Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets Review
Science fiction is a strange and often times hard to pin down genre that can be serious, rigidly smart, or downright zany. French director Luc Besson delivered us The Fifth Element way back in 1997 and it still stands up as one of my favourite movies. It’s colourful, it’s weird, there are fantastical aliens, technology that is far superior to ours but also very familiar, and there’s drama to accompany the comedy. Although there’s a very real sense of danger for all the characters, the end of the universe has rarely been funnier or more endearing. I still watch this movie on a regular basis to this day. When I saw the trailers for Valerian, a flare of hope rose in my black and jaded heart. A ‘spiritual successor’ and a huge inspiration to one of Besson’s most iconic films with today’s technologies was sure to deliver a glorious sci-fi universe to plunge into. While Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a feast for your senses, it delivers little else, having more substance in its wordy name than the two hours plus runtime.
Special operatives Valerian and Laureline are sent to investigate a dark force that threatens the metropolis of Alpha but uncover something that threatens the entire universe and must stop it all costs.
Valerian and Laureline is an incredibly long running French comic series that began in 1967 and concluded in 2010, spanning 21 volumes of collected tales. Many of sci-fi’s great modern contributors have drawn on the Valerian series for inspiration including, quite obviously, Luc Besson when he created The Fifth Element. On paper, it seems like a home run to have Besson bring Valerian to the screen and, to a degree, it works very well. The worlds created, the alien races that we see, and the sprawling station of Alpha itself are incredible. Colourful, beautiful, and in epic proportions, Besson uses today’s technology and 3D to glorious effect. From the opening on a utopian beach planet to an interdimensional market to the grim, gray, and bleak inner corridors of Alpha, everything pops and stands out, your senses feasting on the beautiful world that Besson is laying before you.
While Besson has created iconic films like Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element, and La Femme Nikita, while also indulging into some fun with stuff like Taken and District B13, he is uneven as a director, to say the least. For every Leon, there’s a The Family. For every Taken, there’s a Transporter. Sadly, for every Fifth Element, there’s a Valerian. Outside of how eye popping the film is, there’s little else to draw sustenance from. Even with a runtime of 137 minutes, everything feels rushed. There are no explanations given to technology or a variety of characters, we’re just supposed to take what we see, believe it and care. There are often times there are no noticeable motivations for much of what happens and many decisions are directly conflicted in the same scene. There is even a nearly 20-minute ‘side quest’ style section of the film that dare I say, if it was edited out, the film would flow smoother and you would never know that it was there in the first place. It serves no purpose to the story and the film drags because of it. Speaking of editing, that’s another aspect of it that was perplexing. It’s obvious that Valerian didn’t have a small budget with its visual complexity (read as ‘enormous budget’). With that in mind, I was baffled when scenes were cut short, confusing and misplaced shots were left in, or the fact that they dubbed different lines in many shots but it was just an overlay with the original shot. It’s hard to become engrossed in a scene when a clearly deleted part of another scene still sneaks its way in and your stars very clearly mouth a line while the audio delivers another.
“For every good thing I can say for it, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has more things going against it than for it.”
Which brings us to the stars themselves, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. My heart goes out to DeHaan who blew me away in Chronicle and pushed way up my radar as actors to pay attention to. Since then, however, it has just been a series of missteps that can add Valerian to the growing list. While Valerian is supposed to be the classical hero and a brave and charming rogue, DeHaan brings us is what I can only describe as Han Solo if every line was delivered deadpan and in monotone. I actually don’t think I can put DeHaan in the crosshairs on this one though, as I feel his portrayal was done so he could play off his co-star. Delevingne has a range of deadpan and monotone to… deadpan and monotone. Can’t have one star charming the pants off of us while the other acts like a wet rag. So, I feel DeHaan was directed to play opposite her to reflect their relationship (or at least that’s the hope). As potential love interests, they had some physical chemistry but only up to as much as you can have when smiling is an actual forced movement and there isn’t an inflection to be heard in any line.
The story itself is actually fairly good when you boil it down to its core. The film is bookended by some pretty great sci-fi and a decent enough plot, it’s just rudely interrupted by a shoehorned cameo that had no reason for being in the movie. Uncovering the mystery also makes for some good detective work that puts Valerian and Laureline in some great set pieces and lets you unravel it as you go along with them. The film is also, for the most part, family friendly, so the whole family can go and enjoy it. Outside of a couple of bizarrely violent scenes, it’s a good flick for the kids and maybe it turns them on to (better) sci-fi! However, when you come right down to it, it just isn’t enough. For every good thing I can say for it, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets have more things going against it than for it. For all its style and visual charm, the film feels strangely flat and devoid of life.
What I wanted when I sat down to Valerian was a new franchise that would make hard sci-fi cool again. Where studios would want to invest in exploring alien worlds and give us at least a glimpse of exploring a far off star system. Something that would be violent, funny, and make me rewatch it over and over again like The Fifth Element. What I ended up getting was a beautiful looking sci-fi film that is anemic in every other aspect and is bound to lose money. Why? When it’s all said and done, I don’t think you could pay me to rewatch Valerian. It may be billed as a ‘spiritual successor’ The Fifth Element but it ultimately can’t even stand in its shadow. If the franchise somehow continues, hopefully a sequel can address all of the things that were glossed over in this film so that Rihanna could have some screen time.
- Visually exceptional
- Unique and intriguing universe
- Family friendly… kind of
- Plot holes as big as Alpha itself
- Flat performances
- Far too long for its own good