the best filmmaking tradition of classic Hollywood is found elsewhere. I think Valerian is an example of that. Heck, lots of people just assumed based on how the film looks that it must be a Hollywood production, but I think a closer examination shows how different this film is.

Anton: I am getting tired of the products Hollywood has been selling over recent summers (and, increasingly, in March–April and November–December). Of course, I’m talking about the glut, the downright oppressive cinema dominance, of superhero movies and other sci-fi/fantasy action spectacles that make up the bulk of the big blockbuster movies Hollywood is producing today. I thought Logan was a brilliant variation on these new standards, and Baby Driver satisfied my desire for a summer non-sci-fi/fantasy actioner, but, hell, I revisited Jurassic Park the other week, and I was like, wow. Jurassic Park is textbook sci-fi spectacle, but it’s at turns joyful and dark, sly and wondrous. It’s charged with suspense and tension rather than weighed down with fighting and destruction. It can be touching and intelligent while also being just plain goofy fun. And it really struck me how different Jurassic Park is from the blockbuster filmmaking of today. I think we’ve probably arrived, or almost arrived, at the artistic nadir of the new superhero and franchise normal. All this is a long preamble and digression, I know, but I wanted to get at my reading of the zeitgeist of summer movies in 2017, and emphasize my longing for something a bit different.

Anders: I think you’re spot on in identifying that one’s reaction to Valerian will inevitably be shaped by how it compares to the rest of the film landscape today.

Anton: So, the questions I’ll put to you brothers are: First, is the European-made Valerian really something different from the existing Hollywood model? And, second, how do we relate this issue to Valerian’s North American box office woes?

I mean, it’s still a science-fiction action spectacle, right?

Aren: Yes, it is is a spectacle, but it is not a product. I think that’s where the difference lies. This is the work of one man: Luc Besson, and it is a personal work, even if it had a budget of around $200 million, is a pop culture adaptation, and bears a lot of similarities with the dominant type of stories told in Hollywood right now.

Anders: The irony is that the film is a work of comic book adaptation. Yes, it’s a passion project of Luc Besson’s and he brings his own idiosyncrasies to it. But it’s also an adaptation of a successful French comic book that few in North America are familiar with. I know I’ve never read the Valerian and Laureline books. But additionally, like John Carter before it, this is a case where someone is adapting a story that has had a big influence on the science fiction that followed it. Apparently, some of the folks working on the original Star Wars were fans of the series; Jodorowsky and Moebius’s The Incal is another Euro-sci-fi comic that bears its imprint, and, of course, Besson’s own The Fifth Element. So, I would chalk up many of the similarities with the dominant mode of filmmaking to the fact that those films are in turn descended from other stories that were influenced by this source material.

Aren: Also, like the aforementioned John Carter, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets can seem derivative if you think it’s inspired by the movies that came after it, instead of being based on the work that inspired all those subsequent sci-fi spectacles. I also think it’s easy to chalk up the box office failure to two things: first, it released on the same weekend as Dunkirk and the presumed counter-programing did not pan out; secondly, it stars Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, two young, recognizable actors who are far from big movie stars.

The Cast: Two Duds and the Thousand Faces

Anton: I thought the biggest problem about the movie was the casting of the two central characters, Valerian and his partner, Laureline, who are played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. I found DeHaan to be almost a blackhole of onscreen personality. He’d say something—what should be a fun action movie quip—and it wouldn’t even crash during landing. It’d just float like it was out there in outer space. I got nothing from him. With his mumbly voice and the bags under his eyes, he looked sleepy, or slyly sleepy, the whole movie. I also thought Valerian and Laureline didn’t have enough chemistry.

As for Delevingne (who was definitely overshadowed by Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad), I don’t know if it was primarily DeHaan weighing her down, but she wasn’t great for me either. Her character had some spunk and appeal and a few good moments, and perhaps with a different co-actor she’d have more energy. I mean, I could tell at least that she was trying to be fun. DeHaan didn’t seem to understand how to be leading man. In my eyes, she’s only alright, but he was woefully miscast.

Anders: I can see some merit in this criticism. I can imagine an improved version of this film with a different lead actor. Like you, I find DeHaan to be lacking in charisma and personality. For some reason the flattened affect that he channels works for some actors, but it doesn’t for him. Imagine what a younger Keanu Reeves could have done in the exact same role? He’d be fine. But my sense of what the film tells us of Valerian’s character is that he needs to be not only more credibly confident, he needs to have a sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye. I imagine someone like Tom Hiddleston could have nailed this role, as he can be the charming military officer and an impish prankster.

