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Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Directed by: Luc Besson

Premise: Based on the comic book Valerian and Laureline. Set in the 28th Century, intergalactic agents Valerian and Laureline (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne) attempt to uncover the secret threatening a space station.

What Works: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a sci-fi movie from Luc Besson, a filmmaker who is primarily known for action pictures like Leon: The Professional and Taken but who has also worked in science fiction and fantasy with titles such as The Fifth Element and Lucy. Besson’s sci-fi and fantasy movies typically have a wild and imaginative visual style and that’s especially true of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The movie has terrific setting and creature design. One of the outstanding elements of Valerian’s story world is the way the film breaks from the constraints of human biology; the story revolves around an alien race that exists somewhere between physical and spiritual realms and their world is wonderfully rendered with vibrant visuals that rival anything in Avatar. The film also sports some novel technological flourishes such as an interdimensional market in which tourists use virtual reality gear to patronize shops on another planet. Valerian’s rich visual flair is matched with Besson’s typically high energy filmmaking style. His camera sweeps through the landscapes and the set pieces are edited aggressively but in a way that maintains the continuity of the action. The fights and chases always make sense even while they crosscut parallel action. That coherence distinguishes Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets from some Hollywood tent pole productions as does the movie’s sense of fun. Besson approaches his movies as a master entertainer; he’s primarily interested in putting on a show and that comes through in this film. Valerian is also reasonably intelligent, especially for the kind of movie that this is. The story is somewhat complex and it deals with the intersection of cultures and the trauma of the past in a way that’s got a bit more substance than the typical sci-fi spectacle.

What Doesn’t: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is undermined by a few critical problems. The film’s primary flaw is the casting of Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne in the lead roles. Both actors have such youthful looks that they’re never convincing as hardened intergalactic agents. The filmmakers clearly intend Valerian and Laureline to have a Han Solo-Princess Leia sort of relationship in which they banter back and forth while covering each other’s back. The film never accomplishes that. They are demonstrated as partners in the action but DeHaan and Delevingne don’t have any romantic chemistry. They are not a credible couple; viewers aren’t likely to care if these two get together in part because Valerian’s advances toward Laureline come across as sexual harassment instead of suave. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets looks great but the narrative isn’t all that different from other sci-fi movies. The original comic from which this movie is adapted has been influential on many other sci-fi and fantasy properties. As a result, a lot of elements that were innovative in the original source material come across as clichés to a contemporary audience. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets also suffers from an overload of exposition. The movie has a lot to explain and no good way of saying it. The story halts at inopportune moments so that the characters can explain something that the audience already understands. This bogs the movie down and the pacing is choppy. This is especially evident at the end of the picture. It does not build up to its climax and the conflicts aren’t resolved in a way that is dramatically satisfying.

Bottom Line: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a fun sci-fi spectacle. It’s not a great movie but it does have a personality and a sense of fun that is unique.

Episode: #659 (August 6, 2017)