Written & Directed by Luc Besson
What director Luc Besson is trying to accomplish with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets can only be described as “ambitious”. Ambition is a great thing to have in movie-making and art in general. Without it, we risk falling into a stale environment where the output we get is rehashed and no innovation is ever achieved. Besson independently funded this sizable production in order to get the story of Valerian and Laureline out to the masses. The story began in 1967 with a series of comic strips which grew into a much larger sci-fi adventure which influenced countless popular science fiction adventures that followed, Star Wars included. Besson should be applauded for his labor of love for this project. And with it, he accomplishes some remarkable things. Unfortunately, the film also falls a little short of Besson’s initial ambition.
Over time, the International Space Station grew to immense size, with connections with multiple nations in the world, and eventually connections with alien planets as well. When the station grew too large to sustain orbit, it was jettisoned into the universe and became Alpha, or the City of a Thousand Planets. But when something threatens this cradle of universal civilization, Sergeant Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) begin to discover a rather nefarious plot against Alpha. Using hi-tech sci-fi gadgetry and the help from a few of their friends (Ethan Hawke, Rihanna), they explore the many corners of the universe as well as the diverse and interesting inhabitants of Alpha itself.
Known for such films as Leon: The Professional, La Femme Nikita, and The Fifth Element, Luc Besson has gained a reputation as an entertaining filmmaker. So with Valerian, it should be reasonable to expect some stunning visuals and effects, and a fun joyride through space. Besson only delivers on the visuals and effects, however. And they are stunning. This entire film is an assault on the senses with the colors, CGI, world building, creatures, and even the 3D (even though it still gets to be a headache for me most of the time). Besson has crafted a fully realized environment in which the film takes place, complete with fascinating locations, technology and creature design. It’s an overwhelming experience and one ripe with potential.
But where that potential falls short is in the lead characters. Having never read the comic book series, Valerian and Laureline, I cannot comment on how it relates to the source material, but the romance between the two seemed so forced as to distract from their on screen presence, which was already lacking in the performances. Both DeHaan and Celevingne seem seriously out of their element here and superbly mismatched. They lack chemistry between them while also lacking the necessary charisma to pop off the screen with the bravado needed from two leads roles in a sci-fi adventure. There is nothing that draws me to them or their characters which is a big detriment to the film. The romance is laughable in how it plays out, quite honestly.
In the end, the story is exciting and interesting enough to keep me invested through the film, but at the same time, it also felt like it fell well short of the potential of a world building exercise such as this. There were just enough eye-roll worthy moments to make me question the vision of Besson. So while I can respect his dedication to the look and feel of the film, which plays as an interactive video game most of the time, I wonder whether too much attention was focused on the visionary aspect of the film and not enough time was spent storyboarding or polishing the main narrative of the film. It’s pretty to look at, but the story is instantly forgettable in its own cliche, predictable way.