Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

The first ten or so minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are a spellbinding reminder of just how good a Luc Besson movie can be.

First comes a nearly wordless exploration, save for David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” of how the titular City came to be – the International Space Station is expanded first by international cooperation, and then by interstellar cooperation. Over the centuries it grows into a planet-sized home for countless alien races, gets renamed “Alpha,” and is sent floating off into deep space when it becomes so massive that its gravity threatens the Earth. This is followed by a tragic glimpse of the idyllic beach planet Mül and its primitive, innocent inhabitants, who are seemingly wiped out by an alien ship crashing and exploding. I would think such a small-scale explosion wouldn’t destroy the entire planet, but whatever. Maybe it’s a very small planet.

These two scenes are strong with showing rather than telling, excellent alien designs, and the richness of imagination that Besson brings to his science fiction tales. The problem is… right after these scenes, we’re tossed into the deep end with the main characters, and the plot actually starts. And sadly, these are the weakest points of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, particularly the intensely weird performance of Dane DeHaan and the overabundance of fetch quests.

Major Valerian (DeHaan) and his partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delavigne) infiltrate the legendary extra-dimensional Big Market in order to secure the Mül converter – an animal that can reproduce any item by eating it. But when they get to Alpha to hand the converter over to their superior Commander Filitt (Clive Owen), he reveals that a strange radiation zone has appeared in the heart of the station… and then he is kidnapped by the humanoids from Mül.

Here’s where the plot essentially goes off the rails, because the story could more or less wrap up halfway through the movie. Instead, we’re treated to a series of side-quests that ultimately don’t accomplish anything for the main plot – after Valerian crashes, Laureline has to recover an all-seeing jellyfish from the butt of a whale so she can put it on her head to temporarily acquire psychic powers in order to find Valerian. No, really. And no sooner has she rescued him than she’s captured by hostile aliens, so Valerian now has to find a glamopod so he can infiltrate the aliens’ palace and rescue her, which means he has to infiltrate the red light district… it’s basically a giant oozing mass of filler and wasted time before we get back to the actual main storyline.

That might be okay if the main plot was one worth returning to, but alas, it isn’t. Once the beauty of Mül itself is removed from the story, it becomes a rather cliched tale of innocent flawless primitive natives whose lives are ruined by the Big Bad Military. It feels very much like a pale copy of James Cameron’s Avatar, which wasn’t exactly a scintillating example of originality in its own right.

It’s also graced with Dane DeHaan in the lead role, and he’s a truly baffling choice. The role of Valerian is written as a dashing, bad-boy rogue that others can’t help but be charmed by – the kind of guy who should be played by a young Harrison Ford or Kurt Russell. DeHaan looks more like a fifteen-year-old goth kid, with a voice that perpetually sounds like he’s trying to sound deep and intense. Watching him is a bizarre experience, particularly when he tries to romantically pursue Laureline – it’s like watching a teenage boy hitting on his long-suffering babysitter.

It’s also extremely uncomfortable, because the character crosses the line from romantic pursuit right into sexual harassment. He is repeatedly told by Laureline that she is disinterested in him romantically, but he keeps pestering her as she rolls her eyes and shoves him away. Naturally, this is depicted as charming and endearing, and that it’s just a matter of time until he wears down her resistance and wins her heart. It’s very unpleasant.

The other characters and actors are… okay. Delavigne isn’t given much to do, save be exasperated by everyone around her, but she’s competent enough. Rihanna has a brief but fairly memorable role as a shapeshifting prostitute who puts on a full song-and-dance routine for DeHaan, and she gives a mediocre but inoffensive performance. Clive Owen is also fairly good, although the supposed twist involving his character is fairly obvious to anyone who has ever seen this sort of science fiction before.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is something of a successor to James Cameron’s Avatar: profoundly cliched and not particularly interesting in plot, but visually entrancing and memorable. It’s just a shame that Besson couldn’t produce a script – or a cast – that lived up to those scintillating visuals.

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