Audiences that appreciate CGI and 3D effects will regard Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets with awe. Visually, the film is a masterstroke of imagination and creativity, the art directors, set designers, and computer technicians going all out to bring fantastical alien creatures, unheard of technologies, and exotic locations to life. They fill virtually every frame. It’s a little like flipping through the pages of a sketchbook, and all you have to do is marvel at the artist’s unbound sense wonder. In the best possible sense, there are precious few shots in this film that look real; they look like they leapt straight from the mind and onto the screen.
Audiences that appreciate plot and theme, on the other hand, will watch this movie and want to rend every hair out of their heads. Besson’s intention, obviously, was to take another stab at making a space opera, a genre he last tackled twenty years ago with The Fifth Element. The problem is that Valerian suffers from a story so paper thin and lacking in substance that it makes The Fifth Element and films very much in the same vein – the Star Wars saga, the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, and even the greatly misunderstood Jupiter Ascending – seem deep and complex by comparison.
So simple-minded and predictable is the story that you can actually tell, even before they come to an end, the scenes that serve merely as padding. These would include: A sprawling, canyon-deep marketplace that can be both seen and accessed only by phasing into a different dimension; a blue, viscous, many-tentacled shapeshifting alien that works as a stripper, mostly taking the form of singer Rihanna; and when the leads are unwittingly at the mercy of brute alien creatures, the slaves trying to sate their leader with a long line of very unappetizing dishes. In a good space opera, in a good movie in general, superfluous subplots will either be altogether avoided or cleverly and entertainingly interwoven with the main storyline.
While all the side characters – the human ones, at any rate – are played by capable actors who understand and apparently embrace what space operas do and do not require, leads Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne are embarrassingly miscast. DeHaan’s character, a futuristic federal agent, is supposed to be somewhat reminiscent of Han Solo – cocky, charming, sarcastic, emotionally immature. Though DeHaan delivers lines consistent with this personality type, he conveys it neither physically or vocally; his enviable quality of appearing and sounding younger than he actually is works against him here, making his character seem like a wet-behind-the-ears teenager trying to pass himself off as a man of experience. The role needed someone a little older-looking and more adept at action filmmaking. Chris Hemsworth, maybe.
What’s worse, DeHaan and Delevingne have zero onscreen chemistry. Watching their characters not only bounce one-liners off each other but also repeatedly dance around the issue of being in love, you just want to sink in your chair and shield your eyes from the gazes of others, for at no point does it in any way come off as authentic or even plausible. I’m sure the intention was to yet again evoke Star Wars, specifically Han Solo and Princess Leia in The Empire Strikes Back. Yes, but Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were actually right for their roles, and Irvin Kershner directed them in such a way that their characters’ blossoming romance was actually believable.
The plot, as it were, is founded on the idea that, over a period of centuries, the International Space Station was continuously expanded on and grew to support alliances not just between the nations of Earth but also humans and aliens from planets all across the universe. In the distant future, the Space Station, now dubbed the City of a Thousand Planets, is where federal agents Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne) work to uncover a conspiracy over a supposedly uninhabited planet that was destroyed thirty years earlier. It involves not just a gumball-sized pearl and a cute hedgehog-like creature that can replicate small objects simply by eating them, but also the agents’ commander officer (Clive Owen), who so obviously knows more than he lets on that he might as well have walked around with a sign around his neck reading “Antagonist.” What’s ultimately revealed, I obviously can’t say. Let is suffice that Avatar went with a similar idea, and far more effectively.
The film is adapted from a series of comic books I had never heard of, let alone read, which is to say I have absolutely no idea how faithful the movie is to its source. Of course, if you’ve read any of my reviews, you know that I don’t care about such things. What I do care about is a film that’s entertaining. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets gets the visuals down pat; I wouldn’t be surprised if it secured a few of the more technical Oscar nominations. When it comes to plot, on the other hand, there’s much to be desired. Making the right casting choices also would have helped. Space operas are designed to be lightweight and escapist, but even then, one must work at pulling it off.