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Review: ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’

Fantastic visuals and creativity are overpowered by a poor script and lifeless acting.

Warning – Mild spoilers ahead.

Among the current slate of movie sequels, franchises, and cinematic universes, it’s hard to come by a film with both great imagination and creativity. Fortunately, one such film is 2017’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Based on a French graphic novel, one of the top five Franco-Belgian comics from publisher Dargaud, it’s only appropriate that Luc Besson – director of The Fifth Element, Lucy, and Leon: The Professional – would take it upon himself to deliver on the source material as both writer and director. And in the realm of visual effects and design, Valerian knocks it out of the park consistently thanks to WETA Digital, ILM and Rodeo FX – just to name three of the VFX studios that worked on film.

However, that’s where my praise for Valerian ends, because with a script this poor and tone so inconsistent, you wonder how the film could ever make it to completion.

Valerian begins on an idyllic beach resort world with light-blue Na’vi from Avatar trapesing around, replicating powerful energy sources with friendly little creatures native to their world. Then disaster strikes as hundreds of burning ships careen down onto the planet. We abruptly cut to Special Agents Valerian (Dane Dehaan – Chronicle) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevigne – Suicide Squad) enjoying their own beach resort – it’s here we learn how incompatible these two are, and not in a “they’re opposite, so their bonds are stronger” type of way.  Valerian fashions himself a Han Solo-esque rogue, while Laureline a “by-the-books” soldier. But, Dehaan and Delevigne fail to bring these characters to life in any scene they’re in -- their delivery is so flat and unengaged, you wonder whether they were even in the same room with each other during filming.

What follows is one of the high points of Valerian, where our two agents travel to an enclosed desert that doubles as a crowded, lively inter-dimensional tourist-filled market with multiple levels and different species of aliens. None of this bustling marketplace can be seen without special glasses. Valerian and Laureline are tasked with infiltrating a heavily guarded lair within the market and retrieving one of the previously introduced, highly valued replicator creatures. This action sequence revels in creative design and imaginative set pieces, such as when Valerian’s hand becomes stuck in his matter-transporter gauntlet while trying to out run numerous bad guys – the entire time you only see his gun in midair, floating and bouncing around the market.

They arrive at the titular City of a Thousand Planets, a space station citadel of thousands of different alien races all coexisting together in harmony. Suddenly, the film stops to go through the different names, species, and environments shown later in the film. Rarely have I ever seen a film crowbar its own trailer into the narrative. But, never say never. What’s even more awkward is that Valerian and Laureline are the ones that asked for the little lesson on the city’s demographics and population for no reason whatsoever.

From that point on, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets quickly evolves into a story of intrigue, with a core conspiracy that begs to be uncovered. Of course, Valerian and Laureline are the only two that can solve the mystery. But any seasoned moviegoer will see the villain and the motivation coming a mile away -- the villain’s reasoning is far too poorly conceived and is based on so much crucial missing information that providing any early clues would venture too far into spoiler territory.

Much of Valerian should’ve been removed onto the cutting room floor -- the actual runtime should’ve been halved. In one instance, Valerian needs to infiltrate a gang of brutish aliens to avoid an intergalactic incident. So, he finds Jolly the Pimp (an oddly-cast Ethan Hawke) who provides him with a shape-shifting stripper named Bubble, played by Rihanna because, for some reason, someone decided she needed more of an acting career.  She strips for Valerian, showing in a morphing cascade the range of sultry, sexy characters she can instantly become. But, for some reason, she agrees to escape the club and work with him. Later, Valerian goes on a huge murder spree, causing the intergalactic incident he hoped to avoid by enlisting Bubble’s help, making the previous 10 minutes completely unnecessary. But, rather than address this huge inconsistency, the film would rather spend crucial time with Rihanna dressed as Cleopatra, dancing for Valerian as he declares her one of the best artists he’s ever know. The egotistical self-indulgence is overwhelming.

Too many scenes repeat already revealed information for the audience, or go on far too long, and include characters we never meet again nor had any reason to meet to begin with. Such is the case when Laureline needs a particular jellyfish that can help her locate Valerian -- an entire 15-minute sequence is devoted to retrieving and escaping with this special jellyfish that can determine someone’s physical location anywhere in their science-fiction universe. The manner she finally finds Valerian proves anti-climactic and so mundane as to make the entire search segment of the film completely pointless. It brought nothing to the story or action.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets hopes you don’t focus too much on the script and characters, or lack thereof, while at the same time, it amazes you with incredible visuals and design. So much of the world of Valerian looks applicable and reasonable to various alien species -- aliens that are robots manage the economy, floating up and down while collecting data; aliens that exist underwater need an apparatus to successfully farm their crops. The VFX does a fantastic job making you believe that this world exists. It even does an admirable job making all the real actors look like they belong in this universe too…most of the time. Several times, Valerian walked into a location where you can literally see the greenscreen, abruptly snapping you out of any suspension of disbelief you might have. 

It’s a shame that Besson so brilliantly brought this universe to life, but wasn’t able to help the audience connect with the characters or the script. The humans act weird while certain weird aliens display more life and personality than any of the cast. The setting is beautiful and the action well-choreographed.  But, there’s no tension in any of the scenes because Dehaan and Delevigne don’t act like real people in danger. As a result, there is no reason to care about what happens to either of them. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a typical case of a big production that’s all sizzle and no steak, that never connects with an audience or gives them anything or anyone to root for.