When the first trailer dropped for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, I was captivated by the imagery – and believed this film could very well be quite the spectacle upon its release in July. Written and directed by Luc Besson (the visionary behind the cult classic film The Fifth Element), my interest was piqued, but I still had my reservations. By the looks of the trailer, could it be all visual with little substance? Can Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne carry the weight of a massive summer blockbuster? Where would it fit in the genre of sci-fi space films? Even though the 1967 comic in which the film is based on (Valerian and Laureline) is said to have been an inspiration for Star Wars, said film and many others have been dazzling audiences for decades. Is this one arriving too late to the show?
Having now seen Valerian, I’d say it falls somewhere in the middle tier of the genre. The film succeeds in every way visually. Breathtaking landscapes and fascinating creatures are abundant throughout. Unfortunately, I feel like the chemistry between the stars wavers off and is often nonexistent, and that the story will be somewhat forgettable as time passes. Maybe it’ll go the route of The Fifth Element and develop a cult following in the years to come, but it’s hard to say.
The year is 2740 and the film follows Major Valerian (DeHaan) and his partner Sgt. Laureline (Delevingne) as they’re tasked with protecting Alpha – a space station so large it’s dubbed, “The City of a Thousand Planets,” – where all walks of life from across the universe have been welcomed on board with the intention to work together, and share their knowledge and cultures with one another. After a somewhat humorous montage of all of the species coming aboard, the viewer is taken to a planet called Mul in what looks to be a beautiful beach-side utopia populated by a race of blissful celestial beings called the Pearls. Another inhabitant of this world is an important species of cute little dragon-like creatures that have the ability to reproduce hundreds of replicas of whatever they’re fed. With this ability, the Pearls use the creatures to give back to the planet nearly as much as they take from it. Yet it’s not long though before darkness looms overhead, and we see their world virtually destroyed by an incoming warship as it crashes down. This sends some kind of shock wave throughout the universe, where it appears to be felt by Valerian.
We meet our titular heroes (though Laureline’s name was dropped from the title for some reason) as they’re enjoying a day on a beach of their own. The dialogue here had me less than impressed with the two characters from the start, and had me worried about the chemistry throughout the rest of the film. Valerian is made out to be a charismatic hero, but DeHaan doesn’t bring the same charisma and charm to the character that we saw from Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy for example. DeHaan was dull, Delevingne was maybe only slightly better. The love story here felt forced and uninteresting, and I genuinely couldn’t have cared less if they got together. If this was maybe the second film of the franchise and we had gotten to see these characters relationship develop more previously, maybe it would have worked. But asking for her hand in marriage before the first mission, and the dialogue mentioned above, just left me with a groan – and we’re only twenty minutes into the movie.
The world of Valerian is filled with exciting places and fascinating creatures, and Besson does not hold back on making this film a visual delight. There’s an inter-dimensional market Valerian and Laureline have to navigate, which was a really cool sequence of espionage – and actually may be the coolest sequence in the film. We meet a mob boss named Igon Siruss (voiced by John Goodman), whom I believed was going to be a bigger threat in the film than he turned out to be. There’s a place called “Pleasure Alley” where we meet an exuberant Ethan Hawke in his role of Jolly the Pimp, followed by a mesmerizing dance sequence by Rihanna as she probably sets the record for wardrobe changes within her brief time on screen. There are underwater sequences with memory enhancing jellyfish, battle sequences with a brain hungry king and his warriors, and so much more. It’s really a spectacle visually, and I can’t compliment it enough on that achievement.
In the end, I left feeling positive about the movie despite its flaws. Besson clearly was passionate about the subject matter, and I think every dollar of the $200 million dollar budget was used effectively to create an exciting new space adventure. If you think back on The Fifth Element after seeing this film, you can even see his inspiration from the Valerian comics for it as well. He’s probably wanted to make this for a long time. There’s even a dedication to his father at the very end, which I for some reason found touching and solidified his passion for the project.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets gets a B-