When even most of the good spectacles carry a strong whiff of prepackaging, try taking in the air of Luc Besson’s sci-fi extravaganza “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.”
Its atmosphere — vibrant in color, elastic in form — takes some acclimating to after such a barrage of more sanitized summer movies. Watching “Valerian” is to simultaneously and acutely realize what’s missing from so many other big films (visual inventiveness, freewheeling unpredictability) and appreciate what the more controlled studio project does so much better (precision pacing, half-decent writing).
Had “Valerian” — a lifelong passion project for the French filmmaker that’s been called the most expensive indie film ever made — been produced in the studio system, it would have been better. But also worse.
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” adapted by Besson from Pierre Christin and Jen Claude Mezieres’ comic book series, is just your average Dane DeHaan movie with extraterrestrial ducks, a dancing Rihanna and a prominent cameo from Herbie Hancock — on hand, presumably, to channel the cosmic spirit of his album covers.
This one slides in somewhere on the spectrum of rococo science fictions like the Wachowskis’ “Jupiter Ascending” or James Gunn’s more recent “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” These are worlds populated by a lavish and somewhat harmonious diversity of life form. In the opening montage of “Valerian” (its best sequence), the commander of the sprawling space station Alpha welcomes over time a steady stream of every nationality of Earth and then alien species, too, greeting each with a handshake.
Eventually the station grows so large that it’s jettisoned into space. This wild, spinning metropolis of alien cultures on a metal sphere looks like a movie paradise. It’s a pity, then, that instead of some exotic protagonist we’re saddled with the altogether uninteresting Valerian (DeHaan), a brash special agent hotshot. DeHaan also starred earlier this year in Gore Verbinksi’s “Cure for Wellness” (one of the year’s other ravishing but questionably quixotic auteur-driven jumbles) and he has a definite presence: intelligently smarmy with a voice that I suspect even Keanu Reeves would find dubiously low.
He’s teamed with Laureline (Cara Delevingne) and their investigation soon has them digging into a tangled-up past, where suspicions of a covered-up genocide appear to implicate a military commander (Clive Owen). More words could be spent on the plot or the developing relationship between Valerian and Laureline but there’s little reason to. Their chemistry is nonexistent, the dialogue is cringe worthy and the story is clunky. The dark secret ultimately leads to a beach planet inhabited by what appears to be a pale, slender civilization of high cheek-boned runway models whose natural resources are magic, life-giving pearls that are pooped out by scaly little genial creatures. You know. That old game.
But the images are frequently extraordinary. There are popsicle-colored clouds of blue and red, glowing butterflies and teaming extraterrestrial creations. An immense bazaar exists invisibly on an arid planet, but when visitors put on a headset, they’re transported into a huge marketplace. From the outside, it just looks like lost virtual-reality users wandering the desert.
Besson has been to space before. “The Fifth Element” had many of the same elements — a madcap melding of species, a big musical moment, a feast of color — but it was better organized and had the benefit of Bruce Willis in the lead. Yet “Valerian” is another level entirely in terms of visual splendor. I kept thinking: This movie would be fantastic on mute.
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” an STX Entertainment release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language.” Running time: 137 minutes. Two stars out of four.
“I’m Valerian and she’s Laureline,” Luc Besson says with a smile, and gesturing to his producer and wife Virginie Besson-Silla. “She’s the clever one.”
Valerian and Laureline are the lead characters of Besson’s sci-fi epic, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” which hits theaters Friday. They’re names that most American audiences don’t know, even though the French comic about two 28th century intergalactic cops that it’s based on, “Valerian and Laureline,” has been in existence for 60 years and influenced “Star Wars.”
The filmmakers are seated in their shared office inside the Beverly Hills outpost of Besson’s company EuropaCorp about a month before the “Valerian’s” stateside debut. He’s behind a massive rectangular wooden desk and she’s across the table from him.
Besson-Silla has a desk too. It’s off to the side, round, and much, much smaller.
“I prefer a round table! Everyone thinks it wasn’t my choice,” Besson-Silla says.
“She could have had a bigger one,” he adds, seemingly still befuddled by it.
It’s almost another metaphor for their relationship — Besson as the larger-than-life public-facing personality who makes big statements and even bigger movies, and Besson-Silla as the one who orchestrates things in her own way just slightly out of the spotlight. She looks at her husband with bemusement, chiming in occasionally — often when he turns to her looking for the right English word.
They were colleagues before they were anything else. Now they have three children, ages 15, 14 and 11, and have found they actually enjoy being partners at the office and home.
“We were not stupid. There is a risk. We took our time and then very consciously we said, ‘Let’s try on one to see if it works,’” Besson says. “Actually it works 10 times better than I expected.”
“Valerian” is by far the biggest film they’ve ever done — estimated to have a $180 million price tag. Both are coming off the success of “Lucy” and the decades of goodwill Besson has built up in wild-eyed, crowd pleasing genre fare like “La Femme Nikita,” “The Professional” and “The Fifth Element.”
He says “Valerian” is the movie of his life.
Though he was a lifetime fan of the series, it wasn’t until he was working on “The Fifth Element” with “Valerian” illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières that he even considered taking it on.
“He’s the one who said, ‘Why don’t you do Valerian?’ I never thought of it before,” Besson says.
Besson wouldn’t acquire the rights for another 10 years. It wasn’t until he visited James Cameron on the set of “Avatar” that he realized a film adaptation of “Valerian and Laureline” was even possible, technologically speaking.
