Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevigne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Sam Spruell, Ethan Hawke
Plot: Officers Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevigne) keep the peace in a giant space station that forms an alliance between thousands of unique alien races.
There is a poignant message to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets that feels especially important in today’s political climate. The film opens with the joining of the International Space Station, several nations working together to build something great in space. As David Bowie’s Ground Control to Major Tom plays out (let’s be honest, he would have loved this movie), countries from all over the world shake hands, exchange cultures and put a pause on the fighting. Humans are better when we work together. But not just humans. By the end of the montage, the Space Station is shaking hands with all forms of alien species, travelling across the world to join humanity on this message. This works as the opening for the film, as everyone works together to build Alpha, a city floating in space, consisted over pieces of spaceships coming together. With every new alliance, Alpha, the city of a Thousand Planets, grows stronger.
It is a strong message and important to the power of Besson’s latest picture. However, seeing as he summarises it in a strong opening sequence, it doesn’t hang around long enough to help the overall picture. So, how is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets? Besson seems to have two modes of directing: the insular, personal one man army movies like Lucy and Leon… or as with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, all-out Sci-Fi. Last time, Besson approached a movie on this large a scale, it was the Fifth Element, the alternative cult Sci-Fi, for those that like a touch more wackiness with their Star Wars adventures. Like Fifth Element, it is an easy movie to scoff at, if you don’t bother meeting the director halfway. The plot hinges on a small, adorable creature that, when we ground the premise down to brass tacks, defecates natural resources. It also prides itself on all things Sci-Fi, not one moment not dedicated to visually bringing to life an alien new world. The CGI here is astonishing, an early sequence on a jaw-dropping beach like planet, inhabited by peaceful aliens. The backdrop is augmented with digital enhancements and the animated aliens so perfectly crafted, your mind spends most of the sequence pondering if you are watching animation or reality. While most movies are almost ashamed of using CGI, Besson seems to head into the other camp, wondering why it is not used more often. His movie is almost a frame-by-frame love letter to how far technology has come. Swooping shots of Alpha show civilisation after civilisation, inventive alien species brought to the cinema screen with such frequency, you struggle to keep up with the beauty of it all. While perhaps Valerian doesn’t bother to flesh out any of its alien races, the pace kept so brisk, nothing we see is ever developed much further than ‘ooh, that looks cool…”, it does create this sense of marvel at what is lurking out there in the depths of space. Valerian is at its best, when it is coming up with creative action sequences and letting the CGI do the talking for it. Cara Delevigne pilots a fishing sub away from gigantic sea creatures. DeHaan fights a battle from a different dimension. Rihanna pops up for a strip tease that takes Salma Hayek’s iconic dance in Dusk Till Dawn and propels it to levels that we could get away with in a Besson Sci-Fi like this. Your enjoyment of this film depends on how much pure imagery can carry you through a story.
Because sadly, the script and performance side of the movie doesn’t ever hit the heights of the direction. It is almost as if Besson cast his movie based on looks alone. Clive Owen looks the part of the stern, commanding officer. Delevigne is appropriately bad-ass, pretty to look at and with a punch powerful enough to lay siege to every one of the bad guys without the help of her partner. However, there is no depth to any of the characters. Delevigne has only ever been able to carry her characterisation to a certain point and here you realise she can handle the quips, but we aren’t going to get too much more from here. DeHaan is usually a lot better, but he seems miscast as the womanising figure of ‘James Bond in Space’. Perhaps the script is more to blame than the two actors. Most of the dialogue and bonding between the two leads is playful flirting that Delevigne sternly ducks away from. It probably looked quite fun on paper, but it feels oddly one dimensional. Separate, I am happy to spend time with the two characters, but because of the limitations of their performances, together there is a strange absent of chemistry. This is a crying shame, when Valerian is essentially a buddy cop movie in space. Imagine Lethal Weapon if we didn’t care about Gibson or Glover! It puts the rest of the movie in an awkward space to review. Valerian flirts with the concept of an over-arching plot, but feels like a TV series that was desperate to condense itself down into a feature. The main plot and villains feel like the kind of TV show big bad that ticks away in the background for every episode but the finale, kept to the shadows while the heroes are off doing separate, vaguely connected adventures. Besson is all too ready to drop developing his main story and throw Valerian and Laureline into a CGI-filled adventure on the side. It makes the finale severely under-cooked. However, seeing as this is a movie with little depth and all visuals, perhaps this is actually a good thing. The best moments, perhaps the saving face of this movie, are the adventures that cut away from the central storyline and just have fun elsewhere. Without these sub-plots, we would very likely get something akin to Jupiter Ascending, a space opera without the heart. Therefore I find myself both praising and condemning these moments of the film, quietly relieved that Besson took the time to make them. Sadly, the painful side effect of this decision is that Valerian is a bloated film, an overloaded production, that hits a staggering running time of over two hours. The fun is slowly drained from the visuals, as patience wears thin. Besson lacks the power to be more strict with his vision. It is a shame, because I really want to like this film, but it keeps tripping itself up in its desire to entertain.
Final Verdict: Visually stunning and packed with fun adventure sequences, Valerian sadly lacks depth and consistency.