There are many things that don’t quite gel in the new sci-fi adventure VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS from international filmmaker Luc Besson. The title character of Major Valerian is cut a little too close to the jib of Han Solo and Peter Quill, or for that matter, the James Kirk on display in the rebooted STAR TREK franchise. (Does every space hero now have to be a roguish wise-acre?) And while the talented Dane DeHaan may be 31 years of age, the very young-looking leading man comes off as if he’s still in his late teens and that throws off the idea of Valerian being an experienced military leader.
And of course, this being a Luc Besson movie, the writer/director throws in so many ideas, so much manic energy, and so many eye-popping CGI special effects, that it’s hard to take it all in at times. Still, this popcorn entertainment still has a ton to recommend it. For starters, Besson is a consummate showman. Few auteurs working today display as much zest, passion, and detail in every frame. The man has been an international filmmaking sensation for over 30 years now, giving the world the likes of LA FEMME NIKITA, LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, THE TRANSPORTER franchise, and the TAKEN franchise. In fact, one could argue that Besson is one of those filmmakers whose oeuvre has a distinct signature, putting him up there with the best of the best. You can identify a Besson film by many things – its energy, its production values, and its reliance on strong leads, often females.
One of Besson’s greatest contributions to the cinema is some of those strong women characters he’s put onscreen. Arguably, his LA FEMME NIKITA started the whole sub-genre of kick-ass female-driven actioners that are known and loved today the world over. (The upcoming ATOMIC BLONDE feels like a Besson film as evidenced from its trailer, no?) Besson gave us the likes of Natalie Portman, Milla Jovovich, and Zoe Saldana in such roles, and he wasn’t shy about letting them dominate the action. While comic book movie fans are still waiting for a Black Widow stand-alone film from Marvel, it is Luc Besson who already gave Scarlett Johansson the lead in an action/adventure film when he cast her as LUCY.
Thus, it is not surprising that he’s given another actress a great, kick-ass role to play again, this time within VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS. He cast actress/model Cara Delevingne as the other lead in the film, and her performance as Sergeant Laureline is the best thing in it. That’s saying a lot, considering the film contains dozens upon dozens of fascinating alien creations, enough production value for ten films, and a scene-stealing performance from Rihanna as an alien shape-shifter. Delevingne holds her own against all of it, and she manages to be the one thing in almost every scene that you simply can’t take your eyes off of.
I think Delevingne is a natural talent, an actress who knows instinctively where the beats are, how to read lines, and how to convey performance between those lines. As a model, she’s had plenty of experience acting for years in photoshoots and on the runway. Modeling is a form of acting, something that she’s been doing for years, and she knows how to convey many moods and styles to complement the clothing she’s asked to show off. This is an actress who’s learned a lot from all she’s done in front of the camera.
Delevingne has also talked candidly about battling depression when she was 15 years of age and that may be while there is a world-weariness to her performances. She conveys seriousness and maturity well beyond her tender 24 years. The actress seems decades older in attitude and ability to convey complex emotions.
The one time onscreen that she didn’t succeed was when she seemed utterly lost amongst the special effects and herky-jerky CGI movements blended with her in the misbegotten SUICIDE SQUAD (2016). Yet, she has given deep and moving performances everywhere else, especially in 2015’s PAPER TOWNS and now, in this year’s sci-fi epic. Delevingne not only distinguishes herself with an ability to recite dialogue that is often lost on models hoping to make the transition to an acting career (Ahem, Cindy Crawford!), but her work is rendered all the more impressive but what she instinctually layers in between the lines.
Dare I say, it seems that Delevingne is investing her performances with pain from her own personal experiences and it makes her onscreen creations all the more specific, vulnerable and wholly relatable. In PAPER TOWNS, she wore the resentment of being the object of affection by high school boys like a badge of dishonor. The sour looks that characterized her performance as Margo became the necessary armor needed to hold back the hordes of horny high schoolers. It helped make this accomplished coming-of-age film about her character’s growth as much as that of the main character Quentin (Nat Wolff).
