On space cowboys, space pimps, space opera, and the inescapable handicap of a bad casting choice
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets STX Entertainment
Director: Luc Besson
Screenplay: Luc Besson, based on the comic-book series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevigne, Clive Owen, Sam Spruell, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu and Alain Chabat
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 17 minutes / 2.35:1
July 21, 2017
(out of four)
I'm not sure how good Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets would otherwise have to be to survive the overpowering gravitational pull of the black hole at the center of it. That black hole is named Dane DeHaan.
This is not entirely fair to Mr. DeHaan - accurate, yes; but fair as a judgment of his entire career or skill set, definitely not. But his title role in Valerian may be the most miscast I have ever seen. It's not simply that the performance doesn't work, or that he's emotionally incapable all of a sudden. Rather, it's that it's unambiguously clear what this role is, and what type of performance he's trying to give. We can see exactly how this character is written and how he's supposed to come across, not only to his partner/love interest, and his commanding officers, and the rogues and scoundrels he encounters, but an entire galaxy - or multiple galaxies - that know him by reputation. His persona is legend. The wildly charismatic, swashbuckling space cowboy. The dashing lothario with the list of conquests that would make James Bond blush. The devil-may-care hotshot who can and does charm everyone, who can and does survive every life-or-death risk, both an audaciously impressive hero and an ends-of-the-earth romantic.
DeHaan is not that guy. There's not much else that even needs to be said. He's not that guy. No director would have gotten that guy out of him. No cinematic alchemy could have taken place to convince anyone he's that guy.
I'm reminded of an interview Quentin Tarantino gave about the casting process for the title role of Django Unchained. He had famously written it with one specific actor in mind, and various others had their names bandied about and/or were brought in for consideration. But Tarantino said that, after spending some time with Jamie Foxx, Foxx quite simply was that character. There was no other choice.
Casting doesn't always work that way. Lots of roles are flexible, and can be easily defined and redefined by whatever an actor brings to it. But there are plenty of others that you either get right or get wrong. Yes, typecasting is bad; yes, actors often do their best work when pushed outside their comfort zone. But sometimes limitations are limitations, and sometimes a role just doesn't fit and there's nothing you can do to change that, beyond changing the role itself. With this role, it is such a defined character - a defined persona, a defined type, let alone the specifics. Every line written for him is an unequivocal affirmation of who the film intends him to be. DeHaan is not Valerian, no matter how much effort he put into trying to prove otherwise. I honestly feel bad for him. His every line of cocksure dialogue should be accompanied by the "Sure, Jan" meme. Marcia knows what's up.
Imagine Han Solo, but instead of Harrison Ford they cast Steven Seagal. Imagine a Will Smith role - practically any Will Smith role - being played instead by Clint Howard. Imagine Stanley Kowalski as portrayed by Michael Cera. Imagine Titanic, but instead of Leonardo DiCaprio it's Adam Sandler. Or Gilda, but instead of Rita Hayworth it's Anne Ramsey.
The movie is powerless to escape this fatal flaw. It staked everything on it. Staked everything on Major Valerian himself - pulpy cartoon hero - and just as importantly, the physical tension and repartee and rivalry between him and his equally badass partner, Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevigne). She is the smarter of the two, and the one who keeps resisting his advances, firm in her desire for serious commitment - not someone with the reputation of a Casanova. That the chemistry between the two actors is nonexistent is obvious from the first scene in which they appear - locked in a lightly passionate embrace on a beach that just looks uncomfortable when it's supposed to be playful. The victim of this pairing is Delevigne, who actually gives a lovely performance; she has the attitude and comic timing to deftly pull the comic-book dialogue off. But as a pair, she and DeHaan make Jupiter Ascending's Channing Tatum/Mila Kunis combo look like Powell and Loy by comparison.
The point has been made that Valerian, whatever its strengths and weaknesses, is not really about its story, and that complaints about the flimsiness of the narrative are irrelevant. I more or less agree with that. The story barely registers - or, at least, registers just enough to provide ample opportunity to explore this fantastical world, and no more - and all things being equal, I don't particularly care if it makes sense or not, or if it's interesting in its own right. Movies work or don't work for a lot of reasons; the way its performances communicate, and what they communicate, is one of those reasons, and can't be underestimated. I can't imagine who cast DeHaan and thought, during filming, that it was working.
Material can be tricky, especially when it's being translated from one medium to another. In DeHaan's defense, I think what Luc Besson's script is trying to pull off does not do the actor any favors. The comic-book material he's adapting - a long-running series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières - lends itself extremely well to certain aspects of moviemaking, and very poorly to others. On the negative side, the dialogue and character relationships translate terribly - I can see every line of this dialogue working perfectly on the page ... but in action? There's just something missing - and, to admittedly belabor the point, DeHaan in particular is powerless to salvage it.
On the positive side, Besson - returning to The Fifth Element-like territory, but turned up to an even higher pitch - can go nuts with the limitless visual possibilities within this world. And he does. From his his jagged-edged space stations glowing against a cosmic backdrop, to his bustling holographic marketplaces, to his dazzling beaches and deserts - nearly all of it soaked in neon - Besson has outdone himself. I've seen it compared to Avatar, but it's not nearly as monotonous as Pandora; it seems every one of those thousand planets has an effect all its own. There's as much Jodorowsky here as Flash Gordon.
You get the feeling he wants to explore every corner of it, too. Which, invariably, leads to disappointment. One of the frustrations of watching Valerian is that it's always moving too quickly, too rarely giving itself the opportunity to breathe. This is where the story issues come in - not that the story isn't good enough but that, oddly enough, there's too much of it. Or rather, there's too much of it that couldn't be cut without the whole narrative falling apart ... if that makes sense. The best of Valerian is just experiencing the spectacle of it; it's the plot that's getting in the way. Watching the film is simultaneously enthralling and obnoxious.
The best example of this internal contradiction is in the role played by Rihanna. In the midst of an important mission (the specifics are no more important than that brief description), Valerian makes his way to one of the many lawless corners of this universe, warmly welcomed into an entertainment establishment (the kind that requires its guests to leave their weapons at the front door) run by Space Pimp Ethan Hawke. His own personal showstopper is Rihanna - or rather, "Bubble," a gelatinous shapeshifter whose entire life has been spent training to be the best entertainer possible. Valerian needs information from her - and, eventually, will need a lot more than that - so he's more than willing to take in the elaborate burlesque show she has planned for him. It's a performance of seduction, defiance, innocence and deviance - with Bubble instantaneously shifting appearance throughout the number. Rihanna is great ... but the movie chops up her performance far too much for it to have the overwhelming impact it's meant to have. The performance is designed as an act of pseudo-seduction - an unforgettable fantasy - yet Besson never puts us into the point-of-view of the recipient of that seductive fantasy. We're a detached viewer, appreciating rather than experiencing. Besson rushes through the scene, more concerned with the CGI effects of every moment of transformation than in the effect of the performance itself. Rihanna is such a great performer and the film doesn't take full advantage of that fact. A performer like her deserves as much time as she needs, and Besson doesn't give it to her.
But that's just as likely a symptom of the film itself being overstuffed - of having too much to experience and not enough time to experience it. There's a 3+ hour version of this movie in there somewhere. I'd pay to see that version. But, only if they recast the title role first.