Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planet boasts some strong visuals, but its muddled plot and lack of character stop it from taking off
If I showed you an image from the colorful and bizarre world of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, you might guess it’s one from Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy. You wouldn’t be far off since both properties pulled inspiration from the original French comic series Valerian and Laureline. Still, this adaptation by director Luc Besson has neither the tight plotting or exciting adventures of Star Wars nor the entertainingly bizarre humor of Guardians. Though visually and conceptually it comes close to the world’s of both franchises, in the end, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets results in a middle of the road space western. But it does have its virtues.
Valerian begins with three enthralling scenes that for different reasons show why Luc Besson is one of the most stylistically interesting directors working today, for better or worse. We begin by seeing the creation of Alpha, which began as the International Space Station but has since expanded to include beings from thousands of planets. Through a montage set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, we see new nations and species join the group over decades, always greeted by an ever-changing trio who welcome the beings with open arms. It’s simple, but effective filmmaking that sets the tone for the piece as a quirky space adventure, but also suggests a theme of cooperation among different groups of people. We’ll get to that.
We then jump to an unknown planet populated by blueish-purplish aliens who live in beautiful harmony on a never-ending beach. The conceptualization and creation of this world is the type of visionary filmmaking we’ve come to expect from Besson. It’s a detailed and beautiful world that doesn’t need words for us to understand the people that inhabit it. Within moments, you know that this is a world untouched by civilization for the better. Though the design is gorgeous, the vast amount of CGI in the sequence — which almost seems like 100% — takes away from the impact. Even if it is stunningly done. That becomes a theme throughout the film. Soon, mysterious vessels begin falling from the sky and begin destroying the world, though it’s not an invasion. We quickly cut away from this world to meet Valerian (Dane DeHaan). For such a large cut of the movie, we aren’t given much payoff.
Valerian and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are the best space agents in the World Space Federation and maybe lovers or dating. It’s not clear like much of the character development in the film. We meet them as they are about to embark on a mission at Big Market. A vast twisting bazaar that exists in a different dimension and can only be seen and touched if you wear a special helmet and gloves. And like the first alien world we’re introduced to, it’s grand and beautifully made and conceptualized. Valerian and Laureline are tasked with retrieving an item that’s being traded on the black market. The action set piece that ensues is truly an accomplishment in cinema. Taking place in multiple dimensions — we see Valerian in Big Market and Laureline in the “real world”, which is pretty much an empty lot — and spanning what seems like miles of this market, it’s a thrilling chase. But the movie never has another moment like it.
Once the object is retrieved, they learn that a mysterious force has infected the center of Alpha. As the pair’s commander Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen) explains, troops have been sent to investigate, but never return. Owen doesn’t get much to do with his character, but he at least brings presence to the film. The aliens from the beginning of the movie return and kidnap Filitt and Valerian and Laureline are tasked with finding him.
The problem that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planet has plotwise is that it doesn’t really have a compelling plot pushing it forward. The blueish aliens are the central mystery and they are somehow connected to this mysterious force, but the movie doesn’t make an argument for us to really care about it. In terms of plot, after the three scenes at the beginning of the movie, we spend the time searching for three different characters that go missing. But they all feel like dead end plots that don’t seem to mean much in the end. Though, a side plot with Bubble (Rihanna), a shape-shifting blue blob of an alien, ends up being one of the most entertaining bits of the film. Even the climax feels like an anticlimax. There are no stakes and we really don’t care about the characters enough to be invested in their journey.
That’s partially because of the casting of DeHaan. I believe he has the potential to be one of the great actors to come out of this generation. But his oddly affected Keanu Reeves-inspired performance just doesn’t work here. The same goes for his chemistry with Delevingne. She does her best with the material she has, but it’s a bit of a thankless role. The visuals are truly stunning. That’s something that I have to emphasize here. And the world is interesting. But unlike Guardians and Star Wars, we don’t get likable characters or compelling stories or even humor to help give the movie personality.
I really wanted to like Valerian. And in the hands of a director that understands character a bit more, it might have been better. But trying it seems like Besson was too focused on creating interesting set pieces, that he forgot to contextualize them within a story, which ends up making them less affected. Somehow, Valerian is less than the sum of its parts. All the elements for a fun sci-fi romp are there — you can find them to better success in Thor: Ragnarok. But they just don’t add up. At the very least, we get an incredible Rihanna dance sequence that proves that she can really do it all.