Director Luc Besson is not someone known for his filmmaking subtlety. From La Femme Nikita to The Fifth Element to Lucy, Besson has a super visual style and will employ every trick in the book to bring his ideas to life on film. And it’s safe to say that no expense was spared in bringing his latest passion project Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to life.
Based on a series of graphic novels (“Valerian & Laureline”), Besson pulls out all the stops in putting this story on the screen. The film follows the two main characters played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as they are sent on a mission to retrieve an object known as a Mül Converter from a shady alien in a fantastical marketplace called Bigmarket. The name befits the place, and interestingly one can only see and experience Bigmarket with special glasses. Without them the place and its denizens are invisible. Of course retrieval of the object does not go off without a hitch, but they get it and take it back to their commanding officer, but things just don’t seem quite right about the whole operation, especially when Valerian tries to understand the strange dream he had about a wonderful planet inhabited by another alien race he’d never heard of before.
Valerian is one of the most visually arresting movies to come along in quite some time. Like Oblivion, there are frames of this film that you could print and hang on your wall. The movie’s prologue in particular is stunning, from the story of how the City of a Thousand Planets came to be, to the story of the mysterious race in Valerian’s dream. These are probably the film’s most successful moments as after the opening titles it begins to suffer from a bit of an identity crisis. Is it a Guardians of the Galaxy style space action comedy? Is it a more serious wartime drama with a sci-fi backdrop (think Starship Troopers without the satire)? Is it a love story with a military, sci-fi backdrop? Or is it just a brightly colored confection filled with humorous CGI creatures aimed at a younger crowd? The problem is it’s all of these so the shifts in tone get a bit exasperating.
The film’s sometimes trite dialog also doesn’t help, particularly when the lead actor’s delivery falls a bit flat, like he’s unsure about how to play a scene — comedy, drama, action hero, romantic rapscallion? It just feels like DeHann never connected with the material therefore he never really connects with the audience. Surprisingly much better is Delevingne as Laureline, actually the stronger, more forceful, more action-oriented of the pair. She’s not taking any of Valerian’s advances seriously, or at least she’s not letting him know she is, but she will be a little flirtatious when she needs to be. She also never allows herself to be reduced to Valerian’s second fiddle, and even we he does try to push her to the backgroud, she still manages to take charge on her own to solve a problem. Of the lead, I really enjoyed Delevingne’s performance more.
There are a couple of familiar faces here and there like Clive Owen as the villainous Commander Arun Filitt, musician Herbie Hancock as the Defence Minister, Rutger Hauer in what is basically a pre-title cameo as the President of the World State Federation, Ethan Hawke in another glorified cameo as Jolly the Pimp, and Rihanna as showgirl/stripper Bubble who has some pretty amazing skills. She’s also a pivotal character midway through the film, and honestly it could have used more of her.
Besson has employed state of the art special effects and the 3D process to bring Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to life and if all you had to do was watch the movie with Alexandre Desplat’s score, minus the dialog, it might be even more enjoyable. In fact, the opening scene with the alien race is virtually wordless save for a few words spoken in their own language, and the actors doing the motion capture work have to use all of their body language and facial expressions to make us understand what’s going on. And it works! The little Mül Converter creature is also adorable and expressive, and any of the kids watching this movie will want to own one the minute they leave the theater, so hopefully there are some toy tie-ins coming. Overall, Valerian isn’t a great film nor is it terrible. It’s a big, expensive, beautiful movie that’s just okay in the story department. And it definitely has Besson’s European sensibilities which means it may not play as well in the States as it does in other world markets. Your enjoyment will certainly vary.
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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets runs 2 hour 17 minutes, and is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language.