Since I was a child, I have always had a colossal fascination for everything sci-fi/fantasy. There is some otherworldly appeal to the idea of traveling and exploring other worlds and experiencing new and exciting cultures. Just the idea of getting inside of your Starship or TARDIS or Millennium Falcon is enough to ignite my sense of adventure and wonder, and finding fulfilling films or television shows that scratch that it is truly the final frontier. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is that rare gem that doesn’t inspire me to want to leave my solar system, let alone my home to go to the movie theater.
Luc Besson writes and directs this comic book-based film with the same keen visual standard he gives all of his sci-fi films. A quick glance through his filmography and you will notice his films consist of more misses than hits, but the undeniable tether that unites them all is a strong attention to visual elements. Valerian feels like an unofficial sequel to his sci-fi hit The Fifth Element in the way that he takes us on an exploration of different and distinct worlds. The vibrant colors and stylish designs remain unmuddled by the use of 3D and instead make them pop. Although it is based on a pre-existing franchise, you can tell the character, creature, wardrobe and ship designs are heavily influenced by popular sci-fis such as Star Wars and Star Trek. You will encounter someone in a Boba Fett-esque helmet talking with a soldier wearing a Darth Vader inspired helmet while Valerian flies in a reimagining of the Millennium Falcon as he tries to save the Avatar facsimile race known as The Pearls. These “homages” don’t really take anything away from the film, especially since the optical opulence is one of the few joys in the entire experience known as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
Despite the visual splendor, this 3D spectacle lacks any depth. Luc Besson has shown us in the past how he prefers to focus on visually stylistic choices at the expense of narrative ones. From Taken to Transporter, the stories remain standard, with the usual, rushed character development that becomes second to the emphasis on action sequences. Valerian is no exception, but instead further reinforcement that Besson should not be writing the screenplay for his films anymore. Lightning did not strike twice for Besson’s second attempt at a futuristic space sci-fi, but The Fifth Element holds enough lessons that he should have learned by now. The reason The Fifth Element is now a cult classic is because of how Besson combined visually intoxicating cinematography with a mostly coherent, yet quirky story and eccentric performances from talented actors. The strongest element in the film was how Besson was able to create an intriguing mythos in The Fifth Element. It was simple enough to follow and understand in the short runtime, but also complex enough to keep us wanting to delve into it more.
Valerian may have had about 999 planets, but an engaging story it had none of. The Fifth Element was surprisingly an original script from Besson, which is surprisingly solely based on how hard universe building is for a writer. Valerian already comes complete with a fully established multiverse in the comic book realm, and even so, Besson wasn’t able to capture the spark of the source material. This adaption suffers from the same illness that infects many sci-fi novels or comic book adaptations: compression. Trying to condense the exposition and development that takes place in several chapters is never an easy task. What do you keep? What can you get rid of? How many gratuitous celebrity cameos should you try to cram in? Valerian suffers from trying to cram a film’s worth of history, backstory, and chemistry into the first 20 minutes. Without setting up a satisfying backdrop, the film had no hope of building a climax on its shoddy foundation.
What the story lacks narratively, it tries to make up for with several music video-like sequences meant to keep the energy up and to distract from the hollow story. Even on this front, the film is lacking because these moments are too few and far between, making this space opera sparse on the only hope it had for redemption. Not to mention how it goes for the low-hanging fruit in song choices, predictably opening with a David Bowie song (“Space Oddity”) set to their backstory montage. Aside from the stunning visuals, these short, intermittent musical reprieves are the only line of defense between you and a $15 dollar nap (more if you also bought concessions). Even though they provide most of the film’s entertainment, their obvious choice/overuse in similar sci-fi/fantasy films forces you to think about other, better films you could be rewatching instead.
The absolute, last line of defense in any film comes from the ground troops (actors). Their performances can elevate an otherwise lackluster film, or pile on to the already blazing garbage fire. Valerian places its bets on flavor-of-the-month actors Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, but was unfortunately dealt a bad hand. We are thrust into their relationship in what feels like in medias res. We are supposed to glean from their interactions that they are partners both at work and at home and that they really like each other. With DeHaan creating a perpetually unlikeable character, and Delevingne seemingly only there to give disapproving stares or issue threats, these two are more like The Odd Couple instead of anything romantic.I’ve seen more believable romantic chemistry in a sci-fi film between an alien and the human they are about to probe. Together, they never issue a believable moment of romance, friendship or even emotions, with Delevingne being a close exception. Even one of our key antagonists, played by Clive Owen, spends most of his screen time knocked out, passed out or otherwise just plain sleeping. When Rihanna becomes the most nuanced and entertaining performer of the film, saying Valerian is troubled is a minimizing understatement.