Even though I’ve never really connected with director Luc Besson’s films as much as some, several months ago, I saw the first trailer and images for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Immediately, I mentally logged it as being on my radar. After seeing the trailers in 3D and word bandied about that it could be the next Avatar, I knew I wanted to see it opening night. On Free Comic Book Day, I read a preview issue of the movie’s legendary French comic-book source material; again, the anticipation grew. I’m a sucker for sci-fi and gorgeously realized special effects, so I set my hopes high for this one. I even had a friend who thought, with good reason, we may have another game-changer like Star Wars.
We were wrong. This movie is as big of a mess as any big-budget film I’ve ever seen in theaters. Coming off of Transformers: The Last Knight just weeks ago, I can’t understand how movies that are this problematic in the way of tone and flow get made, let alone given the production and promotion budgets we see in both.
I will forgo a plot recollection in this review except the basics, because the incredibly disjointed plot didn’t give me much to recollect. The film opens with an interesting sequence played over David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” showing how the International Space Station currently orbiting Earth (or at least something like it) leads to the nations of our world cooperating in decades (and centuries to come) to building it larger and larger. Like any great house party, galactic neighbors hear it’s the place to be and they bring their “plus-ones”; over time, the original structures built by Earthlings are connected to and surrounded by an incredibly diverse collection of other planetary inhabitants. The base, “Alpha” (or, as the title suggests, the City of a Thousand Planets), becomes too large to be so close to Earth, as is told to us in a brief Rutger Hauer cameo (whose acting contributions to sci-fi history got me way too excited early on).
Immediate cut away to the planet, Mul. There, we see a race of lightly-hued blue humanoid aliens who are enjoying life on a beautiful beach planet. It’s a beautiful sequence that keeps things promising in those opening minutes…right before fire rains from the sky. A battle in the planet’s atmosphere sends massive ships crashing down into the surface, eradicating life on the planet, save a few survivors. In her dying moments, the “princess” of these aliens releases her soul across time and space into Valerian (Dane DeHaan), a human special operative who operates (in what appears to be very sophisticated Mass Effect cosplay) alongside Laureline (Cara Delevingne). The two are introduced with an untold history that I’m sure we’re supposed to pick up on endearingly; I did not. All Valerian seems to want to do in this movie is marry Laureline, who pushes off all advances. The choice might be less one-sided if he was a more likable character, but we have in him one of the least likable lead performances I can recall in quite some time. Don’t get me wrong: I can like Dane DeHaan, as I have in movies past. Still, there is nothing about his performance here that I liked. Laureline is a different story; she, ultimately, is written as terribly as all the other characters in the film, but she delivers the lines with a charm that made me look forward to seeing her. Her worst lines were used in the trailers, but in the full film, you may find yourself, like me, only caring about her throughout.
Little does Valerian know that the soul within him will be needed as his mission assignment intersects with the survivors of the Mul, who kidnap Valerian and Laureline’s superior, Commander Filitt (Clive Owen), as they search on Alpha for the two last pieces needed to rebuild their world. Along the way, the two agents must delve deeper into the base as they look for the Commander and try to seek out the answers for the destruction of Mul, meeting people and aliens of all shapes and sizes, including a squid-like pleasure creature played by Rihanna named Bubble. I’m not even joking. If you think that is crazy, try out her handler: a neon cowboy with a chain nose-ring played by Ethan Hawke. He goes by the name, Jolly the Pimp. This is what I’m talking about; the film is all over the place, tonally and structurally. I realized less than thirty minutes in that this was going to be a total grab bag of a film. Problem is I wound up not really caring about any part of it.
Visually, the film is gorgeous. Granted, the effects are more dizzying than awe-inspiring, but kudos to all involved with the film on that level for a job well done. Still, movies like this are only reiterating to me a fact of life to me (both with people and, apparently, movies): “Doesn’t matter how pretty you are if there isn’t anything interesting going on behind it all”. The music wasn’t terrible, but nothing stood out as unique in hearing it. The hardest part in critiquing this film is knowing how passionate the film’s director was in making it. This is now the most expensive film of all time for France, and it’s a complete mess. The screening I was in opening night was with a grand total of two audience members, including myself and my fellow podcast co-host. It was a surreal experience seeing the film in a “private screening”, but both of us quickly realized the mess that we were seeing. I hate to see anything fail, but this film did. It’s a convoluted plot with terrible characters; it’s beautiful, yes, but that is it. I love the visual imagination, but I can’t put up with nonsense cinema for two & a half hours, just to see pretty colors.
Content-wise, there is mild language. The flirtatious nature of Valerian & Laureline’s relationship leads to some scenes of skimpy clothing and the like, for those who are cautious. Violence seemed to be secondary in the film, compared to most, save for a scene where Valerian abruptly shoots an alien in the face and the firefight near the end. There was little in the way of a coherent message in the film, save interactions explaining the annihilation of Mul. By that point, I couldn’t care about it, due to my mind being pulled every other direction. There isn’t anything explicitly “Christian” (or “anti-Christian) I could see, but again, this movie dropped me pretty early in caring. All in all, I would caution even those who are just there to “see the visuals” to think twice about seeing the film. It felt like a complete waste of time to me, and I know I’m not alone in that sentiment.