Intergalactic agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are summoned to Alpha, a space station home to millions of beings representing nearly every intelligent species in the universe, when a strange radioactive zone appears at its core and threatens to consume the entire city.
I’m not sure what I want to say about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Part of me wants to tell you it’s one of the year’s best films, incredible, imaginative spectacle that demands to be seen on the big screen, in the interest of persuading you to go to the theater and make a charitable contribution to the Hollywood Making Big, Weird Space Operas Again Foundation. Unfortunately, the more honest part of me feels compelled to tell you that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets…well, it isn’t very good.
I was rooting so hard for this. Just like I was rooting for Jupiter Ascending a few years back. I really ought to know better by now. With Valerian, part of me always did. Luc Besson’s filmography is mixed by just about anyone’s standards, and mine especially so — Leon: The Professional is my favorite of his, but even that one hasn’t completely sold me on its greatness. And I don’t love The Fifth Element, which is easily the closest cousin to Valerian.
I’ll say this much, and I suspect I’ll meet with little disagreement: Besson is certainly a distinctive voice in the film industry, a French director who makes fundamentally French films for predominantly American audiences. French cinema more readily embraces the strange and off-kilter; the ones I’ve seen look like Tim Burton movies and feel like Wes Anderson movies without fully being either one. Besson brings that touch to everything he makes and only dials up the weirdness. With science fiction, he reaches all the way back to the earliest days of filmmaking and applies modern technology to the fantasies of Georges Melies — while mixing the designs with his own, almost comic book-y sensibility. Valerian runs a close race with The Fifth Element to be the weirdest film Besson has ever made and arguably wins.
So if it’s novelty you want, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets certainly delivers. It might not be a great blockbuster, but it isn’t an obviously corporate one either; it carries no sense of having been focus-grouped to death, quite the opposite, in fact. While technically an adaptation of a series of French comics entitled Valerian and Laureline (minor gripe I might as well shoehorn in here: I don’t like that they dropped Laureline from the movie’s title; she and Valerian are co-protagonists in every sense of the word), it remains a distinct and original vision. You can spot the obvious influence of Star Wars and various other sci-fi epics, but Valerian truly is its own thing, with its own atmosphere, world, and characters.
It’s almost over-designed; every shot is stuffed to bursting with a million incredible sights that often don’t share visual space all that well. The eponymous City of a Thousand Planets is basically a giant, beehive-like mass of ships and lights and towers and platforms jutting out every which way, and I have no idea how one part of it connects to another or how any of it functions. But I certainly do appreciate the effort — not only that, but how brazen its weirdness is, how it has no upper limit or line it won’t cross. The plot centers on an adorable cross between a lizard, a hamster, and a pufferfish that has the ability to defecate magical energy marbles; there’s a scene where Laureline has to hitch a ride with a space pirate to steal a giant jellyfish from a whale monster so she can stick her head inside it and absorb its memories; Valerian breaks into a place by teaming up with a shapeshifting exotic dancer, who mostly manifests as amorphous blue goo with giant red lips, and literally wearing her like a suit. The characters visit a planet that exists in two dimensions that characters hop in and out of during a prolonged chase sequence; I had absolutely no idea what was going on for almost the entirety of this scene, but I kind of loved it anyway. The alien creatures range from the standard “people except green” to weird brain stem things that travel around in little spider mechs. Basically, the movie is completely ludicrous, but it’s ludicrous in the way that most tethers me to this genre.
Not ludicrous? The plot. Well, it is ludicrous, in the same way the rest of the movie is ludicrous — but it’s structurally uninteresting. For all the imagination that went into creating the characters and the world, very little was spared on the story, which is a pretty typical MacGuffin-driven series of semi-connected adventures with tacked-on themes of love and responsibility, cliche on top of cliche on top of cliche. The movie’s novelty only highlights the inadequacy and straightforwardness of its plot. Visually, it’s daring and original; narratively, it’s the same old thing. Character arcs happen for no reason, the ending pretends to have resolved themes the movie never previously addressed, the plot is structured for a big reveal even though the movie tells you who the villain is right off the bat. Characters are vessels for the plot rather than the other way around; if the movie needs them to do something that completely contradicts their established personalities, it just makes them do it and then pretends that nothing happened.
The cast isn’t great either. I was in Dane DeHaan’s corner after Chronicle, but he’s been slowly losing me ever since. I just don’t see him as a leading man, particularly not a cocksure Han Solo type. His bravado and excessive self-regard come across as smug rather than charming. For all its flaws, I think A Cure for Wellness showed what DeHaan is good at — sneering, weaselly rich kids, villains or intentionally unlikable protagonists (the case in A Cure for Wellness). He just doesn’t have the heroic charisma needed to pull off someone like Valerian. He also has no chemistry with Cara Delevingne, which makes their already-hard-to-define relationship completely inscrutable. It’s actually difficult to tell whether he spends the movie trying to sexually harass a woman into loving him or if they are already an item and sexual harassment jokes are just part of their dynamic. It should not be difficult for audiences to make that distinction. But I actually sort of like Delevingne here; it’s not Oscar-worthy, but I enjoyed the “too cool for school,” “mostly just here to mess with everyone” attitude she brings to the part. The rest of the cast is mostly fine, but the majority of the characters are only connected to one of the mini-adventures along the way and disappear afterward.
Unfortunately, the lesson the industry learns from Valerian’s already set-in-stone box office failure is destined to be “people don’t want space operas” instead of “people don’t want bad space operas.” Which is why I kind of want you to ignore me and go see it anyway? I need something in my life other than Star Wars, especially since it’s starting to look like that series is descending into calculated franchiseable okayness. But at the end of the day, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets ain’t it. I don’t want to call it bad; it feels somehow condescending to attack a movie that so energetically goes for broke the way it does. But I can’t say I think its strengths ultimately compensate for its shortcomings. It can be fun in fits and starts, but on the whole, it’s unmoving.