"Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is visually unbelievable, and sequences involving Rihanna and the capabilities of the actors make the overall product look better than it is. "
by Steve Pulaski
I was primed to review Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets because, in a summer dominated by little else besides superhero movies and the like, I thought it would be something of a minor miracle. Here we have the most expensive independent film ever made, clocking in at $209 million (€197 million, also making it the most expensive French film ever made) via independent crowd-sourcing, tax credits, and Besson's own wallet with a visual-scheme and approach to the genre that comes along once every couple years. The last time I saw a film this beautiful and idiosyncratic was Jupiter Ascending, believe it or not, and before that, Cloud Atlas.
The common-thread, I fear, about to be shared with these three pictures is that they will all rank in as costly box office bombs, despite Valerian already making most of its production budget back through deals and more tax credits. Besson might've played the financial crutch of his passion project smart, but when you're making a film that you have to assure makes money beforehand through closed-door deals and boardroom talks, are you sort of admitting, up front, that few want to see it in the first place?
Valerian should be seen, but I hesitate to recommend it, if that makes any sense. It's such a visually dazzling, nearly awe-inspiring movie, made up of a countless number of lights and CGI that represent a new, modern era in visual effects. Kudos to Besson's team for making a film so artificial and computer-generated appear so real and lifelike. The last time I was so taken by visuals was when I first experienced the vastness of Grand Theft Auto V. Both properties feel like living, breathing landscapes, where life exists even if you're not seeing it.
But somewhere through an intoxicating amount of special effects, Besson's film - based on the French comic series Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières - stumbles as it tries to tell the story of Major Valerian and Laureline, two young space-travelers who are trying to combat attacks that face Alpha. Alpha is an immense space metropolis, home to hundreds of unique creatures and environments. In a brilliant opening scene, scored to David Bowie's classic "Space Oddity," we watch centuries pass as new species and creatures are welcomed through conventional and unconventional handshakes aboard Alpha, presuming a sense of security aboard the massive, traveling entity.
When Alpha begins to reach capacity, however, its stability is threatened. In addition, the powerful force of alien creature Igon (John Goodman) greatly disturbs the Alpha's reliability as a safe space for creatures. This is where Valerian and Laureline come in, as the two work to repair the lost sense of stability, hopscotching through various time continuums and habitats in hopes to do so.
Valerian is played by Dane DeHaan and Laureline is played by Cara Delevingne, and right there you can denote an immediate problem. While DeHaan has been fairly good in the unseen A Cure for Wellness and Chronicle, the moody, angsty personality he so frequently embodies is not fit for someone who should be a swaggering intergalactic hero. DeHaan handicaps any and every scene that should provide audiences with some emotional resonance for his character, instead, maybe not to the fault of his own, sticking to the tools that have made him a marginally successfully actor and unfortunately falling short. Meanwhile, Delevingne has now mustered up a body of work, through the mediocre Paper Towns and Suicide Squad, on which to be judged, and the same problems prevail. She has difficulty emoting and her facial expressions remain the same whether she's flustered or content.
This is a major issue when, instead of the versatile environments and character designs, you're relying on the strength of your leads and your story to carry your expensive motion picture. DeHaan and Delevingne are simply incapable of carrying this weighty film from start to finish, lacking the chemistry and the charisma to elevate it to something we can connect with beyond what we can watch. Besson, who also wrote the film, relies on such a convoluted narrative that, by the second act, simply makes you just want to stare at the backgrounds and the beautiful special effects and admire how gorgeous everything is versus the depth and complexity he's undoubtedly given to the story. Sadly, the depth he's given the story comes through in long-winded conversations that are as bloated and as unclear as the film itself.
Valerian is clearly trying to be a one-off epic, mainly because, like I stated before, its creators realize that this kind of "original" or relatively unknown property rarely prompts a sequel, leaving the filmmakers indecisive on whether or not to conclude the story with a cliffhanger or a satisfactory closer. By committing to the latter, the film winds up feeling bloated and shortchanged. Intriguing characters like Ethan Hawke's Jolly, who runs a prostitution ring of talent and performance-based hookers, and Bubble (pop/R&B sensation Rihanna), one of Jolly's most-talented, shapeshifting talents, feel underdeveloped and cut loose so the film can expound upon its terribly uninteresting and confusing plot.
If the opening sequences of the film weren't so good, I wouldn't be coming down on Valerian so hard. If it weren't for the aforementioned handshaking montage being so elegant, or the subsequently devastating introduction of a species being so heartbreaking, I wouldn't have had reason to be this optimistic about this film. But Luc Besson commits to material more in line with the subpar action efforts in which he and his closely tied studio EuropaCorp have taken part versus the kind of elaborate, captivating sci-fi in the form of The Fifth Element, for which we know he can excel.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is visually unbelievable, and sequences involving Rihanna and the capabilities of the actors (see the second half) make the overall product look better than it is. I make no quibbles in admitted I'm intensely conflicted. On one hand, we have a science-fiction film that's underwhelming on story, with two actors that fail to impress, and on another, we have some of the best special effects of the decade crossed with some of the most idiosyncratic and appealing characters in years. Take your pick.
Steve's Grade: C+