Review: 'Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets' Is All Gorgeous Wrapping Paper Around an Empty Box
Luc Besson is a bit of an enigma — you’ll see his name over dozens and dozens of projects, usually as a producer, screenwriter, or “from Luc Besson, the man who brought you…”. He actually doesn’t direct as often as people probably think, but given a string of spectacular hits in the ’90s — Nikita, Leon, The Fifth Element, he’s built up a solid fanbase, deservedly so. After a quiet few years, directing-wise, he returns with a massive, sprawling science-fiction space opera, the cumbersomely titled Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Despite the acumen of Besson and an almost $200 million budget, the film has flown strangely under the radar. Sure, you lot know about it, but you’re all drooling idiots with too much spare time. The question is, will it appeal to a broader audience, particularly when opening against the likely juggernaut that is Dunkirk?
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on a French comic called ‘Valérian and Laureline’, and if nothing else, it’s made me curious to find the source material. The film itself takes place hundreds of years in the future, as humans have moved further and further into the outer reaches of space, making contact with hundreds, if not thousands, of other races and species. The nexus of this massive interstellar government is a spaceborne city called Alpha, where species live together in different biospheres, each specifically designed for their needs and wants, interacting symbiotically in pursuit of knowledge and advancement. Two special government operatives, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Carla Delevingne), become embroiled in a conspiracy based on a planet of peaceful mystics that was destroyed years before and a dark, dangerous power source that is spreading from the core of Alpha. Mayhem ensues.
Unsurprisingly, given the makers of the film (including longtime Besson collaborator Thierry Arbogast as cinematographer), it’s a gorgeous, inventive piece of art to look at. Aliens are innovative and wildly different in design, often eschewing the basic anthropomorphism that’s so common in modern media. Instead, they live in the air and underwater, ranging from small to huge, brightly colored or near-invisible. They’re strange and weird and quirky, and it’s wonderful to see such unusual diversity. The effects are often stirring, with breathless action sequences and clever ship and weapon designs. It’s one of those rare times where I would say that if you are going to see it, see it in 3-D and on the largest screen you can find.
Unfortunately, despite all of that, it’s all gorgeous wrapping paper around an empty box, because Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets makes a few crucial mistakes. For one, Dane DeHaan was never meant to be a leading man. He’s not a bad actor, and actually I quite enjoyed him in films like Chronicle and Through the Never. Notably, one of those he’s not the lead, and the other he doesn’t speak. But he’s expected to be a charming swashbuckler, a man of action and ability and it just never quite gels. He flirts shamelessly with Delevingne’s Laureline, and it rings hollow the whole way through. And while Delevingne is actually very good, her character ultimately suffers for having to interact so intimately with his. The supporting cast — including Clive Owen, Rutger Hauer, and John Goodman — are all very good, and the film features a couple of absolutely surprising cameos that I won’t spoil if you didn’t know about them, and that helps bolster it somewhat, but DeHaan just drags it all down.
The larger issue is the script, which is a disaster of cliche and recycled tropes. It borrows heavily from everything from Peter Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy to Star Trek, from Bioware’s Mass Effect series ‘Farscape’ to Besson’s own Fifth Element. And while drawing inspiration is certainly fine, outright copying is simply a sign of laziness. This is particularly odd given how inventive much of the film’s visuals are. But there are direct parallels between the character arcs of this film and those of The Fifth Element, down to the “love conquers all” moment that saves the universe and a diva-like performer who helps Valerian. The cityscape borrows heavily from the design of Mass Effect’s Citadel, and the armor the two main character’s wear might as well say “N7” on the breast. But even once we move away from that, it’s just not a very compelling script. The dialogue is trite and predictable, the love story between the leads is inexplicably stupid — Valerian is a galactic playboy who’s always secretly harbored a love for Laureline, and suddenly, despite no romance or intimacy between them in their shared history, asks her to marry him, and then spends the remainder of the movie trying to convince her. He’s kind of a shithead, and she’s actually a very well-written and well-acted character, and so her inevitable succumbing to his charms just grates that much more. The story is clumsy and silly, almost an afterthought cobbled together to help make sense of the really cool sets and action scenes. It’s as if the design and action was filmed first and then Besson and company realized that they had to stick a story in there somewhere if they wanted to call it a movie.
It’s a shame, really. Inventive and innovative space opera is plentiful in novels, but sorely lacking on film. This had a chance to be something special, and visually I suppose it is. But the script is a hopeless clunker, and DeHaan never quite finds his rhythm. A solid supporting cast helps things, and Delevingne is quite fun to watch. But all of those things can’t save the fact that this is a great concept with a lousy story, a fast-paced adventure that somehow feels like it crawls at a glacial pace. It makes sense, I suppose, but it doesn’t feel at all meaningful. It’s a waste of talent and energy, which, given its budget, talent, and potential, makes it one of the bigger disappointments.
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