Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is not to be confused with the Czech cult film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, though a week of wonders is what it feels like writer/director Luc Besson delivers here. Which is to say, it’s a visual marvel, but a long sit.
It does get off to a great start, with a montage demonstrating how humankind finds peace and unity via space exploration: astronauts shaking hands on off-world stations with fellow travelers from other countries and then other planets, to the strains of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” (Some of the greeters are played by filmmakers from Besson’s stable, like The Transporter’s Louis Leterrier and Taken 2 and 3’s Olivier Megaton.) We’re then taken further into the future to the planet Mül, where the lives of the resident elongated-humanoid beings are shattered by a sky-borne apocalypse. It’s all digitally rendered, but its utopian vision is pleasing and its destruction is harrowing. Once we get into Valerian’s real story, though, it’s hard not to think that a feature devoted to either that history of contact among the stars or what happens to the Mül-ites would be more interesting than what we get.
Our eponymous hero, played by Dane DeHaan, is an interplanetary government operative working alongside his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne). In the midst of their missions, they’ve got a tentative romantic thing going on, with Valerian torn between his desire to marry Laureline and his impulse to be a roguish smartass. Trouble is, DeHaan’s Valerian comes off more like a cocksure kid playing at being a seducer than a guy acting both on and against any sort of adult impulses, and there’s not much else to his character. (The actor’s intonations often sound like those of Keanu Reeves, which can’t help but suggest that the older Reeves might have been more appropriate casting.)
Delevingne makes a stronger impression as a confident woman of action frustrated by Valerian’s inability to commit, but their banter is second-hand, hardly recapturing the spiky charm of Han Solo and Princess Leia’s back-and-forth. That Star Wars reference is not made lightly, as there’s quite a bit here recalling that saga, and it serves to remind that the truly great sci-fi adventure films (like the first two in Lucas’ initial trilogy) live on in our hearts and memories not only because of the fantastical spectacle, but just as much—if not more so—due to the people venturing through it.
Still, it’s undeniable that Valerian’s surface pleasures are many and varied, beginning with a major early setpiece in the Big Market, an extraterrestrial, other-dimensional bazaar resembling an explosion of the original Star Wars’ cantina. As Valerian and Laureline venture through this extravagant marketplace to steal the movie’s MacGuffin, a little beastie called the Mül Converter, Besson hurls us into an extravagant environment jam-packed with strange and colorful beings. That’s his m.o. throughout the movie; a half-dozen concept artists receive prominent placement in the credits, and they certainly did their jobs. Valerian is 137 minutes of eye candy that occasionally gets weird in ways you don’t often see in films this expensive.
Based on Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ Valerian and Laureline graphic novels that began in the ’60s—and inspired Besson’s equally outré The Fifth Element—the movie plays as if the filmmaker desired to cram every odd element from the comics into one feature. You can’t accuse Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets of lacking ambition or visual imagination; there’s a new, sometimes eye-popping sight every few minutes. Besson also continues his Fifth Element penchant for casting recognizable actors in oddball supporting roles; here, Ethan Hawke plays Jolly, the gonzo owner of a club in this universe’s red-light district, where Rihanna portrays Bubble, an alien dancer with CGI-enhanced costume changes.
It’s just a shame that the sugar rush has no nutritional value, which becomes increasingly clear the further Valerian proceeds into its slight narrative. Beyond the lack of a persuasive relationship between Valerian and Laureline, there’s never a feeling that they have a personal stake in this adventure. They’re simply pushed and pulled from one unusual place to another, in the service of a purpose that’s only revealed toward the very end in a big exposition dump (and, as noted above, might have made for a better film were it the overall focus). Once the movie makes its left turn into that iniquitous environment where Jolly and Bubbles dwell (and where Laureline is unfortunately reduced to damsel-in-distress mode), it feels like a gratuitous interruption of the plot and pacing, for all the intriguingly strange details. The overall effect is of a lot of kinetic activity spinning around central characters who haven’t been properly developed; to continue the Star Wars comparison, it’s like coming into Return of the Jedi without the backgrounding of the previous two films.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ lack of dramatic interest amidst its visual splendor might have been less frustrating a decade or so ago. But the bar has been raised in recent years by the many special-effects blockbusters that have offered solid human grounding amidst the spectacle; the best comparison would be the Guardians of the Galaxy duo, which indulge in plenty of nuttiness while keeping us involved with its core protagonists. The city of a thousand planets has had plenty of attention lavished upon it, and it would have helped if Besson had taken as much care with the hero who shares the titular billing.