I don’t agree on Delevigne, who for me was the best part of the film, acting-wise. I honestly had a hard time believing this was the same person who was disastrous in Suicide Squad (though it goes to show how much of a performance in cinema is shaped by editing, direction, and script). I thought that Delevigne was charming, gorgeous, and brought a sense of fun to the proceedings. She also manages to deliver the comic book monologues and banter in a way that works, despite still being slightly arch and affected. Her final speech to Valerian worked shockingly well to me.

Anton: —Really? I thought the speech was pretty stiff, both in terms of content and delivery.

Anders: —So, count me as believing that this supermodel will actually have an acting career if she continues to make good choices about material.

Anton: I have this suspicion that the financial backers (the movie was independently financed) wanted some “hot young talent” aboard, and this is who they could get. I mean, Valerian and Laureline are supposed to be these great space agents in this universe, but the actors just don’t sell it. Not to mention the fact that they both look like high schoolers, or at the very least fresh recruits, in the movie. I just couldn’t believe them as these great heroes. Why does everyone look so damn young in blockbusters these days. Where’s Bruce Willis? Someone like Hiddleston would look like an adult.

Aren: Here’s the thing, I was fully expecting to hate DeHaan and Delevingne, but I did not. It’s hard to express why this is as I mostly agree with everything you said. You’re not wrong in pointing that DeHaan’s flatness is evident in every line reading throughout the film. As well, their lack of chemistry does hurt the film’s romantic elements. But it somehow doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Perhaps it’s that the outrageously colourful aspect of every other part of the film made their bland performances a sort of balancing act. Or maybe it’s simply that despite their blandness, DeHaan and Delevingne were not working against the film.

Delevingne even shined in a few moments, such as the final speech, as you point out, Anders. I think it goes to show that David Ayer put her up shit’s creek in Suicide Squad. No young actress should have to CGI bellydance for a film’s climax. Script and editing and direction inform performance as much as an actor does, so if we have quibbles about the performances, they should rest with Besson as much or more than the performers.

Anders: Were they revelatory performances? No. I thought each of them exceeded my expectations, even if I still am cool on DeHaan. I didn’t hate him in the film. So, there’s that.

What did you guys think of the supporting performances and offbeat casting? I thought that Clive Owen was good as the film’s heavy. I’ve missed seeing that guy on screen. And then casting Herbie Hancock as the Defense Minister and Rutger Hauer as the President? I love that Besson puts these actors in these little roles, like “Tiny” Lister as the President in The Fifth Element. And both Ethan Hawke and Rihanna have fun with their goofy roles as a space pimp and a shape-shifting stripper, respectively.

Aren: Ethan Hawke is having a blast in his small part and it’s always fun to see him pop up in big films like this. Rihanna is having fun, but she’s not used to acting yet. Perhaps a few more roles will make her more seamless, but she’s great in the performance section and she clearly knows the tone of the material.

You mention Clive Owen, who is old-school devious as the villain. I couldn’t help thinking about Clive Owen’s career the moment he appeared on screen—how 10 years ago, he might’ve been cast as the lead here, but now, he has to be the older villain. Turning down Bond was a disastrous decision for him. It killed his career. But he’s still a capable performer. He hams it up, which is what the part needs.

Besson’s Action Filmmaking

Anton: Besson has a reputation for being Europe’s leading action filmmaker. He’s made some highly-praised action landmarks, such as Léon: The Professional (which has amazingly been among the top-rated films on IMDb as long as I’ve been using the site, so roughly two decades) and he’s also produced a ton of Euro-action flicks.

Aren: I think we forget how important Besson is an a producer. He has directed a few movies in recent years, but his directorial output does not match his producing output. He cofounded EuropaCorp in 2000 and has been responsible for the dozens of European action flicks that became popular in North America in the last decade—everything from the Transporter and Taken films to the apex of Eurotrash action, Space Jail (technically known as Lockout). In many ways, as a producer, he’s kind of France-of-the-aughts’ answer to Joel Silver.

Anton: Interestingly, most of these films are English-language, showing how Besson is making Euro-action for an international market.

Aren: It’s true. He understands how the new mode of filmmaking works in the international market. However, as a director he’s not as generic as the films he produces. He is no Louis Leterrier or Olivier Megaton. Of course, his unabashed enjoyment of B-movie antics is evident in all of his work—and it’s what makes his bizarre 2011 biopic of Aung San Suu Kyi so fascinating. (I had completely forgotten that that movie existed, or that I had seen it, until looking at Besson’s Wikipedia page. It’s not a bad film, nor is it very good. However, the tonal discrepancy between Besson’s style and the subject matter makes it an intriguing biopic, not at all like most films of the genre.)

