Without a doubt, Luc Besson knows how to make a lavish, astonishing, cinematic big screen event films but continues to struggle to connect with the characters and hitting key emotional beats within the story being told. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets excels at being visually striking and exciting, rousing eye candy full of imagination, color, and spectacle; but, it too is weakened by failing to connect its lead characters, Valerian and Laureline, to the story itself. By comparison to dazzling wonders to behold, Valerian and Laureline are flat and dull. It doesn’t help that Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevigne as Laureline have very little chemistry which is a critical misstep for the film given how much of the film’s dialog between the two is centered around Valerian proposing to Laureline. Surprisingly, the character of Bubble played by Rihanna is given a far more engaging arc than the lead characters. This cripples the overall appeal and effect of the film. While audiences will be amazed by the lush landscapes, astonished by the colorful special effects, and thrilled by the fast pacing, the film itself feels hollow without a strong enough character to connect to within its story. The film has plenty of opportunities but almost always opts to focus on the presentation instead of the ingredients. Even with this tragic flaw, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets nearly succeeds by pure spectacle alone.
The story for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based upon the Valerian and Laureline comics by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claud Mezleres taking a serialized approach to its story structure. Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevigne) are highly decorated special operatives in the 28th century who are on a top-secret mission to recover stolen government property. They need to return the property to Alpha, the city of a thousand planets, into the hands of Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen). Once they arrive at Alpha, the mystery deepens as a rogue group of aliens attack kidnapping Commander Filitt. Valerian and Laureline pursue the group into the Red Zone where their actions threaten to destroy Alpha and all those who live in the city.
For many, Luc Besson is best known for his sci-fi classic The Fifth Element (1994). He is also responsible for a number of other well-loved and revered films, many of which touch upon the genre, films such as Nikita (1990), Leon: The Professional (1994), Taxi (1998), Arthur and the Invisibles (2006), and Lucy (2014). Regardless of the critical response, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is certain to garner its fair share of die-hard fans from those who already love the source material to new ones blown away by the concepts, aliens, new worlds, and brilliant sci-fi action. Besson handles these elements with flair and style effortlessly whisking away his audience into a new alien world of wonder and thrills. The opening sequences introducing the audience to an exquisite race called the Pearls as they boop around their daily rituals. The scenes are intriguing, fascinating, and beautiful, promising a strong start for the film. Besson repeats this a few more times as he introduces Alpha, the titular planet, and various worlds located on that planet. Unfortunately, most of Alpha is left to exposition or a quick tour as Valerian smashes his way from one corner to the next in pursuit of the alien kidnappers, leaving the audience craving more. Besson displays a confidence with these displays on modern movie magic that creates a grand and epic scale that is staggering and breathtaking. Together with his team of effects artists, Besson presents audiences with a wide range of worlds and aliens worth revisiting time and again for their visuals alone.
It is with the two leads that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets begins to wobble and veer off course. Dane DeHaan who most first caught in Chronicle is a rising star and a talented actor. With Valerian, he seems to be written as a version of Han Solo but never comes off as clever or as charming. He never brings that endearing drive he brought to Chronicle (2012). He suffered similar fates with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) and, in some respects, with A Cure for Wellness (2017) earlier this year. It may be the flat dialog that does him in with Valerian. It may also be that he and his co-star Cara Delevigne do not share much on-screen chemistry. There is not anything terribly wrong with either of them or the two of them together, however, they fail to convince the audience that their relationship is sincere or terribly romantic. This diminishes the immediate impact of the themes underlining the main plot. It is difficult to believe DeHaan’s Valerian truly wants Delevigne’s Laureline’s hand in marriage. It is painfully evident this is the case when supporting characters are seemingly randomly introduced and immediately steal the spotlight from the leads. Everyone from the various alien races to a pirate, to a fancy club owner, to a shape-shifting “illegal alien” is far more complex and interesting both in their design and in their characters. Valerian and Laureline are entirely the same characters at the end of the film as they are as they are introduced in the first act. They suffer no dramatic conflicts outside those that serve the plot and are no better or worse from everything they experience. With this in mind, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planet lands with a hollow thud.
Throughout the film, Besson and his team introduce the audience to a universe of aliens and characters worth mentioning. The Pearls are worth having a film solely about them even if they resemble the Na’vi from Avatar a bit too closely. Yet, their elegance, body language, and motivation are beautiful and admirable. Early on John Goodman voices an underworld crime boss named Igon Siruss with an entertaining menace while Herbie Hancock appears as the Defense Minister and Rutger Hauer cameos as the President of the World State Federation. Clive Owen has the largest supporting role as the antagonist Commander Arun Filitt, but has very little to do with the character other than display a corrupt authority. Sam Spruell and Kris Wu are Star Trek level supporting cast as General Okto-Bar and Sergeant Neza and are not afforded much to do outside of exposition. Ethan Hawk displays he knows how to chew the scenery as Jolly the Pimp in a fun, enthusiastic cameo role while Rihanna steals a large portion of the second act as Bubble, a changeling alien in search of a life and purpose. Ironically the characters that fair better are those that represent the alien races. Perhaps such is right in a high-concept Sci-fi summer blockbuster.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is sure to amaze and astonish audiences with its superb visual style and sci-fi elements. It collapses under the weight of those elements without a strong emotional core to keep the story itself compelling and engaging. It zips along like so much fluff without challenging its characters or its audience. It may be the best eye-candy of the year, however. For many, that will be enough. The biggest issue the film has is that its leads are miscast. Dane DeHaan fails to bring the charm and anti-hero shenanigans necessary to elevate Valerian to the roguish appeal of a Han Solo type character. Cara Delevigne is a little more successful at bringing some cinematic lure and charisma to Laureline but the weak dialog does her efforts in. Besson seems to realize this perhaps by the amount of time and attention he gives to the aliens, their worlds, and the sci-fi aspects of the story. Whenever he is able to do so without burying his film under exposition, the film shines as the opening sequence with the Pearls exemplifies. Regardless, for Valerian fans and those who adore sci-fi fantasy spectacle, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is likely to fit the bill.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (3 / 5)