Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, 2017
Written and Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, Elizabeth Debicki, and John Goodman
A dark force threatens Alpha, a vast metropolis and home to species from a thousand planets. Special operatives Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.
Assessing a film as all style and no substance in today’s cinematic climate isn’t out of the ordinary, but writer/director Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (also known for the infamously bizarre sci-fi classic The Fifth Element) doubles down on visual grandeur to such a scale that despite how frustratingly flawed and occasionally downright abysmal the storytelling is, the summer blockbuster is one that absolutely needs to be seen on the big screen. It’s hard not to feel that one’s money is well spent once the film introduces us to its first world, which is a tropical paradise reminiscent island type planet full of bright and vibrant colors, along with alien lifeforms that pop with equal color and shine.
Based on the French graphic novels titled Valerian and Laureline dating all the way back to the 60s (yes, this property actually predates Star Wars, which brings up the question of what the current landscape of cinema would be like if Valerian’s stories had been adopted before the galaxy far far away was ever a thought in George Lucas’ mind), Besson has an unparalleled amount of extraterrestrial creations to pull from. On one hand, this always ensures that there is always something beguiling to ogle, but adding more and more doesn’t make for greater quality. It gets to a point that so much is being thrown at the audience that viewers are likely to only remember the aliens that actually service the story. Furthermore, a general golden cinematic rule is that visuals that don’t expand upon the plot are already worthless. Honestly, I would love to know the actual total for how many different lifeforms appear in this galactic romp.
Again, in the moment, it’s undeniable that something truly imaginative and wondrous is passionately being brought to life. Besson has actually written two sequels to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets already without so much as a clue to how this is going to perform at the box office. What that says is that even if he is going a bit gung-ho cramming in every species from the comics he comes across, there is a genuine love for this project. And you know what, the soul of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is evident, which is also something offensively missing from most modern-day blockbusters.
Besson is having such a giddy time adapting these graphic novels that the movie often gets distracted by its own plot, only for those distractions to also take a turn into something even weirder. It’s a movie where the ass of an oversized jellyfish can enhance memories, musician Rihanna gets a magically grounded costume changing dance show and some subsequent scenes exploring the theme of identity, three adorable looking duck-dogs with wings sell information for a price, and that’s not even the half of it. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is essentially a hybrid of Doctor Who and Final Fantasy. It’s a beautiful spectacle, but there isn’t enough time to fully soak everything in, even at the lengthy running time of 137 minutes. One can’t help but wonder if it would function far better as an episodic television series.
Aside from being arguably the most visually stunning movie of 2017, the plot here is also one of the most cliché and dull offerings, making the movie a tale of two sides. Whenever there isn’t mind-blowing action spectacle on display, Besson seems to enjoy having the two protagonist military space operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan, who continues to look like a young Leonardo DiCaprio and sound like a young Keanu Reeves) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne delivering a far more serviceable performance that her recent work in Suicide Squad) bicker endlessly about the obstacles within their friendship/relationship along with the future possibility of marriage. Not only do these scenes go on for an annoyingly long amount of time, the pair also has zero chemistry together, specifically for the romantic moments. The disastrously awful dialogue does not help matters; good Lord it got so bad people in the audience actually started laughing.
The general narrative also surrounds a mystery regarding a destroyed planet and disturbance within Alpha (the titular city of a thousand planets, built over the years during an opening credits montage utilizing classic David Bowie music, where species all over the galaxy have come together to share their individual knowledge and live in harmony), but it is wholly predictable and not really going to entertain anyone. Unfortunately, the movie hits a brick wall and runs out of steam as it reaches the final act, as from that point forward it has to find focus and abandon freewheeling fun. The best moments of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets involve multi-dimensional worlds, breathtaking chase sequences through absolutely gorgeous futuristic environments, and whenever it is not concerning itself with the bigger picture.
Still, Besson has crafted a dazzling accomplishment and a monumental achievement in cosmic world building; Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is escapist and imaginatively exceptional visual flair. Fortunately, there is so much action that it outweighs the bland plot. I am rooting for this one to make a decent amount of money so we can get future installments of the gleefully weird franchise. It certainly beats reboots of properties no one asked for and the never-ending barrage of sequels.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★