Review of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”

A space station that once orbited Earth is now massive and inhabited by thousands of aliens from hundreds of planets. The station now called Alpha was pushed into deep space to act as a beacon for any and all intelligent life to come and share their knowledge and technology. Alpha has existed in peace for over 500 years but something is threatening to destroy it. An area of deadly radiation has appeared at the core of Alpha and its growing. All attempts to investigate the cause have failed. Human police force agents Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are called in to provide protection for Commander Filitt (Clive Owen), the leader of Alpha; but he is abducted by a group of aliens whose DNA does not register on Alpha’s sensors. Valerian and Laureline begin a search for the Commander and stumble into a mystery involving the destruction of a planet 30 years earlier and the desire to keep all details of that event a secret at any cost.

Director Luc Besson has been trying to make “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” for 20 years. He had been a fan of the comic book “Valerian and Laureline” when he was a kid and while making “The Fifth Element” he used the services of the comic book’s illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières who suggested he take a crack at adapting the story for a film. Besson thought the technology to create all the various alien species wasn’t available at the time but when James Cameron released “Avatar” he knew it would be possible. Now his dream has come true and the massive special effects movie is in a theatre near you. Should you invest the time, gas, money and effort into seeing Besson’s creation? The short answer is probably not.

That’s not to say “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” doesn’t have it good points. First of all, it looks amazing. The visual style of the film dazzles you with amazing colors and more alien species than you can count. From massive aquatic creatures to small bird-looking bipeds with big noses to tiny animals that look like a cross between a hamster and a lizard, the creature creation in the movie shows enormous imagination.

The concept of the story, about a giant space station filled with thousands of alien lifeforms all living in peace, is thanks to the comics written by Pierre Christin and the aforementioned Jean-Claude Mézières. While the setting of the film and the comics is vastly different, the idea of human/alien cooperation is clearly shared in both. Also the notion that a seemingly benevolent government might also be to some extent corrupt plays out in both. The comics, which ran for over 40 years, represented Christin’s political views. Besson doesn’t seem all that interested in making a political statement but in telling a fantastical story. That’s where the film runs into trouble.

The story of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is a mess. While we are treated to a several alien species and amazing looking planets, the story has apparently had a great deal less care taken with it. The main story threads are left to dangle for large parts of the film. As we blast through walls with Valerian and go on an underwater adventure with Laureline the main story is mostly abandoned. I don’t want to give away the major plot points and the movie apparently feels the same way. We are finally given a long section of exposition that lays out everything late in the film but by then I had lost so much interest I took it as a good sign the movie was almost over.

There’s also the issue of Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne having zero chemistry with each other. Valerian is supposed to be both Laureline’s partner and lover but when the two flirt with each other it lands with an audible thud. Delevingne looks more annoyed and bored than attracted to DeHaan. DeHaan in these scenes looks more creepy than anything else. It’s a pair that does not strike me as a believable couple and that makes any effort to humanize the characters with their alleged attraction to one another fail miserably. I didn’t like the idea that these two highly trained agents would also be emotionally and physically involved with one another. That would tend to violate any code of conduct in any military service today and would render one partner susceptible to compromise should the other be captured by an enemy. It also would damage their working partnership should their relationship end. None of their romance worked on any level for me.

DeHaan also appears to be doing a Keanu Reeves impression through the entire film. Speaking in what seems to be an unnaturally low vocal register, DeHaan sounds very similar to the “John Wick” actor while not having the same physical presence. DeHaan is a very good actor and has turned in great performances in “Chronicle” and “Lawless” along with other films so I can only blame his choices on director Luc Besson who apparently wanted some effort at menace in everything Valerian says. Sadly DeHaan isn’t able to dredge up any menace but plenty of breathiness.

The best actors in the film are all the CGI aliens and the creatures created with motion capture. Meanwhile, all the humans that aren’t digitally altered don’t look like they are having much fun. Cara Delevingne only looks like she’s trying when the character is screaming in anger and while going into battle. Clive Owen, who is missing for a big chunk of the middle of the film, is chewing as much digital scenery as he can to make Commander Filitt as much of a villain as possible. It doesn’t work. Rhianna turns in a passable performance as a cabaret entertainer with a secret. She isn’t on screen for very long and most of her performance is voice acting but still she holds her own.

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language. Guns of a futuristic type are fired in various scenes throughout the movie. We see characters hit by the weapons but there is no blood. One character is briefly tortured by having a gun fired into its shoulder. Another character is shown being tortured in a lab. The suggestive content includes a pair of characters tussling playfully while on a beach in their swimsuits. Also the dance done by Rhianna’s character could be considered risqué. Foul language is scattered and mild.

There’s probably a good movie to be made from the source material but “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” isn’t it. It ignores its own story for far too long to get in some action scenes and it has a couple of lead actors that have no sexual chemistry at all. While the film is a visual wonder it doesn’t need to be seen in 3D. The movie doesn’t have the visual pop with the added dimension I had hoped. I guess I’ll have to reinstate my moratorium on seeing movies in 3D that weren’t actually filmed in 3D. And knowing what I know now I can’t suggest you see “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” with any enthusiasm.

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” gets two stars out of five.

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See my review of Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” here:

This week Charlize Theron kicks it up a notch and one emoji tries to save his digital world. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Atomic Blonde—

The Emoji Movie—

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