One of the biggest flops at the American box office this summer may have itself a happy ending after all. Despite US receipts of $40 million against a reported budget of $177 million, the nearly forgotten sci-fi hodgepodge Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is now finding more receptive audiences overseas, where their audiences apparently have different popcorn-flick standards from ours. Or maybe their trailers were cooler. Or maybe their voices were dubbed into other languages by superior actors. Maybe you haven’t really seen director Luc Besson’s eye-popping fiasco unless you’ve watched it in Cantonese bombastically recited by Hong Kong’s greatest Shakespearean thespians.
Short version for the unfamiliar: The movie is based on a French comic series called Valerian and Laureline, which maybe has ten or fifteen fans in America. This adaptation doesn’t recount whatever sins Laureline committed to find herself demoted off the marquee.
Anyway: our bickering heroes Valerian and Laureline, as played by Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) and Cara Delevigne (Paper Towns) as a wooden junior-high take on The Thin Man, are space cops called into action when evildoers destroy an entire planet and a peaceful all-CG civilization to obtain the grandest MacGuffin of them all: a space hamster that poops magic space marbles.
I’ll pause here so you can give me weird looks. I understand. You read that sentence correctly and are not having a stroke. I promise there were no typos in the phrase “a space hamster that poops magic space marbles.” The marbles may have been money, an infinite energy source, an awesome drug, or a million-dollar Chopped basket ingredient. But the fact remains that the point of this two-hour style exercise was a space hamster that poops magic space marbles.
And to fetch the space hamster that poops magic space marbles, apparently an animal of intense interest to Asian audiences who won’t stop forking over money to watch a space hamster that poops magic space marbles, Our Heroes must brave a convoluted journey to a super-sized space construct (not unlike the 400-mile spaceship from the Doctor Who season 10 finale) whose interior environments vary from one segment to the next, like a megalithic Snowpiercer but making even less sense and containing 100% less Chris Evans. Because no agent in the world could possibly have convinced Captain America to sign on for a film in which he chases after a space hamster that poops magic space marbles, even if someone could prove it was from Brooklyn.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The ultimate adversary behind the plot to kidnap a space hamster that poops magic space marbles is former Academy Award Nominee Clive Owen, glowering and barking as a military caricature. Rutger Hauer has less than five seconds of screen time as the Space President of Humankind. Buried under layers of CG is Grammy-winning jazz artist Herbie Hancock, sadly known to my generation as the “Rockit” guy from ‘80s one-hit wonder lists, as the official who passes marching orders on to Our Heroes. John Goodman is extremely easy to pick out as an alien who looks like the cousin of Simon Pegg’s The Force Awakens alien, and has virtually the same job and screen time.
And in case you weren’t already dazzled enough by the space hamster that poops magic space marbles, things truly get out of hand when Ethan Hawke (!) shows up as a glam space cowboy who pulls Valerian‘s emergency brake and introduces the movie’s halftime show starring Rihanna. Yes, the Rihanna. And once she begins her extended pole dance, for the next fifteen minutes Dane DeHaan’s only job in the universe is to tell Rihanna and the audience how super awesome she is. It’s possible she might just be more mind-blowing than the space hamster that poops magic space marbles, but perhaps we should leave that to their agents to decide for us and then tell us our opinions.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Besson’s best sci-fi spectacle to date, 1997’s The Fifth Element, at least had the saccharine yet inarguable moral of the story that True Love Is Really Cool. Valerian by contrast is Besson’s idea of pure high adventure, zipping from set piece to set piece like a steel roller-coaster moving so quickly that everything around you turns into flashy colors and inscrutable speed lines. You’re not meant to plumb it for depth; you’re only expected to sit back and let the sensation of velocity overtake you and shut down your cognitive abilities for a while. Exquisitely crafted imagery can liven up the monotony of such prolonged analytical deprivation, but that doesn’t make it deep.
One (1) set piece nearly succeeds in its attempt to do something never before seen on screens. After they first report for duty, step one in Vallie and Laurie’s mission involves retrieval from a planet where two dimensions coexist in the same space, much like DC Comics’ Earth-1 and Earth-2. Val has a device that lets him shift instantly from one dimension to the other and back again, depending on which one gets him closer from Point A to B and around each obstacle in both versions of the path. Naturally things go sideways and the resulting gunfight, parts of it visible to its combatants only if they’re in the right dimension at the right time, is conceptually fun and visually dizzying in a good way. But it’s early in the film and raises the bar too high for the later, duller shootouts.
Nitpicking? It’s barely a spoiler to mention that Our Heroes are shocked when they realize the true culprit was within their own government. Frankly, I’m bored with “the government did it!” as a resolution, a new cliché to replace “the butler did it!” from previous generations. I realize Hollywood finds this the perfect year for making politicians and military leaders their go-to bad guys. If I want to soak in that trope, I can just go spend ten minutes scrolling Twitter for free.
At the heart of my discontent is sheer disdain for our leading couple, alternating between stoic dedication to the mission and their nominal pretense of romantic tension. Their stiff banter produces nil in the chemistry department, any faint glimmers of Nick and Nora Charles nullified by Delevingne’s glowering disdain for DeHaan’s attempts to feign ’80s-action-hero machismo. Every exchange between them is perfunctory, made all the more noticeable when Rihanna shows up and DeHaan demonstrates he really can go ga-ga when he’s motivated enough by true love or at least by strict orders from Rihanna’s management. The cinematic contraption surrounding their black hole of a relationship is just a disconnected series of chase scenes through assorted exotic terrains painted in all the colors of the rainbow.
So what’s to like? The art of Valerian‘s visual effects might make a spiffy coffee-table book, but after so many disaffected jumps in a row through places that had no sense of scale and totally didn’t matter, I was reminded less of Snowpiercer and more of that sequence in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure when Pee-Wee recovers his precious bicycle and goes on a madcap romp through multiple Hollywood sets while the police drag hapless water-skiers and Godzilla behind them. That was good movie chasing.
And all of this was accomplished in the name of saving the life of a space hamster that poops magic space marbles. Plus, I guess, avenging the incidental murder of billions of indigenous CG space Hawaiians who were harboring the space hamster that poops magic space marbles. But it’s probably not much of a deal-breaking spoiler to confirm that Our Heroes do indeed save the day in a fashion and they get engaged, so all that senseless slaughter wasn’t completely without its side benefits.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets end credits. If they contained anything of note, I couldn’t tell you because I sat through them in a stupor, questioning my life choices and wondering to myself why the studio’s marketing department didn’t fill toy aisles with fluffy, stuffed space hamsters that make realistic magic-space-marble-pooping noises. See, you can’t actually sell a stuffed space hamster filled with real marbles or even replica marbles because those would be choking hazards for kids under 3. I don’t know how things are in Besson’s native France or over in Asia, but American civilization has devolved to the point where children today don’t realize at an early age that magic space marble poop is not food and is in fact absolutely impossible to swallow.