And they’ve taken their time with it. Besson did a large number of character and world sketches himself. He created a bible with five-page descriptions of all the creatures. Both secured a historic collaboration between the two visual effects giants WETA and ILM to do the 2,700 VFX shots (“The Fifth Element” had around 200). And he found his perfect leads in two burgeoning stars: Cara Delevingne for Laureline and Dane DeHaan for Valerian.
“I definitely don’t want Schwarzenegger to play the part. I want someone human,” Besson says of DeHaan.
They shot the film in France on soundstages that Besson helped design.
“We’re very proud to be able to bring such a big production to the country and to bring work to hundreds of people. There’s a real pride in that,” says Besson-Silla. “And we have amazing facilities.”
They finished shooting three days early, too which Besson says is, “Never heard of on this kind of film.”
As far as the money goes, Besson isn’t concerned. With international sales, he says the film is 90 percent covered.
“The risk is more psychological than the money. The risk is if we fail than you lose your reputation,” Besson says. “The money risk is almost zero.”
“People trust us, you know? We don’t want to let them down,” says Besson-Silla.
They have done it their own way from beginning to end, including giving the VFX artists freedom to experiment and going with a smaller North American distributor in STX Entertainment, whose biggest hit thus far has been the mid-budget comedy “Bad Moms.”
“Some of the studios were very interested by ‘Valerian’ but we were fearing that they were interested in controlling it — to let their big films first and treat ‘Valerian’ in a way like controlling the enemy. We feel better in the position of the opponent,” Besson says, drawing on the advice of Peter Jackson, who chose New Line to distribute the “Lord of the Rings” films.
He’s also a realist about possibilities and the fickleness of the market. “Valerian” will launch against the World War II actioner “Dunkirk” and the comedy “Girls Trip.”
“If there’s a film a few weeks before us that is huge and everyone loves it, you don’t exist. If you come after a desert of two months, then you’re the savior. There are so many parameters. The good thing that we smell a little bit is there is a lassitude… lassitude?” Besson says.
Besson-Silla jumps in: “People are a little bored with sequels.”
“There are so many sequels,” continues Besson. “People are little tired of so many superheroes. At least we’re fresh!”
Long before he was the auteur behind some of the most spectacular, extravagant action movies ever made, Besson was a young boy in love with a comic book character.
He first encountered Laureline, the heroine played by Cara Delevingne in his forthcoming sci-fi spectacular “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” when he was 10 and living some 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Paris.
Bored by the tedium of the bucolic life, he would look forward to pilgrimages to his local store, where in 1969 he happened upon the “Valerian and Laureline” comic strip in a publication called “Pilote.”
“It was at the time when there was no internet, one TV channel in black and white, and my stepfather didn’t have music at home. So life was pretty cold,” the French filmmaker, 58, told AFP.
“There wasn’t much going on, not much possibility to escape, and then suddenly… I remember the first few pages in ‘Pilote.’ It was a comic book and suddenly you have a couple traveling in space and time and fighting aliens.”
One of the first things he noticed, he told AFP in a recent interview in a Beverly Hills hotel, was an independence of spirit in Laureline that he had not encountered before.
It was an image of femininity which was to stay with Besson, informing countless movies in which he featured lethal female protagonists — sisters doing it for themselves, who didn’t need men to show them how to hold a gun.
Besson started out in the 1980s with French-language action movies influenced by Hollywood before international success came with “The Big Blue,” then “Nikita,” about a female assassin, and “Leon: The Professional,” about a young girl who becomes the protegee of a contract killer.
Since those days, he has directed a string of movies that have earned mixed reviews, but he has been making big bucks with his motion picture house EuropaCorp as producer of high-octane series “The Transporter” and “Taken.”
If Laureline was his first love, the father-of-five did not let the grass grow beneath his feet, going on to marry four times, including a brief union with Milla Jovovich, his star in dystopian cult classic “The Fifth Element” (1997).
Besson has developed a knack over the years for uncovering female talent, whether introducing Jovovich or extracting Natalie Portman’s breathtaking debut performance in “Leon” (1994) when she was just 13.
“In the 1970s and 80s, the movies were totally on the men’s side and it’s not fair… The girl is in the back crying, ‘When are you coming back?’” Besson told a news conference for “Valerian” before his interview with AFP.
“That’s not my vision of the relationship between men and women. Maybe I was raised a certain way that I was lucky enough to see that they are both very strong.”
Besson was known early in his career as a pioneer of the French “cinema du look,” which was said to favor style over narrative, but to claim that he doesn’t care about substance would be to sell him short.
While at heart an effects-laden action movie set in outer space, “Valerian” explores weighty but earthly concerns like climate change, diversity and the difficulties of life as an immigrant.
It was filmed in Paris last year against a background of political change in Europe and the United States, with the center increasingly at threat from populists on the fringes.
Besson is reluctant to talk about domestic politics, but is happy to describe “Valerian” as an allegory for the overweening power of Big Business.
The bad guys in his movie, he contends, could just as easily be real-life executives from scandal-hit Volkswagen, which admitted in 2015 that some 11 million of its diesel cars were fitted with “defeat devices” used to cheat on emissions tests.
“These big, huge companies like Volkswagen — they cheat millions of people by saying ‘Our cars are clean.’ They cheat, and they go away and they don’t want to pay,” he bristled.
But while Besson wants his films to have gravitas — to avoid just being “like a cheeseburger” — he warns against filmmakers being too po-faced about their art.
“I love to talk about all these things — about ecology, immigration — with a little smile and having fun at the same time,” he says.
“Because I think at the end of the day, you watch the film and you say, ‘We had fun, it was incredible’ — but something is left.” (Agencies)
By Jake Coyle