Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Runtime: 2 hours 17 minutes
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, and Rihanna
French director Luc Besson has never been one to shy away from bizarre or surreal material. One of his most iconic films, The Fifth Element (1997), is a strange sci-fi odyssey with over-the-top performances (most notably from actors Chris Tucker and Gary Oldman), bizarre lore, and a well-executed artistic vision. In many ways, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is quite similar to The Fifth Element with the exception of one: being good.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (or just Valerian for short) is about a pair of space soldiers Valerian, played by Dane DeHaan, and Laureline, played by Cara Delevingne, who are tasked with identifying a mysterious threat to Alpha, a gargantuan city composed of species from a thousand unique planets. Along the way, Valerian and Laureline encounter a slew of strange and zany characters that they must befriend, evade, or kill in order to complete their mission. If that rundown of the plot sounds pretty generic, it’s because it is. Valerian is based off an old French comic book called Valerian and Laureline that was initially published in 1967. Since its first publication, Valerian and Laureline has influenced some of pop-culture’s most popular franchises (e.g. Star Wars, Independence Day) and molded the science-fiction genre into what it is today. In other words, Valerian is in essence a cliché, a cinematic archetype. And that’s where virtually all of the film’s faults lie.
The film opens with an intriguing montage of humanity’s completion of an international space station called Alpha. Over time, more nations dock into the space station and are greeted with a handshake from the space station captain. Eventually, advanced alien races begin to dock at the station and before we know it the once average human space station becomes a mass of spaceships so big that it develops its own gravity, forcing the station to break off from Earth’s orbit and into deep space. The opening as I described along with a subsequent sequence on a beach planet with Na’vi-esque aliens, are easily the best parts of the movie. It would have been much better if the film had furthered the tone and direction that the prologue and opening scene started, but instead it insists on jumping headfirst into a stale, run-of-the-mill sci-fi plot with Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne at the helm. Almost immediately, it’s clear that DeHaan and Delevingne don’t exactly fit in the film as Valerian and Laureline, respectively. It’s implied that the character of Valerian is some kind of intergalactic badass like Starlord or Han Solo and that’s fine, however anyone that follows actor Dane DeHaan’s past performance will know that he does not nor has he ever conveyed that sense of “badass” on film. Rather than accommodate the actor’s inherent personality by adapting the Valerian character for the actor, Dane DeHaan is forced to do the best he can. While DeHaan is simply miscast in the film, Cara Delevingne actually isn’t that bad. The primary issue is on-screen chemistry between DeHaan and Delevingne. Their chemistry is very much presumed and undeveloped, so nearly all of their dramatic interactions fall flat and by the end of the film, not much changes that dynamic. However, I suspect that much of that lack of dramatic potency stems from the weak script.
Firstly, the dialogue between the two main characters is unoriginal through and through, echoing snarky quips and exchanges spouted by every action hero for the past 40 years. In fact, I found the dialogue in Valerian very reminiscent to the dialogue in Independence Day: Resurgence, a horrible sequel whose predecessor was aptly inspired by the old Valerian comic series. Both films presume that their dialogue is clever and witty when in reality it’s insipid, cliché, and uninspired. Secondly, the plot is not just sloppily executed, but it also feels awkwardly dated. Each location change is displayed like a new level in a videogame fit with characters that begin and end within the sequence. In fact, the film flows very much like a videogame plot minus the enjoyment of being able to play it.
It really is a shame that Valerian turned out the way it did, because there is a lot that’s good about it that is nullified by the poor casting and writing. The special effects on display are the most imaginative and fully realized since Avatar (2009). It’s clear that this was a passion project for director Luc Besson and for what it’s worth, the film never feels like a shameless cash grab. While the dialogue is often times bad, the screenplay does not shy away from the liberal humanist themes that were a staple of the original comic. The world the film inhabits is quite literally defined by diversity and it’s encouraging to see that some blockbusters are willing to risk financial profit for something they legitimately believe in, which ended up being the case since Valerian has yet to break even more than three weeks after release.
Valerian shows promise with impressive special effects and interesting lore, but a weak script and already established sci-fi culture keep it from materializing into a good film.