Film Review – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Imagine you go on a date with a gorgeous looking person. The two of you go out to a fancy dinner, dressed up in a way that induces double takes. You sit down at your table, excited for the evening you’re going to spend. Then, almost immediately, you come to find out your date is the dullest person you’ve ever met. They have nothing interesting to say outside of the superficial, and after a short while you question why you ever considered go out with them in the first place.
That is the exact experience you will get with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017). Written and directed by Luc Besson (adapted from the comic book by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières), Valerian is a feast for the eyes. Disappointingly, it’s also a complete and utter mess of a movie. Yes, it is very pretty to look at, but surfaces can only take you so far. In theme, character, and drama, it lacks any kind of meaningful substance. For a story that has space battles, alien creatures from all over the universe, and plenty of imagery to gawk at, I found myself struggling to stay invested. It’s an empty experience that leaves very little impact.
You have to give it to Besson though, he knows how to swing for the fences. With his special effects team, he fulfills the promise of the title. He doesn’t just create a world, he creates multiple worlds with breathless ease. Any of the places or creatures we see could have been the primary setting for any other narrative. We start at the International Space Station, with ships from other countries attaching onto the main structure, causing it to grow. Fast forward way into the future, and the station has grown into the size of a planet itself, incorporating both humans and extra terrestrials from all over the galaxy.
Besson weaves through these different areas of the station (now called “Alpha”) as though he were flipping through TV channels. At one point, we are in an area filled with robots, the next we’re underwater with amphibian like creatures, then on to the command center that looks like a knock off from Battlestar Galactica. While these environments and characters display a sense of creativity, Besson undermines it by never taking a moment to stand back and marvel at it all. He is so quick to move on to the next scene, or the next place, that none of it sticks in our minds. Why take the time to create such magical places if we can’t hang around for longer than a few minutes?
I spent most of the time talking about the visual aesthetics because the plot is utterly forgettable. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are two special operatives tasked to keep the peace throughout the human territories. Their latest mission involves saving an alien species from going completely extinct. Long ago, these tall, pale, wide-eyed beings lived comfortably on their home planet. But a sudden disastrous event destroyed their world and the majority of their population. Their only hope for survival lies in a small, dog like animal that – and I’m not kidding you about this – literally poops magical pearls that is the source of the aliens’ central life force.
I know, I had a hard time buying that last sentence too, and I’m the one who wrote it!
You would think that a story that incorporates animals pooping ingredients necessary to sustain life would make for a fairly entertaining romp. To the film’s credit, there is a tongue-in-cheek tone, as everyone involved seems to know how silly this whole ordeal is. But the fact that the production knew what kind of story this was doesn’t forgive how dull it is. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne both look like they were lacking some serious sleep. They spout dialogue as though neither of them believed what they were saying. The romance between Valerian and Laureline felt like a satire, and if that were the case, the satire wasn’t strong enough to get the point across. How do we know that Valerian is a strong, brave, charismatic character? Because he says so. Why does Laureline become infatuated with him? Because the screenplay requires it to happen.
We can thank Valerian for helping us remember how good of a movie James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) is. Say what you will about the originality of that film, but Avatar showcased a singular place that felt lived in and evolved. Cameron took the time to show us how Pandora worked and how the Navi lived, all while examining themes of environmentalism and humanity. He did all of this while making it a fun sci-fi action adventure. Valerian tackles the same kind of material while pushing the envelope ten-fold, but the result falls far below Avatar’s accomplishments. It’s one thing to create a brand new world, but it’s another thing entirely to create one that feels fully alive.
Ethan Hawke and Rihanna both make cases for this year’s Razzie awards. Hawke plays the owner of a bordello onboard Alpha, with Rihanna being one of his shape shifting escorts. Hawke, in his short scene, goes for broke with his flamboyant, neon-lit character. This might be him simply having fun while earning a paycheck, which is fine, but his talent and pedigree is deserving of a far better role. Rihanna has the unfortunate duty of playing a character whose talent is morphing into anything a customer desires. She changes to fit a person’s desires. Besson dedicates an entire scene in which Rihanna strip teases in front of the camera, switching costumes in the blink of an eye. Just like the rest of the film, if you’re here for the eye candy, you’ll get it, anything deeper will come up short.
In a summer filled with good to great choices for every movie fan, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets comes in as a head scratching oddity. It deserves a hand for its go for broke, no holds barred attitude. But sometimes, effort alone is not enough to stand out.