And in VALERIAN, Delevingne turns what could have been just another sassy, female partner role into something far richer. In her hands, the part becomes truly moving. The way Delevingne plays Laureline, she is a military operative who’s faced a lot of abuse on her way up the food chain. Granted, this is a Luc Besson film, and it’s based on the popular comic book series “Valerian and Laureline” by Frenchman Jean-Claude Mezieres, so it’s not exactly “Sybil” or even “Gone Girl”, but there is a pain in Laureline nonetheless. And Delevingne suggests a resentment in her that is always simmering just below the surface.
For example, in the very first scene when Laureline wrestles with her partner/boyfriend Valerian on the holodeck beach scene, she does so with more anger than playfulness. It’s as if she’s fed up with taking his condescending sexist crap, even if he is her work partner and boyfriend. Laureline has dealt with far too much piggishness for it to be fun, even from him.
Throughout the movie, the hurt and maligned Laureline is on display repeatedly, even when she’s not in scenes with other macho and condescending men. When she holds the last remaining Mul Converter creature left in the galaxy, (pictured in the caricature I drew for this post), she wholeheartedly relates to the animal’s vulnerability and loneliness. His isolation echoes that of hers within the patriarchal military. They may be different species, but she relates to the little creature far more than her human counterparts.
Laureline feels isolated as a female member of her species throughout the rest of the film as well. When she’s sentenced to quarantine by a male superior, she uses her feminine wiles to turn the tables on two oafish guards who don’t believe such a looker could ever harm them. She kicks their ass but takes no real pleasure in it. Even though it’s a funny scene, Laureline walks away disgusted that these men thought so little of her capabilities.
And Laureline expresses indignation while having to explain to Valerian why he needs to erase the sexual memory banks of his past lovers if he wants to marry her. The way Delevingne plays it, she’s genuinely irritated by Valerian’s need to hang on to what is essentially his ‘little black book’, so much so that we wonder if she wouldn’t be better off with someone who appreciates her more.
My favorite moment of Delevingne’s performance is her reaction to Valerian’s condescension when he orders her to stay out of the action and call for back-up during the film’s climactic battle. Delevingne not only turns her glaring eyes into indignant circles and her mouth into a sneering pout, but she spits back her line at him. She orders him to do what he’s ordered her to do while she rushes headlong into the danger to save the world. That moment got the biggest applause from the audience that I saw the movie with, and Delevingne and Laureline richly deserved it.
This is not to say that Delevingne’s Laureline is that dark throughout. She’s quite the opposite, actually, as most of the time, Laureline is brimming with energy. Make no mistake, both Delevingne and Besson know that this film is essentially a romp, but the actress is smart to make her character more serious where she can. Both the filmmaker and actress use this futuristic fantasy to comment about sexism today. Women and other minorities must continually fight for their inalienable rights, be it yesterday, today or tomorrow.
Delevigne earns big laughs in the movie with a mere cock of her eyebrow (she’s got two of the best in the biz) or a curl of her lip. Sometimes she seems like an old vaudevillian, mining shtick like an old Catskills performer. Her scenes with the three CGI elephant-snouted alien scavengers come off like a routine out of an Abbott and Costello movie, and it’s a hoot. And later in the film, when her Laureline discovers that the reason she has been forced to wear a wide-brimmed hat with an open top is to present her scalp to a captor as an appetizer, her eye roll is priceless. Even under threat of death, this woman warrior leaves us in stitches.
If anything, Besson could have made more out of Delevingne’s expert sense of comic timing throughout his epic. If you’ve ever seen her interviewed on a talk show, like last week’s appearances with Stephen Colbert or Chelsea Handler, you’d realize what a naturally breezy and self-effacing young woman this saucy Brit is. And until I did some research on YouTube, I didn’t realize what a comic reputation she already has. Here’s hoping that Delevingne gets cast in more comedies, or romantic comedies, for that matter. I bet she’d ace straight-up farces too. And additionally, she’s quite a good singer. Could she do musicals? Why not?
A lot of people will miss Delevingne’s tart and thoughtful performance as Laureline in this film since it’s already been declared a flop due to a fifth-place finish this past weekend. Hopefully, the film will find more of an audience internationally or when it hits VOD because it truly is oodles of fun. And while Delevingne may be gorgeous, the most striking thing about the young actress is her keen self-awareness both onscreen and off. She’s pretty damn smart and funny as hell.