Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
The vistas in the universe in which Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is set are colorful, creative, and engaging to watch. In the first act, the space cops Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) take part in what amounts to an asset forfeiture/legally sanctioned heist. The heist is so creatively staged in its use and depiction of separate dimensions on the same plane that it leaves the viewer eager to find out what happens next.
Their mission to retrieve the space MacGuffin takes them to Alpha, which started as Earth’s international space station. An opening montage establishes humanity’s first contact on the station with several alien creatures with creative designs (few of the alien species, save one, is really given much personality). The space station bolts together like Lego blocks, each new species establishing its own presence and growing the city to its "Thousand Planet" moniker. To Besson and the crew’s credit, the station feels lived in, with each biome having its own flavor and unique features. The art direction and set design stand out by far, in just how much they set each disparate section of Alpha apart from the others. There’s very little of the sanitized “Apple store in space” aesthetic you might find in a cheaper production, and it is to Valerian’s credit. The money here was clearly spent on the aesthetics.
I just wish they’d given the script anything approaching a worthwhile story. The MacGuffin is a creature that can replicate anything it eats. As it can replicate even rare materials, it’s plainly stated that mercenaries and the less savory types on Alpha would come looking for the replicator. But they never do. It’s stowed away on a character’s belt, even after the character has a costume change, and isn’t really even mentioned again until the final act.
The MacGuffin in essence belongs to a race who were all but wiped out in a cataclysm on their home planet. While, overall, their story seems to be one of the evils of colonialism and fascism, the events of said story shows the refugees of this race pretty clearly benefiting from it, as their survival is reliant on the very technology that wiped them out. This story is a thematic mess.
And that’s not even to speak of the attempted love story between Valerian himself and Laureline. Until their final moment onscreen, I didn’t buy their chemistry at all. In execution, their dynamic came off as one where Laureline professionally humoring Valerian’s workplace advances. But the final moment where they do get together makes a lie out of what came before. So, either their romantic chemistry was poorly directed, or the final moment was tacked on for some kind of will they/won’t they resolution. DeHaan and Delevingne are wooden enough in Valerian that I could not tell you which is true.
That’s not to say Besson didn’t assemble one hell of a supporting cast—he just doesn’t do much of anything with them. And that’s a damn shame. John Goodman has a single sequence to voice a character who sells some menace and then leaves the movie entirely. Herbie Hancock and Rutger Hauer both have what amounts to cameo appearances. Clive Owen seems like he was cast for a role with more to do than what he gets. Rihanna… is also there. Ethan Hawke shows up as a space pimp and shows more life in five minutes of screen time than the rest of the film, seemingly calling back to Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg from The Fifth Element (wrote that out from memory, ya nerds). He’s such a shot in the arm to this film that his exit is all the more unceremonious for the necessity to move the story forward.
The real problem with the film comes down to this: for all its wowing visuals, it spends more time telling than showing. Valerian can’t enter a section of Alpha because his AI tells him so. We have flashbacks to events and then have those events referenced immediately afterward with new information, when the same flashbacks could’ve demonstrated the same.
There are glimmers of a good movie in Valerian, but they’re all smothered in favor of something far, far less than the sum of those parts. Wait for rental or cable if you have to see it at all.