Watching the trailers for French maverick Luc Besson’s latest, the sci-fi opus Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, I was wondering where it would fall on a scale between Besson’s own funky, enjoyable Fifth Element and the lackluster and laughable Jupiter Ascending. It looked to tell a big story in a big world and with its director’s quirky visual hallmarks. It should at least be fun, I reasoned, and it is for a while. Unfortunately, Besson’s film (the most expensive European production in history) is a movie that almost needs to be seen to be believed but I wouldn’t actually advise people go see it. Perhaps a better title for this movie would have been Valerian and the City of a Thousand Better Ideas.
Based upon the comic series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, we flash forward to the twenty-eight century with agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sgt. Laureline (Cara Delevingne). Their mission is to retrieve a special alien something-or-other that will relate to a larger conspiracy involving the eradication of an alien home world.
Besson’s face-first dive into the wacky world of sci-fi will frustrate the hell out of you, chiefly because it does such an amazing job of creating a vibrant, weird, wild, and luscious world brimming with alien life only to toy with interesting subjects and then indifferently discard them. The elements are all there, it’s just that Besson doesn’t integrate them in meaningful ways, retreating back to being an overly caffeinated, erratic tour guide. My friend Ben Bailey and I came up with several different revisions that would have instantly improved the movie, and that only took us twenty minutes after leaving the theater (more on that below in full detail). Over the course of 137 self-indulgent, hyperactive yet meandering minutes of story, I am stunned at the level of ineptitude.
It’s not all bad, and in fact the first 30 minutes are some measure of good to great. The prologue is a thing of beauty and the highlight of the movie (if you walked out immediately after, when the title popped up, you would be better off). Set entirely to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” we visually chart the history of man’s habitation of space. Stock footage of 1970s space missions gives rise to the early twenty-first century construction of a working space station. The station’s captain accepts each new national group with a magnanimous handshake. Each scene is a jump forward in time, wordlessly building a stronger sense of community and the accomplishment of man’s dreams. Eventually this greeting also extends to First Contact and different alien species come aboard, and they too are given the same handshake of peace. It’s an earnest sequence that comes across as genuinely moving and uplifting. Finally, we see that the space station has, over the course of hundreds of years, collected into a massive floating home to thousands of alien species that came from far to explore and intermingle.
The next part is also wordless, following the idyllic existence of a planet of Na’vi-like lithe, blue-skinned alien natives who frolic along a beach and collect pearls. It’s another rather sincere visual sequence. This tranquil CGI world comes to a screeching halt when fiery debris begins to rain down from the atmosphere, followed by a gigantic alien spaceship that crashes and causes an extinction-level event. One of our lithe aliens is trapped behind and comes to terms with her fate. She sends out her spirit in one last radiant burst before the pyroclastic cloud engulfs everything. These two sequences engender good will with the audience and show the potential power of Besson’s transporting vision.
Shortly afterwards we get the first major set piece of the opening act, an inter-dimensional bazaar known as Big Market. In one dimension it’s just a large expanse of empty desert, but with the right gloves and glasses visitors can interact with alien vendors and shop to their hearts content. It’s a fantastic setting and Besson takes time to set up the different particulars and rules and then lets it loose. It’s exciting and imaginative and the only sequence where the character of Valerian feels in trouble or at a disadvantage. It’s a wonderfully knotty sci-fi set piece with multiple points of action interweaving into a satisfying spectacle. There’s even a fun alien crime boss voiced by John Goodman. I whispered to my friend that this was already better than Jupiter Ascending. I regrettably spoke too soon.
Everything afterwards is a cascading mess that assaults your senses and wastes your time. There isn’t a strong narrative drive to the movie, never felt more than during its protracted second act that is nothing but a series of wearisome narrative cul-de-sacs. The movie errs significantly by establishing Clive Owen as an obvious villain so early (he’s torturing a Na’vi-like alien in the friggin’ first act). Owen’s character becomes the supposed MacGuffin that propels the characters forward. They have to retrieve him, but when the audience already knows so early that he’s not worth the effort, the sense of urgency deflates, not that there was much of a sense to begin with. The movie quickly adopts a flippant attitude where it feels like nothing matters, and so nothing does. We jump from one detour to another as if they were single-issue comics that Besson was determined to realize on the big screen. The characters never feel in danger because Besson deploys contrived solutions at every turn. A special jellyfish on the head is a solution to finding a missing Valerian. Simply jumping down a floor grate is a solution to charging aliens. It’s like Besson throws his characters into dilemmas and merely points to the exit door conveniently there the whole time. That’s not satisfying or entertaining. It makes the movie feel episodic, listless, and like it’s just filling up time. What started so promisingly rapidly degenerates into overly exuberant camp nonsense.
Another major issue is that the main characters are awfully boring and miscast. Valerian is supposed to be a charming rogue, a swaggering playboy, a fearsome cop, and none of these attributes work with DeHann. The guy has been excellent in other movies but is entirely unbelievable as the title hero, intimidating nobody and impressing even less. He’s supposed to be a talented expert operative but the results on screen don’t back up the praise. His combat moves require a large suspension of disbelief. DeHann (A Cure for Wellness) speaks in a baffling 90s Keanu Reeves voice for the entire movie, relegating his entire emotional range to a grating monotone. Valerian isn’t charming whatsoever but Besson seems to think an audience will fall for him. He’s an irksome misogynist who sets his sights on his partner, Laureline. Their “romance” is unconvincing and hindered with some laughably clunky dialogue. The movie runs like you have a pre-existing relationship with these characters, but we don’t know them or their back-stories or their shared history. He’s immediately hitting on her and proposing marriage in the first act, though it all seems like a sleazy scheme just to sleep with her. Delevingne (Suicide Squad) has a striking look to her but I can’t tell if she can act yet. Granted the roles I’ve watched ask her to mostly serve as a model. Her character is stiff and unemotive and equally boring, though slightly more convincing as an aloof badass. It’s a shame she gets sidelined as a damsel needing rescue when she seems far more capable than her partner. These two are the living embodiment of prioritizing attitude over characterization.
There’s a very late moment when Besson has his two lead characters just spout transparent exposition at one another to communicate themes and character arcs, and it took everything I had not to laugh out loud. Laureline is about to give an alien something valuable and Valerian pulls her aside and tells her they can’t. “I follow the rules,” he says, and I snapped my head back in alarming whiplash. What? This dolt has been breaking everything and doing whatever he has wanted for hours, and now at the last minute Besson is trying to force him to articulate a paradoxical character description? Being saddled with these two distant, glib, irritating leads is bad enough, but DeHann and Delevinghe have as much chemistry as a batch of dead fish. No danger of sparks flying here.
Before I got into some spoiler detail with my suggestions on how to improve Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, let me appreciate some of its virtues. The movie is often a technical marvel bursting with detail at every edge of the frame. Besson’s quirky sense of humor and playfulness is on display from the imaginative alien designs to the lived-in settings. The movie isn’t afraid to get weird, and some of those details are delightful like a two-barreled gun that can point in different directions. There’s even a small creature that will poop out copies of whatever it eats. Even when the characters and story let you down, the visuals provide a reason to keep going. I enjoyed Rihanna’s shape-shifting alien, a burlesque dancer whose routine feels almost like a medical test to determine which Rihanna fetish works best for you (rollergirl, French maid, naughty nurse, S&M kitten, torch singer, school girl?). Part of her appeal is that she’s the only supporting character in the movie. Her presence changes the character dynamics of Valerian and Laureline and gives us somebody new to hang onto. I liked the dopey aliens that resemble the sloth from the Ice Age movies, and I especially enjoyed a surprise payoff for their insistence that Laureline wear a stupidly large hat. Whether these moments are enough to cancel out the rampant excess will be up to the individual moviegoer.
This next section is going to involve spoilers, though I don’t think this is a movie where knowing the plot is going to really ruin the experience. Still, you have been warned, and if you wish to remain spoiler-free, please skip to the last paragraph (though do come back later).
I was beside myself in frustration because it feels like there are story elements ripe for the plucking that would have instantly improved Valerian and Besson is just too oblivious. Firstly, none of the characters that Valerian and Laureline run into seem to matter in the slightest. That alien mob boss who swore vengeance? Never returns. The aliens that kidnap Laureline and offer her up as a tasty treat to their king? Never return. Besson’s Fifth Element benefited from establishing different groups of characters with conflicting purposes that would continually run into one another and complicate matters. It makes the movie much more fun and it allows characters to have greater meaning than one-off appearances. We should be building a team and gaining a new member from every new location visited, which would make the visits more meaningful and lighten the time spent only with Valerian and Laureline. My first solution would be to bring back these different alien antagonists in comical and bungling ways, especially for Act Three. Another solution is to radically change the angelic, Na’vi-like ethereal aliens. It’s revealed they’ve been hiding on the station for decades (though not in a different dimension, another missed potential payoff). They just want to go home, though whether that’s a replication or a different dimension is unclear. What if these peaceful aliens didn’t forgive humanity for obliterating their planet? What if the key to bringing back their home world was to suck the life force out of the space station or Earth itself? That would flip the script and make you question whether these displaced aliens are morally justified in their actions. It would also set the stage for a rollicking third act that culminates in a frantic chase through all the different levels and communities introduced throughout the film, complete with the various antagonists complicating matters with their own motivations. This would all be infinitely better than the third act we get, which left me flabbergasted at how slack and uninspiring it is (defusing a bomb?). Why build up this strange and wonderful world and do nothing with it by the end?
Getting back to my original question: is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets better or worse than the Wachowski sisters’ misfire, Jupiter Ascending? Besson’s latest certainly looks lovely and is crammed to the rafters with ideas, several of which you desperately wish had garnered more attention and development. This is an overstuffed movie, especially at 137 minutes, and yet it will leave you seriously wanting. The disinterested lead actors slog their way from one uninspired chase scene to another, gallivanting in a world that will have no real significance once we move onto the next expensive set. It all feels like manic decoration meant to stimulate and distract from the glaring deficiencies with characters and story. It starts out great and then degenerates into kitschy futuristic junk. It feels like somebody made a PG-13 Barbarella but mandated that nobody ever smile. DeHann is grossly miscast as a rakish rogue and his onscreen relationship with his leggy costar is painfully realized. I think I respect Jupiter Ascending more because that cinematic world could have sustained something interesting and they took it all seriously enough even when things got absurdly silly. Valerian is so flippant and stuck with sourpuss leads. A better movie was within reach, which makes it all the sadder that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is reluctantly the movie we get, a visual spectacle that bores as it overwhelms. If you put this movie on mute and did some peyote, maybe it would achieve its true artistic value.
Nate’s Grade: C
If you’re looking for one of the more fun summer movies that have no intention of taking itself seriously at all, might I suggest Lucy, which is one part superhero origin tale and one part wonky French existential drama. It starts off quickly, with the titular character being forced into a being a drug mule. The substance breaks in her bloodstream and the concoction transforms her from meek to a kickass vigilante of science. Lucy can now access far more of her brain’s potential, not just that meager 10 percent we plebs utilize, and who knew that we could all be superheroes if we really put our minds to it? Despite the presence of Morgan Freeman as really a talking head to let us know about the potential of the human brain, none of this really makes any sense, and thankfully the movie doesn’t pretend that it should. Lucy literally gains a new superpower every time we see her, from telekinesis to manipulating radio waves to eventual manipulation of matter and time travel. Yeah, it gets weird, but thankfully it’s also relatively entertaining, funny, fun, and short and sweet at a briskly efficient 90 minutes. The plot doesn’t exactly feel fully developed, more a gallop between events as we charge up the percentages from 10 to 20 to 30 percent, and so on. The criminals don’t seem like much of a threat despite their numbers. I’m shocked nobody assessed what happened to Lucy and said, “Hey, maybe I should ingest this drug into my bloodstream and become a super powerful being too.” While the action is well orchestrated, there is less of it than advertised, as Lucy spends a good amount of time adjusting to her new self-actualized human superiority, played by a detached yet amusing Johansson. I can’t even explain the bonkers ending except to note that maybe there’s a very good reason why human beings were not capable of using a maximum percentage of their brain’s capacity. It doesn’t make much sense but it’s pretty, entertaining with its messiness, and short enough not to waste your precious time.
Nate’s Grade: B
Luc Besson has long been a household industry when it comes to action movies, especially in the last ten years. The man has had his hand scripting, producing, and sometimes directing the Transporter films, Columbiana, Lockout, District B-13 and its soon-to-be released American remake Brick Mansions, The Family, and most popular of all, the Taken movies. Besson’s got his fingers in just about every Parisian action movie. But with a prevailing influence there is also the challenge of keeping things fresh. It’s easy to fall back on formula, which is precisely where 3 Days to Kill finds itself stuck.
Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) is one of the top spies for the CIA, but a rare and terminal medical condition has taken him out of the field. He seeks out his ex(?) wife (Connie Nielsen) and their teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), a girl he’s mostly sent messages on her birthday as the extent of his parental involvement. While living in Paris with his family, the mysterious Vivi (amber Heard) promises a radical drug treatment to extend Ethan’s life, but in return she needs his help killing some notorious terrorists in town.
We’ve all seen this movie before. In fact we’ve probably seen something similar enough produced by Luc Besson just in the last year or so. The formula is worked over and only the most die-hard action junkies will walk away fully satisfied. The plot is predictable from start to finish, short of the comic flourishes, and has all the trappings you’d expected with a simple middle-of-the-road genre picture. It’s a major surprise that the action sequences are lackluster and unimaginative. With Besson as co-writer, and McG as director, I expected at least a few sequences that would stand out from the crowd, some inventive takes on the action genre. Alas, it’s the same old shootouts, car chases, and the like. I’m not a huge McG fan but I can at least credit the man for his visual style, which, despite the quality of the films, was evident in Charlie’s Angels and Terminator Salvation. With this movie, you would never be able to tell that a former music video stylist directed this. There is no trace of style outside a brief series of shots inside a Parisian tattoo parlor/club that provides some PG-13-approved partial nudity. It’s workmanlike direction with few images or compositions that rise above ordinary. Like most of 3 Days to Kill, the visuals are disappointingly bland and drably familiar.
There are also sizeable plot holes that jump out immediately. I’m not even talking about the usual action film clichés, like the good guys being expert sharpshooters, etc. First off, the name implies a remote time period, a natural opportunity for a ticking clock. He’s got three days to kill the bad guy… or else. But the movie never really provides an or else, nor does it really justify the title. Why does Ethan need three days to kill the bad guy? He’s spending three days watching his daughter, but that’s it. We’re given no real sense of urgency and the characters, the spies, don’t ever seem to sweat or panic. Ethan spends most of the second act bonding with his teenage daughter, teaching her how to ride a bike, and so on. These are not the actions of a man with a ticking clock. Then there’s the premise that Ethan has a rare cancer that requires a rare treatment that only Vivi offers. Ethan injects himself with this magic substance and it seems to do the tick, that is, unless his heart level gets too high. Then he starts to hallucinate and collapse. So there you have it, the plot of the Crank films now with a French polish. The problem with this scenario is that it ONLY happens during the most stupid of times. Instead of Ethan’s heart rate getting too high in the middle of deadly shootouts and speeding car chases, it’s generally when he’s one-on-one with an unarmed bad guy. Even with this, apparently drinking alcohol will slow down his heart rate. Knowing this, why doesn’t Ethan carry a flask of liquor on his person at all times then? He’s supposed to be a professional!
Despite the overwhelming mediocrity and formula-laden efforts, there are a few surprising and effective notes in 3 Days to Kill. The humor, Besson’s tongue-in-cheek genre riffing, is spry and involving enough that I wish the film had followed this tantalizing angle and become an all-out comedy. Ethan’s attempts to balance watching his daughter with his spy hijinks bears well developed comedic moments. Take for instance an informant that Ethan is intimidating for vital intel. His daughter’s phone call interrupts the scene, and she says she needs a recipe for spaghetti sauce. It just so happens the informant is an actual Italian, and so Ethan puts him on the phone. The informant recognizes that the longer he talks the longer he might live, so he draws out relating the recipe, and keeps mentioning how much he truly loves his mother and how she has no one else to take care of her. It’s a small scene but it’s clever and a nice twist on the formula. There’s another humorous scene where Vivi and Ethan debate the difference between beards and mustaches, since she told him to kill the guy with one and not the other. Ethan also forms an offbeat relationship with another informant, a limo driver named Mitat (Marc Andreoni), that becomes so casual, he knowingly helps himself into Ethan’s car trunk, requesting to be back before 4 PM since that’s when his daughters get home. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll make an effort,” Ethan says before slamming the trunk shut. This is the kind of stuff the film needed more of, well-crafted asides that punctuate how silly spy movies often are. If only the film just wanted to be funny.
I think Besson and his coterie believed that Heard’s (Paranoia, Machete Kills) character was a constant source of comedy, but she’s really a hollow pinup, a video game avatar come alive. There is no character here, which may be part of the jape, because she’s all style and moody, pert sexuality. She just sort of appears whenever the movie needs a dose of sex appeal (sorry Costner fans). I think her aloof and calculating manner is meant to be taken as comedy. She’s brusque but without any real sense of joy. Not to take anything away from heard; she is a woman of stellar beauty, but just having a sexy gal make droll quips while dressed in a corset isn’t the stuff of comedy but fetish.
I have enjoyed Costner’s (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) late spate of film roles and even enjoyed Mr. Brooks. But he’s all wring for this film, which looks like a modern Liam Neeson vehicle that he wisely passed on. Costner is convincing as a no-nonsense authority, but he’s not ready to take that Neeson-sized step into AARP action star. He sounds like he has a frog permanently lodged in his throat, or they filmed the entire film during a month where Costner was getting over a furious case of step throat. Perhaps he was doing his best Harrison Ford impression. Whatever the case may be, it’s not exactly winning, and while the actor sells the comedy bits easier, the badass moments lack the real punch the movie needs. Steinfeld (True Grit, Ender’s Game) has a nice rapport with Costner and she doesn’t overplay the teenage outbursts. Her character starts to grow a more intriguing dimension when she seems to possess her father’s traits, but she’s too quickly funneled back into being a helpless damsel to shriek and cry.
When it comes to 3 Days to Kill, there isn’t enough new to justify or even enough effectively entertaining to justify your valuable time. Now, if your time is less valuable, say disposable, and your expectations are low, then perhaps you’ll find a serviceable amount of entertainment in this formulaic action thriller. When the most exciting part of your movie is the comic relief, then maybe it should have been time to start over.
Nate’s Grade: C
The most impressive thing I can credit The Family, an otherwise adequate action-comedy with identity issues, is that it makes each member of its titular family worth watching. Robert De Niro is the patriarch of a family on the run from the Mob, who used to serve as De Niro’s chief employer. They’re hiding in Normandy, France, and trying to blend in, with very mixed results. I was worried that everything was going to be too obvious, but the movie does a fine job of rounding out its cast, giving each family member a personality, flaws, and a reason you want to keep tabs with them. I enjoyed the son’s single-minded manipulation of his school, able to suss out everyone’s needs and how to turn alliances. De Niro starts writing his memoirs as a therapeutic exercise, but really nothing comes from this obvious plot catalyst. The nagging problem that dogs the movie is an inconsistent tone. The violence can be rather brutal and much of it is meant to be silly, but it doesn’t come across that way. In fact, most of the film’s laughs are tied up in over-the-top, and often, bloody violence. But the movie isn’t dark enough to work as a twisted comedy, holding back to become something of an uneven mob cartoon with plenty of hoary Italian stereotypes. As a result, when the third act is all bloody mayhem, it feels like The Family is three half-baked movies badly stitched together. I laughed enough and was passably entertained but The Family is too dark to work as a lark, too juvenile to be substantial, and too predictable by half.
Nate’s Grade: C+