Luc Besson's Valerian is a visually stunning, if overlong, sci-fi romp that's weighed down by an uncharming dynamic between its two leads.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets takes place in a distant future when human civilization has not only mastered space travel, but helped construct a massive space station, called Alpha, where they live alongside all manner of alien beings. Agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) work for the government of Alpha to keep order over the human population of the sprawling space metropolis. The pair are dedicated to their partnership, and especially to each other, mostly refusing to work with anyone else - with certain exceptions made, such as in the case of a shapeshifter named Bubble (Rihanna).
After completing a routine mission - one that nonetheless provides Valerian and Laureline with some setbacks - the agents return to Alpha to report to Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen), who tells them that a dark, mysterious force threatens the entirety of the space station. Valerian and Laureline must race against time and travail all the dangers of Alpha in order to get to the bottom of the evil that could wipe out the space station and all the creatures and cultures who also call the City of a Thousand Planets home. However, at the same time, Valerian stumbles across a mysterious culture whose history may or may not be linked to the evil that threatens Alpha. At the end of the day, it's up to Valerian and Laureline to discover the root of the threat against Alpha and protect the City of a Thousand Planets.
Based on the French Valérian and Laureline comics written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières, Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a passion project of his, one that he could finally bring to life because the filmmaking technology had reached a point of doing justice to Alpha and all the creatures who inhabit it. In fact, it was when Besson worked with Mézières on The Fifth Element that the director began considering adapting the comics he'd read growing up into a blockbuster film. Besson wrote and directed Valerian, with his wife Virginie Besson-Silla on board as a fellow producer. Besson's Valerian is a visually stunning, if overlong, sci-fi romp that's weighed down by an uncharming dynamic between its two leads.
There's no doubt that Valerian is the most visually compelling blockbuster of the summer - and perhaps even the whole of 2017. Besson, cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, and visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk work together to bring all manner of alien creatures and locations to life in Valerian, and their hard work pays off because the viewer is able to feel fully immersed in an entirely futuristic and alien world. The action sequences take advantage of Valerian's various settings to bring viewers not just one or two things they haven't seen before, but a whole movie's worth of stunning and exciting action set pieces. From the quiet moments of Laureline dealing and interacting with various creatures on Alpha to Valerian's shootouts with hostile aliens, Besson's latest will surpass even the highest of expectations in terms of visual spectacle.
However, perhaps due to being based on a series of comics, Valerian has a meandering narrative structure that sees its two leads pulled on lengthy side missions with only loose ties to the main plot of the film. Of course, these side missions do introduce a host of colorful characters - Bubble, Jolly (Ethan Hawke), and Bob the pirate (Alain Chabat) - who call Alpha home, and the sequences provide the opportunity for Besson to fully explore the expansive sci-fi world in which Valerian takes place. However, the pacing of Valerian is such that these sequences, albeit fun for a time, end up turning the movie's two hour and change runtime into a slog through loosely connected stories (ones that could feasibly stand on their own in 20-30 minute episodes of a TV series).
Further, these side missions would be more excusable if the plot of Valerian was stronger, but it's a well known story of the lengths to which humans in charge will go to avoid failure - a theme of humanity's ruthlessness that is popular in the science fiction genre. Certainly, it's compelling to see humans contrasted with alien beings who have entirely different values and ways of life - and Valerian's strength lies in bringing those aliens to life - but it's a basic narrative that science fiction has tackled many times before, and Besson's latest doesn't add enough to the story differentiate it from other works. While the side missions that Valerian and Laureline go on may have been included in the film to give it a fresh narrative, they wind up only thinly concealing a well known story and weighing the film down instead.
Still, this theme is contrasted with one of love and trust, though it's an incredibly heavy handed lesson, and one mostly demonstrated through Valerian and Laureline's relationship. They're a typical stock couple in that Valerian is a consummate bachelor who's slept with a number of women, while Laureline is his hard-as-nails partner who refuses to be won over by his charm (but eventually is anyway). However, this trope is dated at best and sexist at worst; despite the efforts of DeHaan and Delevingne, though the film and script attempt to portray Valerian and Laureline as charmingly winsome, their dynamic is clunky and the opposite of romantic. Perhaps different leads would have been able to pull off more compelling chemistry between Valerian's two lead characters, but the script doesn't do DeHaan or Delevingne any favors with trite monologues on love and playful banter we've all heard plenty of times before.
All in all, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets isn't the full package of a summer blockbuster, but what it lacks in truly compelling characters and fresh story it makes up for with stunning visual spectacle. It will no doubt be a must-see for fans of Valérian and Laureline and Besson himself, especially those that were introduced to the visionary director through The Fifth Element - Valerian is most certainly a spiritual follow-up to The Fifth Element for Besson. And, if there's one movie on which to splurge for IMAX or 3D this summer, Valerian is it. But, while the visuals of Valerian may be groundbreaking, the other aspects of the film come together for an only halfway decent sci-fi adventure.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 137 minutes and is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language.
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- Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) release date: Jul 21, 2017