From visionary French director Luc Besson comes a highly inventive and creative sci-fi adventure that simply doesn’t know how to slow down.
Military special agents Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline are called in to secure a rare alien artefact being sold by a black market trader. But when they do acquire it, they discover the tip of a shadowy conspiracy revolving around the destruction of an idyllic alien world.
I’ll be honest, I really, really, really wanted to love Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Not just because it is sci-fi, or even that it is Luc Besson directing (who made the cult classic The Fifth Element and Leon) but because it is my first experience of one of modern science fiction’s founding stories. What do I mean by that? If I told you that the French Valerian comics was a core inspiration for George Lucas when he conceptualised Star Wars, that it pre-dates the Disney juggernaut we have today, I was pretty stoked to see what it was.
While it is a space opera of any sci-fi nerd’s dreams… it doesn’t really elevate itself any higher than that. Tremendously inventive ideas and visuals, but a transparent plot loaded with archetypes and rather disconnected from humanity.
Dane DeHann (Chronicle) and Cara Delevingne (Suicide Squad) headline this story as Valerian and Laureline, two agents with the usual dollop of sexual tension; he’s a hothead who balances skills and ego in equal measure, she is a cool-headed, all-business blonde who ignores his advances. But the film doesn’t really make you feel anything for them; they quip, they bicker, but we don’t really get to know them.
Instead we get many incredible CG-generated worlds and cities, which boggle the mind more with inventiveness than in implementation, truly some spectacular visual artistry at work here. Many great ideas that could have fueled entire films on their own. There isn’t much in-camera effects, or at least undetectable beneath the heavy layers of computerised colours and shapes. But the first major sequence takes place in a market city that exists on another plane of reality; our heroes using visors, gloves and special containers to see and interact with the citizens and their world. Very inventive! It sets the tone for a film that’s rich with creativity.
But boy does it start to feel weightless after a while. This is more like Attack of the Clones than The Force Awakens (to use the source material’s descendants as examples) with performances swaying from deliberately cool and stoic, to just bafflingly flat. One moment sticks out, with Delevingne interacting with an extremely rare alien creature (in fact, the only one in existence!) and she so much as says how excited she is to see what it can do (we the audience have already seen its party trick). Yet when she experiments and voices her amazement, she could not have sounded more flat and disinterested. This disinterested behaviour affects DeHann as well, probably because most of the movie is green screeen.
In fact it is safe to say that the most powerful and emotion-filled performance in this film is given to/performed by Rihanna. That says a lot.
Besson’s own The Fifth Element and this film’s child Star Wars had a better understanding of character development and pacing. Valerian does not stop; it rattles along, throwing new CGI creatures and characters into scenes that are seemingly relevant in the moment, yet ultimately superfluous distractions that add nothing for the characters. Probably references to the bigger universe that the comics inhabit and how crazy it all is, but Besson is practiced in showing crazy in small effective doses (The Fifth Element) without making it irrelevant.
More to the film’s detriment; Besson hopes to make a trilogy out of Valerian and I (without even knowing the source material) could see why. But this is not the first step in making a believable or compelling trilogy.
If it had just slowed down and given us time to process it all, it would have been better for it. Characters would have been deeper, emotions would have run higher in moments of peril, we would want to see them again. As it is, Valerian is an amitious sci-fi marvel, but will probably sink like John Carter did years ago.
As a big fan of science fiction, I would recommend it to anyone similarly enamored with the genre, or anyone looking for a unique experience. It is has some beautiful design and concepts at work, really inventive ideas crushed into one movie it is almost excessive. Just… don’t expect much in the way of compelling character development or a sensible pace.