Review: Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

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Director Luc Besson returns to the genre of the cosmic space opera with a film that creates a tremendous film universe, albeit one populated by paper thin stock characters in the leads.

Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element hit theater screens just a little over 20 years ago. That film showed a director full of imagination, an imagination that created a realm of intergalactic cruise ships, feisty and alien supreme beings and a grounded roguish lead in Bruce Willis’ Korben Dallas. The chemistry between Willis’ Dallas and Milla Jovovich’s LeeLoo are a key ingredient as to why that film still holds a warm place in the hearts of many in the canon of beloved big screen sci-fi classics. Besson’s latest, Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets, an adaptation of a popular French comic book series, takes the blueprint of what made The Fifth Element such a fantastical piece of film, marries it with a refugee tale version of James Cameron’s Avatar, and in the process somehow loses the grounding element that made The Fifth Element work. Instead, Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets is as a feast for the eyes, but one that lacks relatable characters to follow through this adventure in space opera.

Chronicle star Dale DeHaan plays Valerian, a roguish and self-confident spatio-temporal government agent (think a cross between Doctor Who and Han Solo). His partner, Laureline (played by Suicide Squad’s Cara Delavigne), is amazingly competent at her job, but harbors an unrequited and conflicted love interest in her partner as she puts up with his endless proclamations of love and sexual innuendoes. Valerian’s biggest problem lies in the casting of DeHaan and Delavigne; the two are no Willis and Jovovich in terms of on-screen chemistry. The 2 are charged with recovering a converter, a rare animal from a Pandora-like planet called Mül which was mysteriously wiped out during a military black-op, from an interdimensional black market. The two recall the Mül converter, but upon returning, they learn from their commander (Clive Owen) that their space station Alpha has been infected by a toxic presence spreading throughout and Valerian and Laureline must protect him, even as those seeking the commander have a deeper agenda than it seems on the surface.

The special effects in Valerian are something to truly behold. This film cost over 200 million dollars to make and you can see it all up there on the screen. The scenes showing the planet Mül pre-apocalypse are jawdroppingly amazing and actually put the effects and aliens in Avatar to task in terms of believability. Besson has said he wanted to put Cameron’s film to shame and in this respect he succeeds. The aliens and effects throughout Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets are some of the best and most innovative creature designs in years. The opening of the film, illustrating the evolution of the International Space Station into a giant world ship over the course of centuries set to David Bowie’s Space Oddity is one of the best cold film openings in years. Rihanna’s shapeshifting character Bubble shows how much the morphing effect has come since we first saw it in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day; the morphing looks 100% smooth and seamless and plausible.

But for all the eye candy, the acting in this film and throughout the central story are very threadbare. As mentioned earlier. DeHaan is woefully miscast as a Han Solo-esque rogue space-faring archetype. Delavigne’s Laureline comes off as a nag and a shrew rather than as being self assured and independent which seems to be what they were going for in her characterization. The supporting leads are wooden and, in some cases, like Kris Wu, seem to be cast to get a target demographic rather than for their acting acumen. For a film as reliant on self financing as this one was, this was probably a key concern for certain casting choices and it ultimately harms the final product more than it helps. The rich world this film showcases could serve as a home for any number of cool stories. Unfortunately, it feels like the most predictable and formulaic plot possible was the story they chose to go with and its disappointing.

Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets is something a mixed bag. It’s worth a viewing to see this world on the big screen and marvel at the technical achievements on display here. However, its like an amusement park version of the Goblin Market in Hellboy 2: The Golden Army or the Cantina scene in Star Wars. It’s pretty to look at, but doesn’t offer too much more than empty eye candy, albeit very tempting and fetching eye candy that is hollow at the core.

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