Valerian & The City of a Thousand Planets has already been labelled the ‘best film of the summer’ and the ‘worst film of the year’, with general reviews coalescing somewhat in the middle of the two extremes. Few films have earned that dual distinction and it makes the life of a film critic a rather exciting one, unaware which side of the fence you will ultimately find yourself on. With the ‘legendary’ director Luc Besson at the helm and the likes of Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne leading the way, is this a sci-fi piece to rival the very best, or more of a disaster?
Agents Valerian and Laureline are part of the human police force, protecting the solar system through various missions and tasks. After Valerian’s ‘dream’ of a crashing space ship’s debris destroying a luscious tropical island and their humanoid race turns out to be a reality, he begins to question why it was beamed to him. A mission to protect the commander of Alpha, a space station containing millions of alien species, turns into a rescue and uncover mission when he is abducted by the same humanoids supposedly destroyed on the beach. Can Valerian and Laureline save Alpha from an impending disaster that would leave the millions that populate the intergalactic civilisation dead and extinct?
Trying to streamline that synopsis was a difficult task, and immediately highlights the main problem with Valerian & The City of a Thousand Planets (one reflected in the title too); there is simply far too much going on to satisfy. Considering the premise itself is thin and sketchy to say the least, it complicates itself with needless plot strands that deflates what is an otherwise stunning spectacle. Quite frankly, it is all over the place and struggles to decide the story it wants to tell.
Throwing all at the wall
It is as if Valerian tries to cram in the origin story and the sequel into one bloated, sluggish product – considering the lacklustre box office performance and future projections, alongside the small fortune it cost to make (it is, by far, the largest ever French production), it is clear Valerian gets far too ahead of itself to care about crafting a solid, sturdy foundation. To simply throw everything at the wall in one go is Valerian‘s biggest downfall and misstep.
Luc Besson‘s screenplay is a crippling mistake too. Not only are the endless B-plots suffocating, pushing the runtime to an almost unfathomable 137 minutes that feels closer to three hours than two, but the characters are as one-dimensional as they come; Valerian is the ‘arrogant jerk’, while Laureline is the ‘kick-ass female’ and they don’t develop beyond that, really. Now, character work is probably not the reason most come to a sci-fi fantasy film, particularly one on this scale, but there is no (human) character to root your care and interest in, which prevents the stakes from ever rising above ‘mildly concerned’.
Because it is such a muddle, a lot of Valerian‘s momentum is ruined. While act one provides a light, fluffiness that gets the ball rolling effectively, it becomes bogged down in the mission as we progress through act two and into act three, which ends the piece on a rather bitter note. Every so often, we get glimpses of a truly inventive piece of cinema – but it is never sustained due to the bloated pace and sheer volume of plot strands and scope it contends with. For an over/under $200 million-picture, visuals aside, Valerian struggles through genuinely dull periods of time.
Luscious visuals but otherwise dull
Besson is far more successful as a director, though, and brings his typically barmy design and marvel to proceedings. Inventive and fresh, the alien designs are a continual source of amazement, and provide the picture with an innovation that deserves to be recognised and heralded. Colours splash and splatter across the scene in delicious, delirious fashion, mimicking the effects of the world’s biggest sugar rush in a truly spectacular fashion. Every single set piece seems crammed with visual treats to appreciate – be it the luscious clouds and tropical islands to the frantic beauty of Alpha and fantastic spaceships – and, for its aesthetics alone, deserves to be seen on the biggest screen in your area.
Besson builds a feel for this spiralling, magnetic world with far more success than he does with any of his characters.
Considering Besson‘s script is so weak, it’s a wonder Dane DeHaan and, particularly, Cara Delevigne escape as unscathed as they do. While both lack the power of more established leading men and women in their conviction, they work well enough with what they are given and are able to infuse some of their natural charisma into their characters, which are otherwise completely blank slates.
Cara Delevigne, who had my backing as the lone supporter of Paper Towns, is delightful and confident enough as Laureline and shows signs of being a genuine leading lady, after the misfire that was Suicide Squad. Dane DeHaan is undeniably talented but cannot help but appear as miscast here, ever so slightly uncomfortable and distant playing the jerk – I guess that’s a testament to Dehann himself? He just about manages to play the arrogant lead but it is so clear that it doesn’t come naturally to him.
Too many cooks spoil the sci-fi broth
Perhaps surprisingly, they both fare better in their individual moments – rather repetitively, they both undertake a prolonged rescue mission to save the other – than when they are together on screen. This simmers down to a slightly stilted chemistry, borne from mismatch of their characters to begin with, meaning I’ll place the blame with the source material, rather than either talent. Discussions of marriage are wholly irrelevant and do little to develop the narrative in any way, instead adding another cook to spoil the broth.
Valerian‘s score and soundtrack is as attention-grabbing as the visuals, imbedding the piece with a suitably quirky identity. Alexandre Desplat’s collection matches the excitement of the intergalactic battles and chases, instilling the film with an excitement during the first act in particular and emphasises the more emotional elements. It does a far more successful job in championing the eclectic set of tones than its script could even fathom, providing the award-winning composer with another soundtrack to place in his impressive discography.
Valerian: In Conclusion
Valerian was sold as a balls-to-the-wall, unrelenting, fire-cracking space opera and, by comparison, it cannot help but underwhelm. On balance, the positives slightly outweigh the negatives; but those negatives, predominantly the messy and over-bloated runtime that feeds into a major disruption in pace and structure, cripple it completely. There’s an admirable depth and innovation to the world building, vision and scope of Valerian; there is absolutely none to the character and the script, impairing the entire picture and bogging it down completely.
What are your thoughts on Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets?