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Valerian and the Movie of a Thousand Problems

          Luc Bisson is a fascinating director to say the least. One who’s dipped his toe into multiple genres and made a wide array of films from Nikita and Leon: The Professional to Lucy and the Arthur and the Invisibles series of animated movies. One of his most popular films is the 1997 cult classic sci-fi movie The Fifth Element, which though it has some bad writing and plotting, is a thoroughly original story with memorable characters. The same can’t be said for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, based on a classic series of sci-fi comics in France, and which no doubt hearkens back to Bisson’s twenty year old film in its layout and weirdness.
          Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne) are a couple agents of a galactic government police force who obtain a mysterious pearl connected to a believed-to-be extinguished race. Once they take it to Alpha, the titular city of a thousand planets, they learn it’s far more significant and there’s a lot going on that they hadn’t anticipated.
          This story feels incredibly pulpy, in that the comics it’s based on must be inspired by early science-fiction writing. It definitely feels like something Edgar Rice Burroughs would have come up with. Unfortunately that also makes it reminiscent of Disney’s disastrous John Carter. The plot of this movie is way too convoluted and not well conveyed. Though any movie that begins with a montage set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” will gain your interest, it’s entirely lost very soon. The story is often hard to keep up with and it doesn’t even feel like Bisson’s all the invested, rather he feels more obliged to show us various aliens and technologies through detours that amount to very little. And these alien designs and technological inventions are creative but are also really lazy. As cool as it sometimes may be to see what a certain tool does, the rules aren’t explained so they just come off as deus ex machinas for given situations. For example, it’s really convenient that Valerian just happens to have a device on him that can tear away at a specific substance he briefly becomes cocooned in. Yet this movie both explains too much and not enough. The exposition is handled pretty poorly or else it’s with relation to something we don’t care about. The writing can get pretty horrendous too with few of the characters being believable or even likeable. 
          Cara Delevinge was one of the least compelling parts of Suicide Squad, and this movie does her no more favours, as she’s stale as can be. Dane DeHaan fares little better, and neither is able to quite overcome the heavy dialogue and concepts of the film they’re in. And their relationship is incredibly irritating too. He has the hots for her and she frequently turns him down making for interactions and comedic banter that might as well be from an episode of Mad About You rather than what’s supposed to be a space opera. Also, why is the movie named for Valerian when he and Laureline have equal screen-time, save the day together, and are from a comic series called Valerian and Laureline? It’s as unfair to Laureline as Delevigne’s performance. But nobody really comes out of this movie well. Talents like Clive Owen and Ethan Hawke are wasted (Hawke at the very least tries to give a performance). Sam Spruell and Amelie’s Mathieu Kassovitz sadly have to add this to their resumes, and Rutger Hauer appears for a minute. It’s sad when one of the best parts of the movie might actually be Rihanna, purely for her character being a decent effect.
          The film opens on an extensive sequence detailing the daily life of a race of aliens who are so poorly composed it looks like an animated movie. The uncanny valley is disconcerting, and on top of that, they remind me too much of the aliens from Avatar, in more than just their physicality as the film goes on. The effects all around don’t look real, with the occasional exception, such as a Jabba the Hutt rip-off voiced by John Goodman (who wisely went uncredited with Elizabeth Debicki). But generally the world’s hard to believe in. I like that the aliens have something of the practical design of the creatures in The Fifth Element, but why didn’t Bisson just make them practical again? And a number of the aliens are really annoying as well. 
          Say what you will about The Fifth Element, some of its story problems and last minute anti-war theme, but it had charm, effective visuals, and really likeable, entertaining characters. Valerian has none of these. There are ideas and characters here that have promise, but the whole films plays with them awkwardly; and at the end of two and a quarter hours you leave the theatre having gained nothing. 
          This is a great time for movies. Dunkirk, The Big Sick, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Baby Driver are all still playing, so don’t waste your money on this.

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