A spiritual successor to Luc Besson’s seminal sci-fi film The Fifth Element, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a beautiful, action-packed chase film, marred only by a generic yet convoluted plot, hackneyed writing and wooden lead performances.
• Director: Luc Besson
• Exhibition: 2D
• Rating: 12A
• Run Time: 137 mins
Within the first few minutes of the film, Federal Agents Valerian and Laureline attempt to retrieve a valuable McGuffin from a dangerous criminal inside a massive shopping complex known as Big Market. The only hitch is that Big Market exists across multiple dimensions simultaneously in order to maximise storage space. This means that the heroes need to utilise a variety of gadgets to move between and manipulate the contents of these dimensions to reach their target and escape unscathed.
This is a premise that could have been an entire sci-fi blockbuster on its own but it serves to do little more than set the stage for the actual plot of the film. Across the entirety of Valerian’s run time it delivers more inventive concepts for alien technology and worlds than most works of fiction and weaves together multiple different locations, species and environments together almost seamlessly.
Although Valerian is an adaptation of a comic book it looks entirely unique when compared to the other science fiction film franchises currently at the box office. The closest touchstone is probably Besson’s own The Fifth Element, itself inspired heavily by the Valerian and Laureline comics that Besson grew up loving. From a level of pure spectacle it’s easily the equal of anything Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy has managed in recent years. But Valerian can’t hold a candle to either of those films for dialogue and characters.
Most of the supporting cast do a good job with their one note characters. Clive Owen is a charismatic general who seems to be hiding a dark secret, Sam Spurell is his straight laced but noble second in command. There’s a couple of fun cameos from Ethan Hawke and Alain Chabat as disposable comic relief and everyone playing an alien or robot seem to be wearing their beautiful costumes with as much aplomb as they can muster. In particular Rihanna, appearing as a shape-shifting burlesque dancer, manages to have a more affecting and convincing character arc than any of the other main cast. But it’s the main pairing of Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevingne and his partner Laureline that let the film down.
Their roles seem to call for two people about twice the age of the actors in question. DeHaan in particular doesn’t seem to have been alive long enough to acquire the reputation that Valerian has earned for himself. His attempt at world weary rogue-ish charm comes across like a teenager trying to seem cool by taking up smoking and using the word ‘Sheeple’. Delevingne by contrast comes across a little better; she communicated steely and pragmatic well but doesn’t sell the moments of vulnerability nearly so well.
Neither of them is helped by the clunky dialogue, which feels like it needed just one more pass over to iron out the last of the awkward word choices. There’s particular speech about the nature of love towards the end of the film that seems more tiresome than heartfelt. Although the humour in the various action sequences works pretty well for the most part, the rest of the film takes itself far too seriously for how laboured the conversations can be.
One point in favour of Valerian however, is just how optimistic it is about the future of humanity. Rather than building from a dystopia or any kind of oppressive world view, the characters of Valerian live in a world built by humans cooperating with literally thousands of other species to build the vast space station Alpha, the titular city of a thousand planets. If nothing else, the film seems firmly committed to the notion that the world can and will be better if we all stop squabbling over trivial matters like race or species and work together for something greater.
I went into Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets expecting something action-packed and stylistically beautiful and in that sense I was not disappointed. That the other elements of the film didn’t hold up to that same level is probably not only to be expected but inevitable. It’s difficult to recommend seeing this in the cinema, although the visual design makes a strong case for it. But if you want to be blown away by imagination and wonder Valerian is probably as good a look at an optimistic beautiful future as you’re likely to see this year.