Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) Review
BUT ULTIMATELY SHALLOW
Back in 1997, French filmmaker director Luc Besson released the sci-fi film The Fifth Element. The movie, which starred Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, and Chris Tucker, told of imaginative sci-fi tale of American-style blockbuster aesthetics and quirky sense of French oddity nuances. While The Fifth Element was received as a only a minor hit with critics and moviegoers (the film did create a cult following several years later), Besson started to have the idea for another potential sci-fi project; a feature film to be based on the French sci-fi comic book series Valerian and Laureline, which was created by Pierre Christin and first released in 1967. It was during the filming of The Fifth Element that Besson conversed with Valerian’s illustrator (Jean-Claude Mézières) and shared encouragement to create a Valerian movie. Unfortunately, feeling that the current available technology of moviemaking visual effects wasn’t up to par for such an ambitious film project, Besson shelved the idea of making a Valerian movie and pursued the idea of creating more “earthbound” feature films ranging from The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, the Arthur and the Invisibles trilogy (Arthur and the Invisibles, Arthur and the Revenge of Maltazard, and Arthur 3: The War of the Two Worlds), and Lucy. However, after seeing James Cameron’s Avatar and other heavy visual effects movie, Besson’s possibility for creating “his” vision of a Valerian movie seemed much more plausible and within reach. So, twenty years after he created The Fifth Element, director Luc Besson (along with STX Entertainment and Europa Corp) returns to outer space and beyond with the movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Does Besson’s passion project soar into cinematic deep space or does it get lost within the vastness of Alpha (the City of a Thousand Planets)?
In the distant future, when human civilization has not only mastered space travel, but help construct a massive space station, called Alpha (the City of a Thousand Planets) where they live alongside all manner of alien beings from far off worlds. Special operative Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are galactic agents for the human government, handling dangerous missions as a team and sharing a flirtatious relationship with each other. After completing a routine mission (to procure a rare creature), the pair return to Alpha to report to Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen), who tells them that a dark, mysterious force threatens the entirety of the massive space station. Valerian and Laureline must race against time and travel across the varying habitants of Alpha in order to get to the bottom of the evil that could wipe out the space station and all the alien denizens who also call the City of a Thousand Planets home. However, Valerian stumbles across a mysterious alien race whose history may or may not be linked to the evil that threatens Alpha. It’s up to Valerian and Laureline to get to the bottom of this enigmatic plot, encountering various alien creatures, testing their training and using their intellect to discover the root of threat against Alpha and protect the City of a Thousand Planets.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
When I was younger (roughly the time when I was in middle school), I remember seeing The Fifth Element and found it to be a fun and entertaining movie. Like I said in the above paragraph, the film was definitely an odd mixture that was a bit quirky (definitely different from the other movies that came out around its time) and American-style blockbuster, especially with the film’s stars (I.e. Willis, Jovovich, Oldman, Tucker). I mean, come on…. who doesn’t remember the song / dance of the Diva Plavalaguna from the movie. While I did enjoy The Fifth Element (and still do), I really never watched any other one of Luc Besson’s films. Of course, I’ve knew of them, including The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, La Femme Nikita, and Lucy, but never actually sat down and watched them as I only know them through their reputations.
Which brings me back to my review for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. I personally never knew nor read the Valerian comic books, which ran from 1967 to 2010, so I had very little to no knowledge prior to seeing the movie of its source material. I’ll admit that I was quite taking with film’s marketing campaign. The film’s various trailers / TV spots definitely peeked my nerdy sci-fi interest and curiosity to see the movie as well. I mean the film was being presented as a grand summer blockbuster with plenty of sci-fi nuances (i.e. spaceships, futuristic weapons, other planets / worlds, various alien beings, etc.). Although the movie wasn’t on my Top 15 Most Anticipated Movies of 2017, Valerian quickly became a film that I was eager to see. So, what did I think of it? Did it leave up to my expectations? Well, not exactly and that’s kind of the disappointment, for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, despite is ambitious and visual appeal, is a messy, overlong sci-fi romp that fails to deliver an engaging and compelling adventure. In short, the film is a visual treat, but is ultimately shallow sci-fi adventure.
