Full disclosure: I love Le Cinquième Elément. So much so that I snobbishly insist on referring to the 1997 blockbuster by its original title – as intended by French director Luc Besson – as opposed to commonly-used ‘The Fifth Element’. Besson gave us a heartfelt, heroically silly and downright visionary sci-fi masterpiece that holds up remarkably well. So, the thought of another super-sized behemoth and spiritual successor to his camp classic after two decades was sweet music to my ears, but sadly, some birthdays clearly shouldn’t be celebrated.
Based on the graphic novel Valérian and Laureline, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets stars Dane De Haan and Cara Delevigne as peace-keeping agents travelling through space, encountering alien life forms and 28th century rapscallions. Not that that matters, as the only thing you need to know about this effects-heavy extravaganza is Besson’s elevator pitch, which probably went something along the lines of: “I’ll make an operatically huge mash-up of Star Wars and Avatar, with Rihanna randomly cameoing to show some flesh as an exotic dancer and enough world-building to make Marvel Studios blush. Oh, and I’ll sink incontinent amounts of cash into the project, so audiences will go see it simply to witness what an independently financed $200 million movie looks like (Valerian is reportedly the most expensive European production of its kind thus far).”
Tempting though that may sound, especially considering the filmmaker’s previous levels of creativity, Valerian is an ambitious but resounding failure, unworthy to sit next to Le Cinquième Elément’s gleefully self-aware antics. By essentially flinging everything his budget could buy at the screen, Besson clearly hoped his retina-assaulting CGI posturing and a primary-coloured palette would distract from his convoluted screenplay, which boasts Jupiter Ascending-levels of narrative ineptitude and howlingly bad dialogue. The visuals, grandiose though they may be, soon become distractingly hyperactive, leaving audiences feeling uninvolved and unable to enjoy any of the overstuffed tableaus. As for the players, De Haan is wildly miscast, trading in Han Solo-like swagger for the constipated look of a petulant sex-pest. His performance misses the mark so much he ensures that his fashion model co-star feels like a serious thespian, in a surprisingly competent bit of stunt casting.
Many will be blinded by Besson’s commitment to visual spectacle and will cling on to the vain idea that this film is a bold and misunderstood gem fated to become a cult classic. Fans of Avatar, laughable exposition dumps and episodic videogame plotting will try to make it so; others will see straight through the Frenchman’s muddled and exhausting tactics, and will find Valerian more annoying than enthralling. A few inventive flourishes and a faultless opening sequence aside, the ride just isn’t worth your time. You’d do better to dig out your Multipass, head back to Fhloston Paradise and say adieu to this intergalactic merde.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets | Directed by Luc Besson (FR, USA, 2017) with Dane De Haan, Cara Delevigne, Clive Owen. Starts July 20.