Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Luc Besson has had a history of creating well known and popular films as either a director, writer, producer or in some cases, all three. La Femme Nikita, Léon: The Professional and The Fifth Element are probably considered some of his biggest and most well-liked films. His 2014 film, Lucy, which is getting an upcoming sequel, was, for the most part, critically and commercially panned and I personally thought the film was just not very good. Besson had made it apparent in early 2015 that he would be making a return to sci-fi with the film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which is based on the 1967 comic book, Valérian and Laureline

I’ll state this right now, the movie isn’t terribly impressive and comes off as all style and no substance. Valerian is a remarkably beautiful film that at times can fool you into thinking you are having a good time, but the narrative is often buried behind moments that are created to stretch out the film with poorly conceptualized characters and an awful casting choice for the male lead.

In the 28th century, million of species from all over the galaxy have come together to live in harmony aboard a space station called Alpha. The station started out as a simple structure around Planet Earth and due to the sheer size it had become, had to relocate to another part of the galaxy. The film does a fantastic job of setting this up without it coming off as a ton of exposition just being thrown at us.

The film starts on the planet Mül, and within minutes of showing us this gorgeous sequence, the planet and its inhabitants are decimated by unknown forces. Despite this whole scene having very little dialogue and initial meaning given to us, it is the back bone of the entire plot that will unfold for the remainder of the film. There is obviously more to the plot of the movie, but I’ll dance around certain sections as this is a movie about reveals and conspiracy, even if every single part of the movie is incredibly predictable.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is centered around the self-titled Valerian, and his partner, Laureline, played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, respectively. While I haven’t seen Cara Delevingne in much other than Suicide Squad, and her small role in Pan, her sarcastic charm, and presence single handily saved this film. Dane DeHaan, who I first saw in Chronicle, (a film I really didn’t care for) and would later play Harry Osborn in Amazing Spider-Man 2, is so woefully miscast in this movie he might have almost tanked it. It also doesn’t help matters than him and Delevingne have zero chemistry, which is a problem as they are each other’s love interest in the film.

The pair play special agents of the Human Police Forces and must retrieve a much sought after item, one of which becomes one of two MacGuffin’s used in the film. Eventually, the pair starts to uncover certain truths behind these items and as they start putting the pieces together, the pair is separated from one another several times throughout the film. The story itself is paper thin and several moments feel added in to simply create obstacles for Valerian and Laureline to tackle, many of which are in no way shape or form connected to the plot in any conceivable way.

Besson attempts to capture much of what he attempted in The Fifth Element as there are several times the movie goes back and forth from our central characters to those in some sort of political power and while these scenes are rather well done, the movie rarely ever likes to use what exists already in the movie and often creates new moments that have no bearing on the plot. There is a character early on that swears revenge on Valerian and we never see anything come from that, despite the film being totally able to accommodate that instead of creating completely unrelated events.

The film does a great job early on by showing and not telling, leaving us to see how the world works and not laying on exposition to over explain everything, of which the film eventually starts to do by the truck load. The biggest example of this film being in love with its own exposition is when Valerian first arrives in Alpha. I was actually surprised that both him and Laureline hadn’t been there before, despite the station being the central hub of the galaxy. There is a scene later in the film where Valerian will literally summarize exactly what we had just seen happen.

Apart from the weak plot and cast of characters that you really won’t care for, the film is rather well framed and has some really impressive visual effects. Luc Besson, with regards to this film, reminded me of Zack Snyder, a director who loves to create visually impressive worlds, but usually, fails at giving us compelling characters to inhabit those worlds. Apart from Laureline, I can’t think of a single character that I was even remotely attached to. Rihanna is in the film as a shape-shifting prostitute who has a few fun scenes but is mostly there to shift from outfit to outfit around a stripper pole, a scene I almost felt awkward watching with the group of young children sitting in front of me.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was drastically disappointing and I expected better from the filmmaker. Besson claimed that this movie couldn’t have been made until the technology had caught up with his imagination, and I can totally agree to that, but the reliance on technology to tell an interesting story means absolutely nothing if you don’t flesh out your characters and give us a plot worth being invested in.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was seen in 3D, where the depth was great during scenes of sci-fi cities but limited elsewhere.

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