Box Officer Failures Week: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

One day when I was shopping at Walmart, my wife noticed a Valerian t-shirt. She said, “I have no idea what this is, put it looks like something you’ll be into.” I was already primed for this movie, which came and went in no time at all. I’m glad I bought that shirt — I’m wearing it now and it’s inordinately soft and comfortable, thanks for asking — but I’m not so sure about the movie itself.

This was written and directed by Luc Besson, who famously brought the world The Fifth Element, La Femme Nikita and Léon: The Professional and perhaps not so famously The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, a movie that this resembles not only because it is based on a comic book that few Americans know, but because it so deliriously cares so little about not making any sense whatsoever.

Valerian has been a comic book that ran in France from 1967 to 2010. One of its artists, Jean-Claude Mézières, worked with Besson on The Fifth Element and asked him. “Why are you doing this shitty film? Why you don’t do Valerian?”

It would take years for the technology to catch up to the point where all the many races of the comic could be depicted on the big screen. Besson was worried about the challenge, continually rewriting his script, which follows much of the sixth volume of the series, Ambassador of the Shadows.

The beginning of the film sets you up for magic, as it details how the International Space Station grew to meet more alien races and how the human race changed to adapt, with Rutger Hauer acting as the face of humanity. It’s totally awesome and packed with imagination and probably the last part of the movie that isn’t non-stop action.

Now that space station is called Alpha and its explored by the United Human Federation. Two of the best agents are Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline. This movie is about their adventures to save the alternate planet Müi after Valerian gets a telepathic message from the now-deceased Princess Lihö-Minaa.

What follows is a delirious odyssey, dealing with the deceptive Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen), meeting a shapeshifting entertainer named Bubble (Rhianna) and getting to the bottom of the end of planet Müi.

I want to love this movie — I mean Herbie Hancock plays a military leader and John Goodman is the voice of a gangster alien — but man, it’s all over the place. It’s confusing enough figuring out where you are in the movie when suddenly people are in more than one place at the same time and it’s playing tricks of people appearing and disappearing, as well as alternate worlds and duplicitous leaders. It’s as if you’re suddenly dropped into a sequel of a franchise you’ve never watched before — because that’s exactly what is happening.

This would work if everyone knew the story of Valerian, but nope. They don’t.

Besson is still holding out hope for a sequel, despite this movie costing $400 million and only making $225 million back. That’s the perils of big time moviemaking.

But man — I don’t hate it, the more I think about it. It’s audacious, with two hundred different alien species appearing and so many major set pieces that it took seven soundstages to film it all. Besson is a maniac — he wrote a detailed six hundred-page about the aliens and the worlds they’d be filming that the actors had to read before they appeared in the movie.

My biggest problem with the movie is Valerian himself. Dane DeHaan seems to be channeling Keanu Reeves and not in a good way. He comes off as perhaps the most unlikeable character and you never get any true sense why Laureline would have any interest in him whatsoever.

Despite the change in hair color from red to blonde, I have fewer qualms about Cara Delevingne’s acting. You may remember her as The Enchantress from Suicide Squad. She’s also in Her Smell and Paper Towns.

There’s also a Jessica Rabbit cameo, played by Sand Van Roy, an actress who has accused Besson of sexual assault. Delevingne has also discussed how Harvey Weinstein tried the same with her.

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