Taking inspirations from one of the Valerian comic books titled “Ambassadors of Shadows”, Besson, who was granted a hefty production film budget of almost $180 million, plunges head first in bring this acclaimed sci-fi graphic novel series to life. There’s no doubt that one of the best things that Besson does in creating Valerian is within the film’s visual effects. In truth, Valerian is quite possible one of the most visually compelling blockbuster of the 2017 summer movies. Alpha (or the City of a Thousand Planets) is truly incredible to behold as the film fully immerses itself in an entirely futuristic and alien world. The amount of creative detail in visual effects wizardry (as well as the concept design department) is amazing from all the various locales (in both on Alpha station and on several planets) to the expressive and colorful alien creatures. Besson, along with cinematographer Theirry Arbogast and visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk, truly do push the boundaries of visuals, making Valerian, for all its faults (more on that below) a truly blockbuster spectacle. I did notice a few times that some of the effect shots weren’t as crystal clear sharp (i.e. highly noticeable of a green-screen effect), but those were few and far between and didn’t bother me as much. Besson also succeeds in his film’s world building elements and nuances, crafting each alien races with their own designated area and / or environment on Alpha.
In addition, the action sequences do take advantage of Valerian’s multitude of various sci-fi settings to bring a couple nifty scenes of stunning visual action set pieces that one would imagine seeing an epic space opera story (i.e. aerial spaceship dogfights, futuristic weapon shootouts, encountering hostile alien beings, etc.). Also, the film’s editor (Julien Rey) must be mentioned for cutting such an ambitious film with varying edits of quick shots, especially in the film’s first act. Lastly, the movie’s score, which is composed by Alexandre Desplat, is also good with plenty of undertone melodies and flourishes to layer this sci-fi movie.
Unfortunately, while Besson aims his movie to reach for the stars (and beyond), Valerian ultimately just ends up being both generic, messy, and too longwinded. Much like The Fifth Element, Besson layers Valerian with his own sense of quirks and oddity within various scenes. Sometimes they do work (and work well), but sometimes it’s just weird and a bit unnecessary (almost like it became a distraction with some characters). Also, the movie (i.e. Besson and his writers) has a hard tendency to go off the main narrative path and explore several side-stories for Valerian and Laureline to follow. While these side-missions provide numerous ways for Besson to showcase his imagination in the varying alien beings / creatures (allowing us to explore more of Alpha and its otherworldly denizens) for our heroes to encounter, they are, for the most part, irrelevant to the main story of the film. This also comes at the expense of the movie’s pacing, which ends up turn the movie’s runtime (a staggering two hours and seventeen minutes) into an overlong and sluggish film that loses its way throughout majority of the second act. One prime example of this when Valerian and Laureline are first introduced in the movie and partake on a mission to retrieve a creature in another dimensional. It’s a really cool scene and kind of interesting, but it’s way too long and becomes tediously drawn out, lasting for almost twenty minutes long. Its only until the first act ends (roughly forty or so minutes into the movie) is when Valerian and Laureline actually go to the City of a Thousand Planets and begin their adventure there. All in all, while these side-stories / side-missions in the movie, are fun and offer plenty of visual distraction, there are mostly rendered pointless in connection to Valerian’s main narrative.
This leads to the other main problem in the movie, which is the film’s narrative. For those who don’t know, the original Valerian comic book series was a groundbreaking in the sci-fi genre, which tackled various plot points, which would become staples in the sci-fi genre, as well as its social / political commentary. The film utilizes the commonplace science fiction theme of humanity’s ruthlessness and showing the stark contrast between us (mankind) with alien beings who shared a different perspective than us (i.e. way of life, belief, etc.). Of course, this theme serves as the main foundation for the movie’s narrative and works, but only to a certain degree. The problem here is that other tales and adventures within the sci-fi realm have already uses such a theme many, many times before, with Besson’s Valerian adding little to this already overused thematic plot device. In addition, due to the numerous side-stories that Valerian and Laureline go on, the main story thread gets lost along the way (sometimes it gets completely forgotten) and ultimately becomes undeveloped. All in all, the film’s side-mission stories basically attempt to conceal the thinly layered main story that doesn’t have the compelling nor emotional weight behind it, despite it being a palpable event in the movie. Lastly (and this might be a problem that I saw), the film’s ending is really rushed. Yes, the main problem is solved in the movie, but not everything is tied up with several questions left unanswered as I wish they could’ve spent time to do an epilogue montage (lasting 3-5 minutes) on what happened after the main plot was solved. To me, Valerian’s ending is just quick and abrupt and not really satisfying.