Suffice to say, Besson is an idiosyncratic director, and Valerian lets him bear out many of his craziest of impulses. He loves broad humour that borders on cartoonish, as if he grew up watching Looney Tunes. He loves traditional storytelling arcs, so his films are structurally very ordinary, but what he does with those arcs is go gonzo with the details. The subplots and side conflicts will always be bizarre—here, we have a subplot involving Laureline having to find a jellyfish that’ll draw up old memories by feeding on her brain. It’s a typical component of a quest plot for a heroine to find a side item to aid her, but it’s not usually this bizarre.

Anton: It also shows that Besson is very interested in archetypal storytelling and the hero’s journey.

Aren: And as for the action itself, it’s coherently shot and exciting, with some real inventiveness thrown in to make it that much more special. For instance, the gunfight on Big Market, with only Valerian’s hand and gun appearing in the other dimension, is brilliant. It takes a novel concept for an action scene and runs with it. Like with The Fifth Element, Besson knows how to make sci-fi action fun.

Anton:The Fifth Element is a near-classic these days. I would say that most anyone who’s seen it will agree that it’s terrific fun.

Anders: Yes, The Fifth Element remains a stupendously fun science-fiction romp. It’s one of my go to, feel-good films. The cast goes all-in on the bonkers elements and Besson is free to engage in his most out there thematic and stylistic predilections: funny hats, dancing, whiplash tonal shifts, etc. Though I will note that one thing I appreciated about the casting of Valerian and Laureline as equals, in age and skill, is that it gets rid of Besson’s uncomfortable interest in young, deadly female ingénues and world-weary older men (see The Fifth Element, Léon: The Professional, Nikita, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc).

In fact, I would argue that Valerian gives Besson a structure upon which to hang his interests. It allows him to go wild, but grounds the film at the same time.

Building the World of the City of a Thousand Planets

Anders: Where Valerian shines most brightly is in the world that it creates. Alpha, the titular “City of a Thousand Planets” is fantastic. I love the opening sequences, scored to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” of how it grows out of the present day International Space Station. Alpha is vast and offers a perfect playground mash-up of alien species and environments in one space. I also loved the ideas like an interdimensional market. What a great idea that lends itself to both some great high-concept visuals and sight gags.  

Valerian may have cost almost $200 million USD, but it’s all up there on the screen. It looks fantastic, with some of the best visual effects I’ve seen in ages. The 3D is also effective and never annoying or intrusive.

The closest films I can think of that attempt world-building on this scale are the Star Wars prequels. And coming from us, you know that’s a big compliment.

Anton: I loved those three bird-like informants, and the fact that there’s a sea on the space station.

Aren: The bird-like guys you mentioned, the Doghan Daguis, reminded me of gargoyles. I feel like I could spend multiple paragraphs rattling off world-building components that I loved. Simply, this film struck me as being like Golden Age sci-fi. It reminded me much more of Ray Bradbury or Robert A. Heinlein than the stuff that passes for sci-fi nowadays. I’d say that for recent sci-fi not including the prequels, Avatar and John Carter are the only films to be as colourful and innovative in worldbuilding. And like those films, the alien species are utterly convincing. The motion-capture animation of the Pearls is as good as the Na’vi or Tharks. However, worldbuilding is not always enough to make a film good. Jupiter Ascending went all-in on weird cosmology and it’s one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. So doing something special with an incredible world, as Besson does here, is essential.

I don’t want to run on about how much I enjoyed the worldbuilding here, but I do want to mention how funny the Boulan-Bathor are. That whole sequence of Laureline getting dressed up so their king can eat her is hilarious. It’s also the type of sequence, both in terms of imagination and humour, that you wouldn’t find in a normal Hollywood blockbuster.

Anders: Oh, man, the Boulan-Bathor are great! The visual effects really shine in that sequence, as their facial expressions are just hilarious. They manage to communicate visually so much goofy energy.

For any of its perceived rough patches in terms of cast or story, Valerian was a breath of fresh air this summer. Its Euro-pedigree made it different enough to stand out, and it’s world-building was substantial enough to feel engrossing and involving. It was just the film I needed to watch where I could just immerse myself and leave this world, with nuclear war and racial tensions weighing on us, for a few hours. But it’s also a deeply humanist film that ultimately champions human ingenuity and love as the answers to our problems. It ends not with a huge explosion or big beam of blue light, but characters making choices that affirm their best impulses in a world big enough to entertain those choices. For me, that’s what pulp science fiction at its best does.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017, France)

Directed by Luc Besson; written by Luc Besson, based on Valerian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres; starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Elizabeth Debicki, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer.