The best scene in The Fifth Element is when Bruce Willis’ Korben Dallas foils a robber whose clever idea was to use Dallas’ hallway scenery as a hat. Or maybe it’s when the flamboyant Ruby Rhud, played by Chris Tucker at his finest, does a frenetic walk-and-talk that puts Aaron Sorkin to shame. Or, actually, it may be any appearance of Gary Oldman’s oddly Southern-accented villain Zorg.
I mention this because Luc Besson’s newest film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is painted with the pallet that Besson used to color The Fifth Element. The whole film is saturated with rich colors, with galactic visuals and action scenes that are every bit as elegantly choreographed as Willis’ foray through the opera house on a dining cart.
But the cartoonish ridiculousness that has taken The Fifth Element from popcorn fodder to a bona fide cult classic is missing in Besson’s slick new film. Dane DeHaan’s James Dean-esque swagger is as polished as a leading man can be in 2017. Cara Delevingne shines as his beleaguered partner who is ready and able to call Valerian on his shit, but these are characters we’ve seen before. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s disappointing when a director so known for his propulsive imagination can’t escape the gravity of the tropes with which he plays.
That might not actually be the fault of Besson, and it certainly isn’t on the heads of Delevingne, DeHaan, or even a revelatory Rihanna (a treat despite the near-distracting CG). The Valerian comics, Besson’s source material, suffer from the same issues as their 1970s American contemporaries—confusing plotlines, flat characters, exclamations like, “Oh, Valerian, how could you?!”—and tons and tons of interrobangs. Besson picked through the arcing plots lines (there are roughly 22 issues in the anthology) for his film. Perhaps the film might be stronger if, instead of doing a “best of,“ he had chosen just one of Valerian and Laureline’s bizarrely psychedelic adventures. Discretion is the better part of valor and, sometimes, of filmmaking.
The first third of the film contains one of the most fun sequences in film this summer, including that ELO moment in Guardians. That’s more than just a useful visual; there’s nothing about DeHaan’s portrayal of Valerian that suggests he is a Very Competent Military Person. In fact, the audience’s suspension of disbelief is not based around infinite worlds and adorable tiny creatures that act as sad-faced Macguffins, but around the notion that DeHaan’s Valerian is not only a space-aged, Bond-esque hearthrob, but one deserving enough to have a film named after him.
Luc Besson is the rare director whose eyes are larger than the worlds of film–he sees endless potential on a massive storytelling scale that makes for wildly inventive filmmaking. But in age in which our television epics are nearly as glorious as the big screen and blockbusters arrive with several films of backstory already under their cinema-belts, characters often arrive onto the screen as fairly fleshed-out entities. So as sweeping as Valerian might seem, the world it touches is so very superficial, lacking none of the grit and lived-in charm of its spiritual predecessor, The Fifth Element. But that’s okay. It’s okay to just dip into a world and have a trippy fantasy, which conveniently ends as soon as the credits begin to scroll.