Awesome name right, flippin’ awesome. This attractively titled movie is based on the French comicbook series Valérian and Laureline. I’ve never heard of this comicbook series but apparently its one of the biggest Franco-Belgian titles around. There is also an animated series of this comic too, who’d of thought it.
I really liked the basic setup for this movie. Via flashbacks in the opening credits we are told the story of the International Space Station (ISS). It starts off historically accurate showcasing the station being placed into Earth’s orbit, and then slowly over the years sections being added and different countries joining the crew. But as we progress further into the future things obviously become more fictional with the station growing larger and larger and eventually alien creatures greeting humans on-board in diplomatic, historical events. It gets to a point where ISS is so big it becomes a danger to Earth, so its moved off into deep space and renamed ‘Alpha’. And thus we have the massive space city of a thousand planets (referring to all the alien species that live within the city).
This one concept is fantastic, love it. The rest of the films plot not so much. Essentially what we have is yet another Avatar-esque story surrounding a primitive race of aliens that have their home planet unceremoniously wiped out by nasty humans. It wasn’t an intentional act mind you but whatever. These aliens infiltrate the massive Alpha city to assimilate human knowledge in order to build a new ship that can recreate their home world (I didn’t understand this part). This also involved finding a couple mcguffins and some kidnapping hijinks, which in turn brings in our human protagonists, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) to solve the case.
Right lets look at the best part of this movie, in fact its the only good thing in this movie. So Valerian and Laureline have been tasked with finding the ‘Mül converter’, a creature that can clone anything it eats, and it can apparently eat anything? This meant going to a vast open desert which is the location of an extra-dimensional market place, and tourist attraction. Within the extra-dimensional marketplace they must infiltrate an alien gangsters lair to steal said converter.
So basically what this means is, somewhere else in the universe (and in another dimension) there is this huge Tatooine-esque town and market. But the only way to reach or visit it is via special attire that allows the user to cross space and time in an instant. The user is basically a projected hologram in the distant extra-dimensional market place; whilst back in the desert the user walks around almost like they’re using a virtual reality headset.
At the same time Valerian is able to use smaller versions of this technology in the form of a simple cube device. This allows him to simply put his hand into the cube which contains a portal of sorts. So on one side of the cube his hand is in the extra-dimensional market place, like a dismembered floating hand; whilst the rest of him is still in the desert in relative safety. It all sounds quite complex and its hard to explain in writing, but trust me its a fantastic bit of futuristic visual fantasy.
In short what we get for the first half of this movie (after a rather soppy beginning involving the primitive alien race) is a superb slice of science fiction that encapsulates amazing imagination, mind boggling futuristic technology, wonderfully designed alien beings, an atmospheric setting, and a thrilling rollercoaster of a ride. Admittedly its not all perfectly original as we’ve all seen sandy alien marketplaces before…ahem, but that’s being picky.
But here lies the problem with this movie. After this mesmerising sequence of innovative action the entire movie literally falls to pieces, its crumbles under its own weight. For a start it won’t have escaped your attention that the two protagonists are utterly terrible and miscast. Both DeHaan and Delevingne come across like emotionless robots with glazed over eyes. The duo don’t gel together romantically or when the action kicks in. Its actually quite remarkable really, both come across like CGI characters devoid of any real human characteristics, its like they were both grown in a lab by Hollywood. DeHaan looks like a younger DiCaprio but with none of the talent; whilst Delevingne has one default facial expression she obviously learnt from her fashion modelling days.
These main character issues obviously affect other parts of the movie. Naturally you as the viewer don’t care about either of them; you know neither will die anyway but you couldn’t care a less because they’re so robotic. When we are first introduced to both Valerian and Laureline, Valerian proposes to Laureline, but she says no. This is supposed to make us feel emotion for Valerian, but because they are both so zombie-like in performance and we know nothing about them, its falls completely flat. In the fantastic marketplace action sequence the duo actually infiltrate said marketplace with a team of other elite police officers. All these guys get killed…but who cares? Well clearly Valerian and Laureline don’t, just another day at the office.
On space station Alpha during an important summit meeting to discuss the mysterious toxic zone at the centre of the station, the primitive aliens break in and kidnap Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen). This really made no sense because we are led to believe that technology is so advanced in this age that the sheer notion of anyone being able to sneak into an important area in the station and actually take out all the security…would be nigh on impossible. Yet the so called primitive race manage just this and kidnap the commander. They also managed to land their craft nearby, and no one detected this? The fact these primitive aliens also seem to be so very environmentally friendly, passive and perfect makes this political move even more unbelievable really. We’re talking about half naked aliens covered in seashell jewellery here people.
This leads to a large chase sequence where Valerian suits up in some other super hi-tech suit thing which enables him to smash through any and all walls. This gives us a brilliant sequence showcasing all the various environments within Alpha. Problem is these different environments include underwater sections and areas which are clearly finely balanced for their alien inhabitants. But none of that matters because Valerian smashes through walls, seemingly obliterating balanced environments yet not causing any major catastrophes such as huge leaks from the underwater areas.
Things go from bad to worse as we are introduced to the three exposition aliens that try to simplify the plot for us when things get too ridiculous. There’s an entire underwater sequence with a Captain Nemo type character that is completely pointless. There’s the casting of Rihanna as a shapeshifting alien dancer called Bubble (pretty awful CGI effects). Much like the Captain Nemo character Bubble is also pretty pointless and could have quite easily been removed. Obviously Besson wanted Rihanna in for the star power. Speaking of wanting star power, there’s also Ethan Hawke as Bubble’s pimp, again pointless. There are jellyfish type creatures that can read your brain and show you pretty much everything that’s ever popped in there, including dreams and visions. Huge sea creatures live in sections of Alpha apparently. And there are also entire undiscovered civilisations within Alpha, that’s how big it is.
There is so much I could write about this movie both good and bad. The reason being there is so much in-depth detail and world building in this movie, its quite an achievement really. Luc Besson has outdone himself here and easily bettered his other famous sci-fi ‘The Fifth Element’ in my opinion. Although I have no idea how accurate this is to the original source material. But the one huge sticky problem is…the movie just can’t sustain itself and just collapses. It goes from being a reasonably intelligent, exciting and unique space opera into a formulaic, messy, incoherent, unoriginal snooze fest. Don’t get me wrong, the movie looks incredible with its lavish other-worldly designs and vivid aliens, but talk about an anti-climax. So kudos for nearly everything, but maybe they should have focused the movie around that first marketplace location. Really wanted to love this but in the end I can’t help but feel disappointed.