Adding to the movie’s problems is Valerian’s cast, which is a mixed bag of sorts. Many of them are recognizable from their previous film / TV projects, but almost none of them truly standout out within their respective characters. Starting at the top is the film’s two main characters of Valerian and Laureline, who are played by actor Dane DeHaan, known for his roles in Chronicle, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and A Cure for Wellness, and actress Care Delavigne, known for her roles in Paper Towns, Tulip Fever, and Suicide Squad. The first main problem with these two characters is their actual archetype personas are dated and almost to the point of being cliché, finding the pair in a playful relationship of love and trust with Valerian acting as the young and brash bachelor who’s slept with a number of women, while Laureline is his hard-as-nails / no-nonsense partner who refuses to be won over by his charm. Again, this two stock-like characters has been played many, many times before in other films and mediums, but are usually elevated slightly due to the charismatic performance by the actor / actress playing them. Unfortunately, both can’t sustain that charismatic attitude that makes their characters (generic as they are) pop or even compelling. Adding more insult to injury is the fact that the film’s written dialogue for these two characters is rather contrite and clunky, which translate well within DeHaan and Delavigne speak their lines.
This also comes into the fact that both are not really “bankable” film stars in lead roles. Yes, both are somewhat known in the movie world and are upcoming young actors, but they’re not really big ticketed stars to play main characters in a movie. Thus, they both don’t bring the required necessary star power to Valerian, especially in the main lead roles of the feature. It also doesn’t help that both DeHaan and Delavigne lack a dynamic on-screen chemistry with each other, which, in contrast, doesn’t help viewers buy into the characters of Valerian and Laureline. In short, while the two main leads do their efforts in their roles, DeHaan and Delavigne are just simply miscast in the movie.
The rest of the characters are delegated to being minor supporting / side ones in the movie. However, much like what I said above about DeHaan’s Valerian and Delavigne’s Laureline, these supporting players are, for the most part, bland and stock-like characters. This include musician singer Rhianna (Battleship and Home) as the shapeshifting entertainer Bubble (her character starts out strong, but comes too cartoon-ish), Clive Owens (King Arthur and Children of Men) as the scrupulous Commander Arun Filitt (the highest-ranking officer in charge of Alpha station), Ethan Hawke (Training Day and Gattaca) as Bubble’s pimp boss Jolly the Pimp (I swear that’s his character name), Sam Spruell (Snow White and the Huntsman and The Last Ship) as Alpha’s second commanding officer General Okto-Bar, Alain Chabat (I Do and A Thousand Words) as the quirky Bob the Pirate, John Goodman (Monsters Inc. and Roseanne) as the voice for the Kodar’Khan pirate captain Igon Siruss, and Elizabeth Debicki (The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) as the voice for the Emperor Haban Limaï. Some do better than other in their roles (i.e. Hawke, Goodman, and Debicki are great), but most everyone else is neither too bland or underdeveloped for us (the viewer) to even care about. Again, this goes back to what I said earlier about the movie bring on too many characters in too many side-stories.
Special agents Laureline and Laureline investigate a mysterious plot with the space station Alpha in the movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Director Luc Besson passion project is indeed an ambitious one that takes viewers to an imaginary sci-fi world of various alien beings and creatures that’s brought to life with visual flair and world-building aesthetics. Unfortunately, due to the film’s oddball direction, its weak main narrative arc, over bloated runtime, meandering side-stories, underdeveloped characters, and a pair of bland (and miscast) leads, Valerian ultimately fails to impress and hopelessly becoming a flawed blockbuster. Personally, I thought this movie was a letdown as I was expecting something more structured and compelling for Besson’s grand vision for Valerian. Fans of the comic book source material and / or Besson’s The Fifth Element (Valerian is very much a spiritual follow-up to that movie) might give this film a chance, so it’s a “iffy-choice” for them. For everyone else, however, it’s definitely a skip it as there isn’t much reason to see or watch beyond seldom curiosity of the film’s visuals. Basically, just wait for it to come to cable TV sometime late next year (no need to see in theaters or buy / rent when it comes out later this year). While the film’s visual aspect and creative world-building is amazing, almost every other aspect is half-baked, making Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets both a grand and mostly a lackluster sci-fi adventure.
Also, a personal side note, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is my 275th movie review since I’ve started blogging (some I’ll be releasing on here from my old blog). Anyways…thank you to my readers, followers, and fellow bloggers for reading my movie reviews!!!
2.7 Out of 5 (Iffy-Choice / Skip It)
Released On: July 21st, 2017
Reviewed On: July 30th, 2017
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is 137 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language