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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Review by Siraj Syed: Mind-boggling 2,734 VFX shots in 136 mins

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Review by Siraj Syed: Mind-boggling 2,734 VFX shots in 136 mins

French director Luc Besson has made the most expensive French/European film ever. It is also the most expensive independent film, at about $200 million. From initial responses, it looks like the film will fall far short of recovering its cost, and that will be a pity. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets adds a new, fresh feel to the sci-fi, interplanetary, inter-galactic, alien invasion films genre, and is eminently watchable. All the 2,734 visual effects are clearly visible, in a feast of colours, unlike the barely visible foreboding dark grey and blue screens that are the norm for such projects. Likewise, 3D is used intelligently, without going over-board.

A low-tech humanoid race lives peacefully in a tropical paradise like planet. They fish for energy-containing pearls, and use certain animals, called ‘convertors’, to duplicate them. Their tranquil life is destroyed when war breaks out between two planets above their sky, radioactive spaceship debris crashing onto the planet, and decimating it.

All this is happening 800 years into the future, and the entire episode is seen as a dream by Valerian, while sun-bathing on a virtual beach. Valerian is woken up by Laureline. He and Laureline are special agents of the Human Federation Government of Alpha. Alpha is a space station where millions of creatures from different planets live peacefully. It began as a space station around Earth, and grew, when many nations from Earth, and races from other planets, joined.

Valerian and Laureline are on a mission to retrieve one of the hedgehog-like pearl convertors from his dream, from a black market dealer. As they proceed on the mission, Valerian asks Laureline to marry him, but she brushes him off, knowing how promiscuous he is. Using virtual transporting reality, Valerian interrupts a meeting of the dealer with two prospective customers, who are there to buy the converter, both looking like the humanoids from his dream. He and Laureline obtain the converter, and he surreptitiously steals one of the pearls that had been given in payment to the dealer.

Mission accomplished, they return to Alpha, where they are told by Commander Filitt that the centre of the station has been infected by an unknown force, rendering it highly toxic, that troops sent into the area have not returned, and that the infection is spreading. While he briefs an assembly about the infection, they are ambushed by the humanoids, who incapacitate all present and kidnap him. Valerian manages to free himself, Laureline and all others. He chases the kidnappers, who head for the infected area. Valerian loses control of his vehicle and Laureline loses contact with him.

Based on the Valerian and Laureline comics/graphic novels, written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières, the idea of making a film on the series was propounded by Mézières, while working with Besson on The Fifth Element. Besson did consider the suggestion, but felt that technology had not yet reached the point where it could do justice to such a project. It was only after Avatar (2009) that he was convinced about the practicality of so many monsters to so few humans ratio that he decided to go ahead. Avatar will prove both a boon and a bane, since Besson will face comparison with the benchmarking achieved by James Cameron, who, as Besson himself admits, “... pushed all the levels so high.”

While writing the screenplay, director Besson (Léon the Professional, the Arthur series) has not avoided stock characters and situations, like planetary emperors, theft and retrieval of an invaluable item, bounty hunters, rogue commanders, a young law enforcer couple on a high-risk mission falling for each other, aliens who are terrorised by earthlings rather than vice versa, humanoids-aliens-animals of all shapes and sizes, a shape-shifter, and more. Still, to his credit, he weaves them in a cohesive tapestry, while never taking himself seriously. There are ample doses of humour, with the opening scenes parodying the docking of space-ships across various phases in history, to the tune of ballad like songs with funny lyrics, describing the events. The three ‘informer’ aliens, who have access to information of great value and sell it for a fee, add to the chuckles. Though they speak much faster than the others and their dialogue is cut-to-cut, they are still audible. Kudos to the editor (Julien Rey) and the sound department.

As a showman, Besson indulges himself deeply in the scenes involving the amazing talent of Bubbles, the shape-shifter, who can assume any shape, human or otherwise, from the environment or from the past. This shape-shifting extravaganza and the blossoming ‘teenageish’ love-story might appear as weak writing ploys and story props. Repeated attempts of Valerian to propose to Laureline get a bit boring, with little real chemistry between the two. The transformational shape-shifting, on the other hand, is a visual treat that is breath-taking and stunning, even if it is somewhat unrelated or extended. Some other thrilling effects jobs are the retrieval of the convertor, using virtual reality and extra dimensional combat, and the creation of the Big Market.

A fan of Al Pacino, James Dean and Philip Seymour Hoffman, 31 year-old Dane DeHaan looks 18, and is all of 5’8”. Model-turned-actor (The Amazing Spiderman 2, A Cure for Wellness, Two Lovers and a Bear), American of mixed ancestry, DeHaan requires little effort in playing Valerian, with all the spaceships, staccato gunshots, mortal combats and great escapes. He gets a few lines of banter, where he enjoys himself. The only real acting that was needed was in the romantic interludes, where he falls short. Ditto Cara Delevingne, as Sergeant Laureline (Paper Towns, London Fields, Suicide Squad), is an even bigger model, while she matches DeHaan in height. She is comfortable with her body as well as the transparent top over her bikini while on official duty.

Clive Owen as the man with a past, Commander Arün Filitt, Barbadian singer Rihanna as Bubbles, the shape-shifter, Ethan Hawke as Jolly, Bubbles’ Pimp, 77 year-old musician Herbie Hancock as the Defence Minister and Sam Spruell as General Okto-Bar provide serviceable support. Rutger Hauer plays the President World State Federation. Among the notable voices are John Goodman as Igon Sirrus and Elizabeth Debicki as Emperor Haban Limaï, embodied by Ameyline Valade. Alain Chabat has a small but funny role as Bob the Pirate.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets could have done with a more ‘twisty’ storyline, but there is little to fault on the ambience and the special effects in all of its 136 minutes. Luc Besson shows that it is possible to remain within the genre matrix and yet create variety. Don’t judge the wine by the bottle and do not compare the film with Avatar. Rather, don’t pre-judge at all. Got that? Now switch on the ignition and have a blast.

Rating: *** ½



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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