Movie Review: “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”

Luc Besson’s latest film, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” starts with such incredible promise. It begins with a tremendously beautiful look at how Alpha, a space station with life from all over the galaxy (or further), came to be. This opening takes us from the recent past to the distant future, with Alpha expanding and expanding as new species dock their vessels and join the throng.
This sequence, which offers up such a positive view on how humanity’s future might go plays out to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” It is a clear and immediate sign that no matter how good this looks, danger is right around the corner. “Valerian” is never that subtle again. Not remotely.
Instead of subtlety, the audience is treated to a visually splendid feast with a near famine plot. Besson offers up visual mastery and flare but has written a script that is utterly mundane.
The writer-director is not helped here by his stars, Dane DeHaan, who plays Valerian, and Cara Delevingne, who plays Laureline. Both are attractive and both have the ability to offer a flippant attitude down, but neither offer the range of emotions one might expect from characters in the situations in which Valerian and Laureline find themselves.
This duo play partners working for the government (he’s a major, she’s a sergeant) and have been sent on a mission to recover a small animal who, no joke, defecates perfect copies of whatever he eats. The creature is more interesting than either of the humans.
Valerian is nominally the boss of the operation, and while he pays lip service to Laureline being his equal—and to Besson’s credit she is depicted that way—Valerian also has an unfortunate tendency to act in the most ’60s James Bond way towards her. He is a boor and if sexual harassment claims still exist in the future, Laureline has cause to file one… or many. The relationship plays out exactly as one might expect from the first moment they are seen in the movie and the story is weaker for it.
Clearly the issue does not revolve solely around the actors. While, as stated, Besson’s visual mastery is undoubted, not only the characters but also the plotting of the film leaves much to be desired. “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” has at least one extended sequence that goes nowhere and does nothing but offer Besson’s visual prowess. It feels self-indulgent.
As for an example of poor storytelling – when we are given info about the current history of Alpha (as opposed to the opening with the start of Alpha). This history is requested by Laureline, and despite her and Valerian having to be aware of the makeup of Alpha (and quite possibly having already visited it on other missions), she only listens to the bit about what species reside in which areas. When she gets to the economic woes of the past year, she turns off the video. Surely the part to which she pays attention is the stuff she already knows, or should know (even if the audience doesn’t), and the part she doesn’t listen to is the stuff she needs to learn.
The troubles don’t stop there either — the nefarious leader at the center of the movie is meant to be a surprise, but is obvious from one of their first appearances on screen. More than once, the question becomes why Laureline and Valerian can’t figure out what’s going on when everyone in the audience knows exactly.
As is regularly the case, an audience’s mileage will vary with “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.” Just how swept up one gets in the film will depend entirely on how well they receive the visuals, for truly, the visuals are one of the only things to keep anyone intrigued in the film. A long movie, “Valerian” clocks in at two hours and 17 minutes, I would still have happily watched longer—despite the utter mediocrity of the rest of it—just in order to see what Besson might show us next. For whatever reason, despite the city having a thousand species living there, we somehow get to see the same ones more than once and this reviewer wanted a broader swath.
The upshot of the film’s length is that there is plenty of time to have appearances from actors including Ethan Hawke, Rutger Hauer, Rihanna, Clive Owen, and the voice of John Goodman (yes, I know, the voice can’t have an appearance, don’t be so literal).
What “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” does best is balance amazement with disappointment (or worse). It is a stunning visual achievement just as much as the story is told in spectacularly dull fashion. The leads are not monotonous, but certainly not engaging either, and Valerian’s treatment of Laureline is at times more than a little offensive.
I pine for the movie this could have been, for a tale from Besson that matches his visual artistry.

photo credit: STX Entertainment

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