Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets | Luc Besson | July 21, 2017
Valerian is an herb which is often used as a remedy for insomnia. It has this in common with its namesake in this film.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a visually stunning film which sadly doesn’t have much else going for it. Based on a French comic series with a cult following, it (sort of) tells the story of Valerian (Dane DeHaan), a Major in a futuristic army charged with protecting Alpha, the penultimate City of a Thousand Planets where species from all across the universe live side by side in harmony. He is joined by his partner, Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who seems to suffer from Hermione Granger Syndrome in that she is clearly more intelligent and competent than her male counterpart, and yet the film isn’t named for her.
These two are the biggest problem with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The roles are both acted with no emotion or investment whatsoever; DeHaan and Delevingne speak in a wooden monotone throughout the film. They could have been replaced with a Barbie and Ken doll with the dialogue performed by Siri and little would have changed. Delevingne, in particular, is emotionless even in moments of great dramatic tension; when another character is in mortal danger and she is attempting to communicate with them, she sounds as if she’s conveying her latte order to the Starbucks barista. Their scenes together are nothing short of painful; the actors have zero chemistry. Their relationship also suffers from a case of very badly written and executed banter. Valerian and Laureline are in a pseudo-romantic relationship, and they bicker and make snarky remarks to each other constantly. This would be fine if there were any chemistry between the two leads or if there were genuine moments of affection between them, but as there are neither in this case, we are never given a reason to become invested in their relationship.
Most of the primary supporting cast doesn’t fare much better. Rihanna, who somehow earned a top billing spot when she can’t have more than twenty minutes of screen time, plays a shape-shifting alien named Bubble who assists Valerian. Rihanna is clearly not an actress; half of her line delivery was blatantly unconvincing. Oh, and she gets a dance break because of course she does. It doesn’t further the story in any way, and it feels as though it had accidentally been spliced in from another movie. It is, without a doubt, the most pointless dance scene in a non-musical since Spider-Man 3.
Not every performance was completely painful; though he doesn’t exactly deliver a performance on the level of Children of Men, Clive Owen at least decided to have some fun while earning his paycheck. As Commander Filitt, he chows down on the scenery for most of his screen time. Ethan Hawke also has a fun cameo as a pimp in an alien brothel, and John Goodman also has a brief role as a CGI Jabba-the-Hutt-esque black market dealer. While the human characters are either dull as rocks or cartoon characters, the aliens are wonderfully creative. They’re full of heart, humor, and intelligence; one wishes they had carried the story, what little there was.
The story is all over the place. Certain plot elements are never explained, the narrative loses focus several times, and the third act is so predictable, it feels like a screenwriting template. There are no surprises; if you’ve seen a movie before, you can figure out who the villain is within twenty seconds of their initial appearance. When the inevitable conspiracy is revealed at the climax, it feels like a waste of time, as the audience has undoubtedly already figured all of this out on their own.
For all of its faults, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets‘ great success is in the visuals. This movie is glorious to look at; the alien planets and cities were spectacularly designed, the aliens are wonderfully creative, and this world feels incredibly real. In fact, whenever we’re discovering this universe and taking in the visual feast, we feel a distinct disappointment when the plot comes back in to ruin the fun.
In short, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is eye candy: beautiful to look at, but with nothing substantive to offer. The visuals sadly don’t override the bad acting, a mess of a story, and cringe-worthy dialogue. See it only if you want to appreciate the design and aesthetic; if you’re looking for the next great space opera, this isn’t it.