From a purely visual experience, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is interesting. The problem at hand is that the narrative never reaches the heights of its visual palette. For some of its runtime, the visuals are enough to satisfy but it can’t sustain a full motion picture. Director Luc Besson is a pro at visual storytelling (look no further than the far superior The Fifth Element) but I think he truly over reached here and the alleged amount of money poured into the production (as high as $209 million in U.S. dollars) can’t make up for an overall muddled motion picture.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has a pulp-influenced space opera narrative about a traditional heroic type, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan), and his smart, capable assistant/love interest, Sgt. Laureline (Cara Delevingne). They go on missions assigned to them by the Human Federation Government. Their latest adventure involves traveling to a distant planet, capturing a rare creature, and returning to Alpha – the titular “City of a Thousand Planets.” Once there, they must protect The Commander (Clive Owen) as he seeks to combat an unknown danger building deep within the base. There’s also the matter of a seemingly disconnected race of peaceful aliens whose backstory, which forms a prologue to the movie, becomes central to Valerian and Laureline’s assignment.
A lot of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets involves running around in deep parts of Alpha, Valerian rescuing Laureline, and Laureline rescuing Valerian. Although I can appreciate the importance of world-building, the movie detours so frequently from its main narrative trajectory that it can become difficult to remember the point of the story which, when carefully considered, is fairly straightforward. There are also some bizarre interludes that serve primarily to pad out the running time. One involves a lengthy dance sequence featuring Rihanna as the shape-shifter Bubble. Although the character of Bubble is interesting, there’s no reason for this scene to exist except as a way to give Rihanna more screen time. This is a prime example of a director who needed to reign in a bit more in the editing room.
Yes, the real reason to see Valerian is the special effects. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. It’s also a given that movies that spend hundreds of millions of dollars on visuals rarely pay even 1% of that on screenwriting. This is a movie that allows Besson to show off his visual expertise and on that level, it succeeds, but, as pretty as some of the scenes are – and more than a few are very pretty – the movie runs far too long for the story it is telling. The effects are often the point of a scene rather than an enhancement. And more than one sequence plays like a video game – jump here, run, turn, avoid this obstacle.
Dane Dehaan is an appealing actor but he hasn’t really found the right film worthy of his talent. I liked him in Gore Verbinski’s The Cure for Wellness and he was a fine Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but the production never is equal to what he’s trying to bring. The only time his talent has matched the material is in Chronicle and he really deserves that kind of effort again. He’s fine on the role here but you can tell he’s capable of more. Cara Delevingne, meanwhile, is more than capable as Laureline – she’s a stronger actress than one might suppose considering her modeling background and her less than stellar efforts in past films (This isn’t her first film but it’s by far her most high-profile role to-date). She makes Laureline feisty but with a human element and is at home doing all sorts of kick-ass stunts and playing opposite motion captured aliens. She and Dehaan share a nice rapport that suggests affection without demanding overt physicality. The romantic elements of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are surprisingly effective and represent its second best showing, falling only behind the visuals.
In the end, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets deserves a mention as a strong visual showcase but it loses momentum due to a lack of a solid narrative. I still have a lot of faith in Luc Besson because his visual eye is very strong but he needs a little help getting the right story to match his visual prowess.
Reel Talk gives Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets 2 Reels