[Mild spoilers.] Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets marks Luc Besson‘s return to mainstream science fiction since The Fifth Element twenty years ago. Displaying a similar knack for bizarre concepts and outstanding visual landscapes (which resemble a cross between Element, the Star Wars prequels, and Avatar), Valerian is a film that appears simply stunning on the surface but lacks almost every other element necessary for an exciting or memorable motion picture. With a schizophrenic tone that often takes long-winded detours to pad out an already long runtime, dry, banal characters that only grow more annoying as the film progresses, and a moral theme that lands with the subtly of nuclear explosion, Valerian fails on all fronts. On the plus side, Besson infuses the film with a vigorous passion – a passion that resonates so heartily that it has the unfortunate adverse effect of underscoring the film’s massive missed potential.
Based on the long-running 1960’s French comic (a series that inspired many sci-fi efforts such as the aforementioned Star Wars and Fifth Element), the film focuses on two space-renowned military agents, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), tasked with retrieving an endangered animal from a holographic desert marketplace. Having accomplished the mission, they soon uncover a dark conspiracy cloaking a decrepit civilization and the genocidal monsters behind it – and they’re all after the same cutesy wootsy animal (a creature that has a peculiar scatological super power).
When discussing Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, many will undoubtedly compare it directly to The Fifth Element. Although the films aren’t specifically related, it’s a comparison that Valerian practically invites through tone, style, and even specific story elements (not to mention the film’s marketing scheme).
Both are strong in their quirky world-building (although “quirky” feels like an understatement), feature characters with comic book flair, essentially have the same moral themes, and even share a similar showstopping (edit: narrative-stopping) blue alien music number while our heroes sit back bemused. Like Fifth Element, there is an apparent focus on style over substance; yet, what made Element succeed and Valerian stumble essentially comes down to three fundamentals: the screenplay, casting, and an over-reliance on technical wizardry and spectacle.
Valerian would serve well as the textbook definition of “uneven.” Without exaggeration, practically the entirety of its second act is comprised of non-plot related diversions. Valerian gets lost chasing an enemy ship, so Laureline is forced to track him down on a long interlude involving a one-eyed submarine captain fishing for mind-reading jellyfish. As soon as they’re reunited, she gets kidnapped by a group of obese alien gourmet enthusiasts and Valerian spends the next twenty or so minutes tracking her down! Do any of these side missions affect the plot in even the most tangential manner, you ask? Not in the slightest. The prominence of three highly aggravating winged creatures…
…during these sequences only frustrate the ordeal. Here’s an inspiring character description for you: imagine the avarice of Star Trek‘s Ferengi crossed with the “likability” of Jar Jar Binks…times three! When one of them gets shot in the arm, I practically cheered until I realized that a.) the creature survived and, b.) the action was the punchline of a particularly perplexing joke – a joke that I am still attempting to comprehend. When one of the aliens jests about not understanding humans, Laureline responds, “Clearly, you never met a woman.” Naturally, the response would have worked if they had said “men” (although, it would be cliche as hell) but unless there’s a distinction I missed in sex-ed, I’ve always considered women to be human (although, in this particular political climate, I wouldn’t be surprised if the word “human” would be considered sexist nowadays).
Why am I prattling on about one bad joke? Because it’s indicative of the weak screenplay, thoughtless humor, and uninteresting characters. The action on screen, despite looking beautiful, was insipid and insignificant enough that my mind desperately grasped for anything resembling context. The dialogue: atrocious. The characters: miscast and cliche. The villain: wouldn’t pass for a secondary James Bond henchman. Heck, after his identity is blatantly revealed early on, the film proceeds to keep him in the shadows during key flashbacks as if to uphold a surprise reveal! Anyone who claims that they didn’t see it coming will do well by themselves to schedule an eye exam…and perhaps a CAT scan while they’re at it.
Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, while not terrible actors, are completely lost here. Their constant bickering is grating rather than endearing and their chemistry is non-existent, completely undercutting the film’s theme of love triumphing over war (sound familiar Fifth Element fans?). Furthermore, not for a second is it remotely believable that these two are the most badass special agents in space. Bruce Willis – I can believe. A younger Bruce Campbell – perfect. Dane DeHaan – looks like he lost his hall pass.
Overall, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a disappointment proving once again that good special effects and imaginative visuals cannot hold without a strong foundation of story or character. It’s an anemic beauty – interesting to see but wholly substance-less.