Luc Besson is one of the more imaginative directors going today. The Fifth Element is a personal favorite due to how crazy and fun the film is. It’s imagination without constraint.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is disappointing because it doesn’t contain that same unrestrained imagination. The visual effects are stunning, but the story is a boring, paint by numbers adventure. The film features two leads who fall in love simply because they are supposed to and the fractured narrative barely makes sense. The script and its characters serve only as set ups for the admittedly impressive universe of aliens, planets, and other shiny things, but in the end, the film is a messy chore that is barely worth enduring.
City of a Thousand Planets
In the 28th Century, Alpha is a massive space station known as the “City of a Thousand Planets.” It serves as a hub for the various lifeforms of the galaxy to share knowlege. But when a mysterious menace threatens the sprawling base, Agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are called in to discover the source.
First and foremost, Valerian is a feast for the eyes. From beautiful beach planets to the bustling streets of Alpha, Besson lovingly creates an imaginative world. An opening scene on a paradise planet out of a beach bum’s wildest dream sets the stage. The music, bright colors, and creative aliens show off Besson’s sense of fun and attention to detail. You feel his love for the source material in these shots and you instantly feel something for the aliens you meet on the world.
Besson’s imagination continues with Valerian’s visit to an inter-dimensional market. A market that can only be seen through special goggles is unique and Besson brings it to life with a flair only he can create. It’s one of the only highlights of the film.
Once Valerian leaves that market, the imaginative visuals are still there, but the story settles into a weird stupor. In fact, it becomes boring at times. It chugs along at a sluggish pace and you truly feel the two hour plus running time. The fractured narrative feels like several vignettes haphazardly edited together. There are “twists” of sorts, but they only surprise because the film literally throws the plot turns into the mix without any previous scenes hinting at them. We get non-nonsensical turns from Rihanna and Ethan Hawke that are simply glorified cameos. Their subplots barely connect to the main plot.
When it does get back to the main plot, follows nearly every cliche you have seen in a summer blockbuster. That menace is never all that mysterious and it becomes obvious where the story will go. The sarcastic hero learns something about himself while saving the galaxy. It’s a paint by numbers plot that never adds anything to the science fiction adventure genre. It doesn’t have to reinvent cinematic history, but pretty visuals aren’t enough to make up for a total lack of story.
And Valerian, I Guess
The chief reason for Valerian’s stale turn is its main characters. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne are given action adventure caricatures and share absolutely no chemistry. They are also saddled with terrible dialogue and poor attempts at humor. The film forgets a key to any adventure: If we don’t care about our main characters, why would we care about anything that happens to them?
DeHaan seems uncomfortable as the action hero Valerian. His dialogue never feels real and he is forced to verbally remind the audience how much of a bad ass he is numerous times. It’s as though Besson didn’t think the audience would buy him as the baddest man in the universe. As a result, we really don’t. He gets a handful of decent action scenes, but they are nothing we haven’t seen before.
On the other hand, Delevingne tries to infuse some fun into her character, but largely fails. While Valerian is given a skeleton of an action hero’s backstory, Laureline is given nothing. Is she a strong woman or a damsel in distress? She fights off Valerian’s advances at one moment while suddenly calling for his help in others.
The two have virtually no chemistry as well. Their love story is equal parts ridiculous and boring. We are never given any to believe the two actually care for each other except for some expository dialogue. Like most of the story, their relationship takes turns that are so sudden, it feels as though whole scenes are missing. The romance plays an important part in a decision in the final act, but it falls flat because the romance itself is never convincing.
Most if not all of the humor falls flat. Valerian is late for a meeting with superior? “Time flies when you’re having fun!” he quips. The two agents have to become bodyguards for the by-the-book Commander Fillet (Clive Owen)? “This will be fun,” Laureline sarcastically quips. Part of this stale dialogue could be due to the source material, but it’s a shocking lack of imagination on Besson’s part.
Lack of Imagination
Valerian is a stunning misstep from the usually daring imagination of Luc Besson. While he creates a stunning and imaginative world, he seemingly spends very little time developing his characters and story. This is an unfortunate example of a film that simply uses its story as an excuse for spectacle.
SCORE: 3 OUT OF 10