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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
  • Composed by Alexandre Desplat
  • Europacorp / 2017 / 100m (score 71m)

Based on the French comics Valerian and Laureline, Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the most expensive European movie ever made.  Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne star as the two lead characters, with support coming from a wide range of co-stars including Clive Owen, Rihanna and Rutger Hauer (what a combination!)  Without big name stars in the lead roles – and with its relatively obscure origins, to non-French audiences at least – it was always going to be a bit of a risk and while it hasn’t been a complete disaster financially, the film has lost a lot of money.

One of the main criticisms levelled against the film (and to be frank, there have been quite a few) is that its plot is barely comprehensible, and it’s rather difficult for me to summarise it here, beyond saying that the two leads are interplanetary police officers in the 28th century who find themselves caught up in no end of trouble after he has a dream involving fishing for pearls containing lots of energy on a planet consumed by the apocalypse.  Things go downhill from there.

Alexandre Desplat

For many years, Besson’s scores have been graced with music from the French composer Eric Serra.  Serra’s not everyone’s cup of tea but there’s a huge amount of variety to his work for Besson and I’ve always enjoyed their collaborations.  Therefore it was a big surprise when Besson announced that Alexandre Desplat would be providing the score to Valerian, shortly after the composer departed Rogue One.  Disappointing though it was that Serra wouldn’t be on board, the prospect of hearing a grand sci-fi adventure score from Desplat after all was certainly an enticing one, and the result does not disappoint.

The opening “Pearls on Mul” covers an awful lot of ground in its seven and a half minutes: the opening sections of the cue focus on the very pretty pearls theme, which is floaty and dreamlike, string-laden with an ethereal choral accompaniment, but some ominous horns (recalling the composer’s grand fantasy score The Golden Compass) offer a few hints of tension, even as there are various lovely accompaniments but after a brief quote of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”, we do enter much darker territory, and the piece eventually offers the score’s first burst of action music, electronics now featuring prominently with the orchestra (I’m pretty sure this is what Desplat’s Rogue One would have sounded like).

We move on to “Reading the Memo”, with a darkly comic little figure owing a little to the composer’s “Ministry of Magic” from Harry Potter and also his theme from Ides of March, of all things, mixed with some percussive sounds that could come from a Moroccan bazaar; this leads nicely into “Big Market”, with variants on a motif later revealed to be Valerian’s theme, retaining the semi-comic feel of the previous cue but mixing in some big ideas: it’s unusual music but very catchy and very satisfying.  Then Valerian’s theme is revealed in all its glory in “Fight Above the Big Market”, soaring and sweeping away to open the cue.

That wonderful descending hook from John Barry’s OHMSS theme makes an appearance at the start of “Showtime”, which begins a spectacular sequence of action cues, continuing through “Valerian in Trouble” and “Bus Attack”.  The latter in particular is exceptional, but all three showcase the composer’s fabulous action style when he chooses to release all shackles and just go for it, as he only does occasionally but the results are always wonderful.  Pounding percussion, big brass figures and incredibly florid orchestration join forces with genuinely melodic writing for action music that is comparable to John Williams’s modern action style (I haven’t heard any other composer come as close to it).  And there’s a lot of it in this score!

“Arriving on Alpha” features some ethereal touches alongside Desplat’s trademark electronic pulse – it’s classic beautiful space music – before we’re straight back into the action in “Pearls Attack”, which is a bit like “The Truth About Ruth” on acid, with these great big colourful gestures being laid one over the other for the first half of the cue before some electronics and deep choral effects provide a disturbing prelude to the slightly lighter closing stages, with the classy orchestral sounds accompanied by pretty modern electronica that’s probably not that far from what Eric Serra would have done.

One of the score’s major highlights is the spectacular “Valerian’s Armour”, with a grandly heroic secondary theme for the character given a breathlessly exciting airing – there’s so much going on in the cue, it takes a while to really appreciate just how many facets it has (and how truly great action music can be even in modern films when a truly great composer is writing it).  Another big action piece follows, “Spaceship Chase”, which sounds just like you would want and expect a cue called “Spaceship Chase” to sound – again there’s a hint of John Williams, again there is just so much going on in it.  The three-way counterpoint in the central section of the cue would be beyond most film composers, and it’s things like that that separate Desplat from virtually everyone else writing film music today – he’s really got the chop to do it (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a good three-way?)

“Submarine” offers a moment of relative calm, but even here there are grand gestures and before you know it Desplat’s piling on the action again.  “Medusa” is a really stylish piece, with a bit of an instrumental pop sound to it, with multi-layered textural electronics accompanying a growing orchestral presence.  Another major theme – a romantic, beautiful love theme – is introduced in “Shoot”.  It’s very typical of the composer, featuring an acute sense of longing and no small amount of warmth.  Then comes the fairly short “Fishing for Butterflies”, whose lovely opening proves to be rather deceptive as the composer launches into more pulse-pounding action.

