Dazzling and ingeniously designed, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has a enough momentum to carry its reluctant star to the finish line.
It’s great to see Luc Besson back making visually arresting sci-fi movies. Like his previous attempt at the genre, The Fifth Element, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a visual feast. Its opening sequence is breathtaking, even if its a little reminiscent of Avatar. And each subsequent sequence builds on it with phantom markets and fifty or so complex alien environments playing host to Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline’s (Cara Delevingne) latest case.
Tasked with recovering the last Pearl Converter, a rare mammal-like creature capable of reproducing in great quantities anything it eats, the two agents stage a daring raid on a market out of dimensional sync with the normal universe. It’s a key sequence as it presents many of the film’s great qualities. There’s the thrilling inventiveness of the setting and the clever way that dimensional shift is used to pull off the heist and save Valerian’s hide when it all goes pear-shaped. As the camera passes in and out of both dimensions, there’s a giddy fun to the chase — even when the viewer is reminded that the market is a big empty desert in conventional space.
But the real story begins when the agents return to Alpha, the titular city of a thousand planets. There, the nature of their mission comes into doubt as an immediately suspect Clive Owen tells them that the city is endangered by a radioactive airborne event at its ancient core. Once he ends up kidnapped by the same race of Pearls from the beginning of the film, it’s up to Valerian and Laureline to rescue him, and each other, from the relative depths of Alpha.
As a setting, Alpha is magical. During a helpful preview sequence, the viewer is given a glimpse of some of the environments the main characters will soon be visiting. Some you only ever see in a flash, others become major settings. Each is an amazing example of art direction and creativity. Any three would be enough for the level of detail on display, but Besson offers you at least a dozen to consider. And while I tend to dislike 3D, the film is actually aided by the illusion of depth. It just looks great.
However, depth is only an illusion when it comes to the story. I’ve never read a Valerian and Laureline comic, but I’ve read enough European comics like Corto Maltese to know there is a certain elliptical quality to them. Valerian reproduces that quality of a story suggested rather than told; one tends to see in Besson’s work as well. It’s probably no accident as he was first inspired to create his own work by comic books like Valerian and Laureline to begin with. Nevertheless, it rankles at an American sensibility which expects a tighter plot and more traditional character arcs. For seasoned moviegoers, the relative ease of the case and the non-mystery of Clive Owen’s objective will definitely leave some dissatisfied. Meanwhile, an attempted romantic subplot between Valerian and Laureline feels forced; seemingly added because a male and female partnership “always” leads to romance.
Their romantic entanglement could be a feature of the comics as well, but in the hands of Besson — whose screen romances always feel a little juvenile — it’s out of place and makes both leads less engaging as a result.
Although, I’m not sure anything could make DeHaan all that engaging as Valerian. Again, I’ve never read one of the comics, but I recognize the aloof womanizing character from any number of other French or Italian comics. And DeHaan does his best to replicate it. In fact, in another ten years, I might welcome him as the aloof but sexless Corto Malteese. Unfortunately, that cool, disaffected demeanor makes Valerian the least interesting thing about the film. Which is a shame as he has a great scene partner in Delevingne. She may be the most naturally Besson-style actor that he’s ever cast. She’s expressive and strange. Her line readings are odd even as she brings the sort of sass the film needs to deflate the seriousness of the plot. In some ways — and this might be intentional — DeHaan and Delevingne might be distinct halves of one character. Valerian is the runner and the fighter while Laureline is the talker and the thinker.
Once again, that might true in the comics.
As a film, though, it makes you want to see Laureline as the title character. She has a more soul to her and even if the point of the film is for Valerian to acknowledge that, it doesn’t quite work on screen. Perhaps if the romantic element had been more flirty and playful, it would’ve been more fun. Meanwhile, Besson goes out of his way to provide situations in which both characters play damsel and rescuer, suggesting an equality Sci-Fi films still have a hard time finding.
Despite the thin story and flat performance of DeHaan, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is worth seeing for all the inventive world building on display. It’s a gorgeous Sci-Fi reality delivered with great expertise. It also features fantastic creature designs. Beautifully photographed, it transports you to that same child-like place where Besson finds his science fiction inspiration.