Originally published on Moviepilot.com on July 25th, 2017
The trailers for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets have advertised a movie that was “a lifetime in the making.” For director Luc Besson, this couldn’t be closer to the truth. Growing up, he loved the comic books that his film would be based on, Valerian and Laureline. In fact, Besson only made his sci-fi film, The Fifth Element because he couldn’t make Valerian. The desire to bring this series to life has always been there for Besson and after seeing James Cameron’s Avatar, he was inspired to finally bring Valerian to life.
I write all of this not simply as fun factual trivia, but also because it informs the way in which I viewed this sprawling sci-fi space opera. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is clearly made by a filmmaker who loved this property as a child, that is clear even to someone who is yet to venture into the French comic’s world. The amount of detail and craft that was utilized to bring this world to life, a world so influential it has even inspired likes of Star Wars, is nothing short of dedicated.
This is both to the film’s strength and weakness. Valerian is unrestrained filmmaking where spectacle and world-building take center stage, but lost a bit in the shuffle is a cohesive story and well-defined characters. Your enjoyment of Valerian will greatly depend on your own personal taste and what you’re looking for as a viewer. For myself, there were many strengths, weaknesses and missed opportunities in Valerian, even though I enjoyed the experience as a whole.
What Is It About?
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets take place in the 28th century where humanity and a thousand other alien species have joined together in a space station named Alpha, the city of a thousand planets. In this future, a pair of agents, Valerian and Laureline, uncover a new alien race and a conspiracy that threatens the peace on Alpha.
1. Strength – Writer/Director Luc Besson
I wrote in my article for ‘4 reasons Why Baby Driver is a Must See’that the real star of that movie is Edger Wright. Here, with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the director also takes center stage.
Fans of Besson’s previous film ,The Fifth Element, will notice stylistic similarities and progression as a filmmaker. Besson’s knack for bringing gorgeous visuals to the Cineplex is greatly on display here. Each image is packed full of detail and is brimming with imagination. For the first 30 minutes or so I was truly in awe of the spectacle that Besson was presenting.
As moviegoers, we live in an era where computer effects have advanced to the point where it feels like almost anything is possible. This is an advantage to modern film-going that, sometimes, I think is taken for granted. It would be easy to write off Valerian as just another well-done CGI filled movie, but to do this would be to overlook the visual treats that Besson provides throughout. The director’s obvious passion injects an attention to detail that is lacking in some movies with a similar aesthetic and his use of practical and makeup effects is commendable.
2. Weakness – Writer/Director Luc Besson
As I stated above, Valerian’s biggest strength is also its weaknesses. Besson’s ability to bring anything to the screen, as well as including anything and everything from the comics, comes at a cost of focus. This movie is highly stylistic, interested primarily in world-building and its own spectacle. This might be exactly what some are looking for, and Valerian excels greatly in the three departments mentioned in the previous sentence. However, I do believe that this film is worth seeing based on those merits alone.
Sadly, Besson’s approach lacks focus. This movie is a bit all over the place in terms of its storytelling and approach. Clearly, the film’s story was centered around separate episodic adventures that Besson wanted to showcase and not a free-flowing narrative. The episodic adventures are individually fun and well-conceived, but Besson struggles to connect the narrative plot points and make each adventure feel important and wholly necessary. This creates pacing problems and a third act that feels about ten minutes too long.
3. Missed Opportunity – The Main Leads
Unfortunately, with the movie’s strengths being style and world-building, the two main characters, Valerian and Laureline, don’t have the impact they could have. Played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, the two young soldiers are given a lot of character traits but aren’t given a lot of character development per se. Their history is vague and kept in an exposition exchange, the nature of their relationship is somewhat confusing, and the actors feel a bit young in their roles. Valerian mentions that he has several medals of honors, and it seems odd that he would have already achieved that at such a young age.
That being said, I actually enjoy the two co-stars in their roles together. If you’re not a Dane DeHaan fan, then this isn’t going to sway you, but I think Cara Delevingne might have the ability to surprise a few here. After her performance in Suicide Squad, I wasn’t really interested in seeing her on screen again, but here I think she proved herself more than capable of leading a movie. Perhaps a pair of stronger actors could have done a bit more with the roles, but they are still a solid pair even if they aren’t given much in the way of characterization to work with. They are generic good guys that, as an audience, we don’t mind following but would perhaps savor a few more interesting characters.
4. Weakness – The Mystery/Conspiracy Storyline
As I’ve mentioned before, the movie’s story takes a backseat to its visuals. For the majority of the time, I would say this doesn’t hurt the audience experience because it is executed so beautifully. The film, while unfocused, never loses a sense of fun and wonder.
When the movie was overly indulgent, I did tend to forget about the stuff I wasn’t so enthralled with. The mystery/conspiracy storyline is one of those aspects that I wasn’t so enthralled about. It is a pretty paint by the numbers plot and one that is pretty predictable. For everything that is unique and extraordinary about the movie, this is not one of them.
Valerian is not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination nor will it be taught in film schools. That being said, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a marvelous piece of imaginative filmmaking, visuals, and action set pieces. The alien races are well conceived and brought to life, and the film’s opening action set piece is one of the most memorable and inventive of the year.
That being said, this movie has a lot of weaknesses, and perhaps if its story and its characters were as well realized as everything else, we would have a modern sci-fi masterpiece on our hands. We are instead given a bit of a mess, but a memorable and fun mess. Valerian is a movie that is daring, creative and swings for the fences and doesn’t play it safe. Luc Besson’s approach through a childhood dream gives this movie a lot of energy and wonder.