POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD
How did the new Luc Besson movie “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” compare to the now-two-decades-old film of his, “The Fifth Element“? Both were very funny and action-packed. It would be interesting to ask someone who saw the two movies but Valerian first. With that said, here are my impressions:
Valerian might as well have been played by Keanu Reeves, since the actor is basically channeling him. Actor Dane DeHann will inevitably be compared to Fifth Element’s much-older-than-the-female protagonist Bruce Willis. However, this time it is Valerian’s co-heroine Laureline who feels more like Willis’ “Corben Dallas”, doing both cracking-wise and kicking-ass. Actress Cara Delvingne apparently sang a song for the soundtrack, too, which is always fun. (That happened in a similarly trippy action fest from 2011, “Sucker Punch“, too.)
It has similar pacing, production design, fun dialog, and incredible visuals, just like Fifth Element. However, though the scale is much more grand – Valerian spans planets and thousands of creatures – the movie just doesn’t feel quite as important.
Both films have the process of a character coming to understand the horrors of war. In the Fifth Element, its “Leeloo” who in a heartbreaking scene, experiences it through a super-speed computer history lesson. In Valerian, it’s an entire group of tribal, peaceful characters who explain in a narrative flashback that they, after having their planet exterminated by an unrelated war from space, learned about the self-destructive human race who caused the genocide. It’s the same theme in both films, but Leeloo’s eye-opening scene just felt more important, perhaps because Fifth Element focused on just her individual evolution in that scene.
It’s such a powerful paradigm shift for Leeloo that actress Milla Jovovich cries. In Valerian we’re told the same thing about the human race’s penchant for war and hate, but during a flashback about a group of characters, none of whom we really have any attachment to or character development for, so it’s just not as moving. One can still empathize for the tribe’s plight, but by the time the evolution in understanding happens to Leeloo, the viewer is already in love with her character.
In addition to being one of the main protagonists in the Fifth Element, Leeloo is also the title character and essentially the MacGuffin (the object around which the plot centers), all in one. However, as we learn in the film’s climax, the final element is more than just Leeloo – it’s love. Without it, they’d never have saved the world. In Valerian, the MacGuffin is a little creature that can reproduce and multiply whatever you stick in its butt. Besson’s message about love is present however, just in another way. In a movie with more than one self-important government agent character, Laureline is the character who puts love over the law at the climax of the film, in one of the film’s deeper moments.
For baddies, we’ve gone from Gary Oldman’s zany Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, or “Mr. Zorg”, a power-mad weapons manufacturer to Clive Owen’s power-wielding Commander Arun Filitt. I had to look up Owen’s character’s name on IMDB – in the movie, he’s just the “commander”. Maybe he’s named a few times on-screen, but I didn’t retain that info.
Owen was fine in the role for what it is, but the character can’t hold a candle to Zorg, where much of the entertainment besides Oldman’s over-the-top acting was watching him interact with his subordinates in the film. Here, Owen is just a typical corrupt military bad guy who instead of human subordinates, is surrounded by a crack team of badass-looking robots, which communicate solely via a colored light on their forehead.
These are really minor quibbles, though. Valerian is a lot of fun – maybe as fun as Fifth Element, but maybe not. Graphically, Valerian is as beautiful today as the Fifth Element was in 1997. Some practical effects purists will complain about the large quantity of CGI, but I suspect that the reason Besson made this movie today is because the CGI is there to do it in the way he’s been envisioning it since he was a kid reading the comic books on which he based the film.
There are even some nods to the Fifth Element in the production design that fans will notice on the first viewing and I bet more will pop up on subsequent viewings as the movie is packed with things happening on-screen at once. (Of course, Fifth Element was highly influenced by Besson’s childhood interest in the French sci-fi comic “Valerian and Laureline” in the first place.)
Valerian’s probably always going to be in the shadow of Fifth Element for fans of that film, but surely fans of that movie couldn’t be disappointed with this latest dive into Besson’s amusing and creative mind, unless they are the cynical, angry type. If you’re cynical and angry, you probably didn’t like the Fifth Element in the first place.
Most movies, I wouldn’t see a second time. This one, I will. The one real disappointment was with the audio mix in the theater. Maybe it was me going deaf, or the theater just trying to not offend some ears, but the front channel, while dialog was very clear, sounded suppressed on things like gunfire and musical score. Or, perhaps the movie was meant to sound that way? I suspect it was the theater trying their best to find a tolerable volume level for large audiences (there were less than ten people there for opening night in Keene, NH – sadly), so I look forward to a blu-ray viewing in a home theater where I can crank it up.
If you like Besson’s work, you’ll probably really like Valerian. If you’re not familiar with Besson or the Fifth Element, and you enjoy action/sci-fi/comedy, you should check out “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” in theaters now.
Here’s a review I found via Rotten Tomatoes that I quite enjoyed reading: