Summer 2017 has been filled with one pleasantly surprising blockbuster after another it almost felt like the good times weren’t going to end until Labor Day. And then comes Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the would-be sci-fi franchise starter that proves on multiple levels that looks aren’t everything.
There’s no doubt Luc Besson is a talented filmmaker. The man behind The Professional, The Transporter series and Taken knows how to make good movies. It’s his pedigree that made Valerian so intriguing.
From a visual standpoint, Besson makes terrific use of the estimated $210 million budget. Valerian is a beautifully realized world with a terrific variety of settings. From a sun-drenched beach with crystal clear water to a murky river with giant fish or a virtual shopping district no two locations look remotely similar. The various aliens are imaginative and are well animated. On the aesthetic front, Valerian is one of the year’s best looking films.
But then there’s the not so small matter of a plot and the actors. By the 28th century, various species have united to a form Alpha, a constantly expanding hub of planets. Alpha’s inhabitants share their knowledge and cultures.
To keep the peace on the human side, Special agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are part of a unit tasked with maintaining peace in the human areas. On one such assignment, Valerian and Laureline start to unravel a mystery that could doom all of Alpha if they don’t stop it in time. Clive Owen, Herbie Hancock, Ethan Hawke slum it up to make cameo appearances. To the film’s credit, this is one of the rare 2017 films with Asian actors have significant screen time.
Besson’s screenplay is probably the biggest misstep. The plot is overly complicated with even worse dialogue. Besson erroneously assumes everyone is familiar with the comic book series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières.
There’s too many instances of quick information dumps where the audience isn’t allowed time to process agendas and what’s happening. Not that the film needed a true origin, but Besson shows the characters fully formed in hopes that the audience will get invested in them.
Besson also throws in some clumsy allegories to contemporary political times like the alien race with a wall stating no foreigners. Besson has enough trouble with the basic setup of the film to try and make some grand statement on politics.
The Valerian/Laureline romance seems completely disingenuous. DeHaan has a tough time making the awful dialogue work in these scenes. His chemistry with Delevingne is non-existent and even with the plot racing them together; DeHaan isn’t able to sell any interest in his co-star or a heroic demeanor in general. It’d be one thing if DeHaan were going more for a poor man’s Han Solo, but he fails to make the main character likable.
Delevingne has an undeniable presence. She carries herself with a cool girl ‘over it’ attitude and has ‘the look.’ She struggles whenever scenes call for her to display other emotions. Delevingne’s line reading is also problematic and she too often inflects the wrong word.
The characters frequently behave in an idiotic manner for the sake of stretching the film along. In one scene, Valerian has to stop Laureline from being captured. Instead of shooting her captor and a handful of guards, he concocts an overblown plan to infiltrate the base with a chameleon only to end up in a shootout with far more guards.
Valerian also has a wildly inconsistent tone. Some scenes are written so goofily that they seem catered to younger viewers. Then there’s bumbling Young Adult romance drama geared for teens. Then the next scene is decidedly more adult oriented with Rihanna in a prolonged strip routine in nurse, maid and dominatrix outfits.
It’s not hard to appreciate the effort that went into creating this amazing spectacle. If only the same amount of attention and care was put toward the plot and the acting, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets could have been the start of a franchise.
Rating: 3 out of 10
Photo Credit: Vikram Gounassegarin/STX