I just love “Le souper du Roi”.  It may be a complete coincidence, but I suspect that the resemblance of the rhythmic figure running through the track to the one in the sequence in Alex North’s Cleopatra where Cleopatra enters Rome is entirely intentional.  Nothing surrounding that rhythmic figure (either the creative woodwind figures which sound like a yapping dog, or the distinctly gallic flair which explodes at times) is anything like Alex North, but that rhythm… my appreciation for Alexandre Desplat couldn’t be much higher, but paying tribute to Alex North in the middle of a 2017 sci-fi blockbuster pushes it up that bit more.

“Boulanbator Combat” brings more rousing action, pausing in the middle for a delightful piano-led interlude – the material either side is big, ballsy, supremely entertaining and the heroic Valerian theme emerges triumphant.  The giant percussive ending is a joy to behold.  Some contrast comes in the beautiful “Bubble”, with tragic feeling running through it, a little like some of the composer’s Harry Potter music (and the way the piano is used reminds me a bit of New Moon), and it features a particularly ravishing version of the love theme.

“Pearl’s World” is another cue in which an awful lot happens: it opens with some dark textures, including a twisted variant on the pearls theme, before it reprises some of the beautiful music from the score’s opening; but this warmth is blasted away by some more high-octane action, at the darker end of the scale, with some particularly thrilling brass, the orchestra really put through its paces.  “The City of 1,000 Planets” starts with a really dynamic, driving feel – the focus on drama here, not action – and it’s another fine piece.  Then in “I am a Soldier”, Desplat plays two of his main themes – Valerian’s heroic theme and the love theme – off against each other in emotional fashion.  There’s a welcome return of the pearls theme in “Pearls Power”, heard here in its grandest arrangement of all, complete with powerful choir; and the score ends with an action piece, the seven-minute “Final Combat”, which trawls through a load of ideas from earlier in the score (and Desplat is still introducing new ones even this late in the day).  Sadly it sort of fizzles out a bit rather than leading to the enormous finale one might have been expecting, but that is literally my only criticism of the score.

The main releases of the soundtrack are split over two discs, with the first mixing a few of the highlight cues from the score with several songs (most of which – David Bowie and Bob Marley excepted – are better avoided), with the rest of the score appearing on the second disc.  Some of the early physical releases separated the songs and score entirely, and the score is much better-appreciated in that way and in that order, which is the order in which I have listed the tracks in the review.

Valerian really is a marvellous piece of work.  Inevitably there will be comparisons with Desplat’s fantasy scores of the past and of all of them, it comes closest to The Golden Compass (it’s much brighter than his two Harry Potter ones), but really it’s its own thing.  There is real thematic depth to it and – as with all of the composer’s best efforts – it really rewards repeated listening.  I thought it was very good but not necessarily great the first time I heard it, but it has just kept growing on me with each subsequent listen, which is what all music of depth will do.  So in the end, my feelings for Valerian mirror 10cc’s feelings for the game of cricket – I don’t like it, I love it.  There are so many disparate elements to the score and Desplat pulls them together into an amazingly cohesive whole.  There won’t be many finer film scores this year.

Grand, action-packed sci-fi adventure | |

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  1. Anthony Aguilar (Reply) on Tuesday 5 September, 2017 at 23:00

    Fully agree James. One of my absolute favorites from Desplat. Valerian might even surpass Golden Compass for me.

  2. dominique (Reply) on Sunday 17 September, 2017 at 09:31

    i´m sorry, but i just saw the movie without knowing the composer´s name (it just appears at the end credits) and i have to tell you, that it was ok for the movie as the score is nothing to be amazed about.
    and i didn´t understand your high voting for “the light between oceans” either, james.

    • MuggleAuror (Reply) on Wednesday 27 September, 2017 at 22:11

      The way James does his reviews is on the scores pure listening experience, outside the film. So although it may not have been perfect for the film in your opinion, try listening to it without the film and see if you agree with James more.

      His method can be seen quite well using Wonder Woman as an example – in the film, it works really well, but listening to it in its own right shows you how depthless and synthetic the score actually is (and why it merited such a low score).

  3. dominique (Reply) on Saturday 30 September, 2017 at 18:28

    i´m absolutely with you. and i´m very thankful for each review on this wonderful board!

  4. GrgZrgks (Reply) on Thursday 30 November, 2017 at 00:06

    The fact that this amazing soundtrack in its vinyl format is mixed with other artists is absolutely undewhelming, for me at least – although I can’t imagine a serious score listener to be ok with that.

  5. Maarten (Reply) on Sunday 31 October, 2021 at 18:28

    Man, what a great score this is… demands repeated listenings, but they are very rewarding. Spaceship chase is just awesome!!