Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) Cover

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (we’re going to call it Valerian for short) is a flawed film that is particularly disappointing given its pedigree. Between the director, source material, and actors, Valerian had all the right ingredients. There is enough good left that a viewer may enjoy the ride, but it would be in spite of the flaws. The big problems are with the story and acting, both unpleasant to point of being distracting.

Everything starts to fall apart with the acting first. There are two lead roles in the film: Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne). While Cara does an acceptable portrayal of Laureline, Dane DeHaan adopts an unpleasant growl every time he talks. He delivers his lines as though he were Christian Bale in the role of Batman. Every word feels like an uncomfortable imitation of a masculine grunt.

Though Dane DeHaan is the standout, a few other actors never feel right. Clive Owen, who is usually awesome, never quite feels natural in his role. Rihanna gives a good performance, but her role is all about her just being Rihanna. That would be more distracting if the movie around her were better, but she is still a lot of fun. Her cameo is also bundled with Ethan Hawke who is getting way more fun as he gets older. I am constantly looking forward to everything he does, now.

Unfortunately, the performances that shine don’t make up for the damage of the bad ones. When the delivery is unconvincing it amplifies the surrounding issues. Valerian’s core story arc as a character is his love story with Laureline, and you never feel good about the characters talking together. While DeHaan’s performance undermines this side story, the story itself is problematic. This gets into the story problems that Valerian suffers from. Though the story and plot suffer from issues, the love story drowns out those problems.

I have to mention that the love story runs counter to character arcs in the graphic novels, but this is not why it’s bad. The romance is flat, never feels like it requires sacrifice, and is delivered almost entirely in exposition. There is heavy-handed exposition throughout the film, but it is by far the most overt and awkward in the love story. It’s so blunt and aggressively inserted that it takes the foreground even though it’s a background story. The romantic interest is the first thing we know about Valerian and Laureline and the last thing we see them dealing with.

Everything that is wrong with the love story is exacerbated by Dehaan’s performance. If you could isolate this subplot from the film, every single element of it would be awful. If you can get past that, and overlook DeHaan’s performance, there’s a clever if flawed science fiction adventure film to be found.

The main plot is a cheesy conflict between an idealized primitive culture against and the human military complex. While not good, this isn’t inherently bad. I mean, hey, it worked for Avatar. I don’t feel like any of the problems with the main story are so broken that this couldn’t have been as good as Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. That classic was also inspired by the Valerian and Laureline comics, and also written and directed by Luc Besson. The Fifth Element is one of my all time favorite movies despite a plot that is somewhat silly and naive. At the end of that movie, Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich literally save the universe with the power of love.

It’s possible that the problem is that the director was at odds with the source material. While The Fifth Element was an original story with characters written from the ground up to be together, Valerian uses some well established characters. It borrows enough from them that the romance doesn’t work. However, love appears to be a theme with Besson and science fiction. Looking back at what makes The Fifth Element special, you find this ideal where love fixes everything. The world is full of violence and pain, but the love is what makes life worth living. And, though cheesy, that’s kind of beautiful. It can work, but if Besson needed the movie to have that message, maybe he should not have done a direct translation of Valerian and Laureline.

With this source material it was important to differentiate from The Fifth Element. This source material has inspired countless works of brilliant science fiction, and it deserves to have a unique voice. There are even some incredible moments where that voice shines through.

For instance, the first 5 minutes of the film captures a touching vision of humanity. It shows us stepping outside of the bounds of earth, unifying, and becoming a part of a greater universe. It’s done so well that it may be the best example of this message in all of science fiction. Even still, though, this runs counter to the themes of the main plot. This ideal of a better humanity is undermined by a story about how poorly our military behaves. The juxtaposition is poorly done, and it’s a little bit tragic.

There were plenty of moments where I genuinely laughed. Some of the best moments were in the side plots when the story would run off the tracks. This and Rihanna’s cameo didn’t add to the main plot, but in so many ways they were better than the main story. In that, they were some of the best parts to watch. The action is well filmed and enjoyable. Visually, Valerian is colorful in a way that science fiction has needed to be for years. Finally, the world building is a blast. Everywhere the characters go takes them on a path through a vibrant setting filled with amazing aliens.

I wish Valerian had better executed its story and delivered better performances. There are a lot of wonderful moments and characters here, but they’re undercut by the poor writing and acting. This was a chance to make a classic that may have eclipsed some of the greatest science fiction ever made, but Luc Besson missed the mark. I do not recommend Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Check out the first five minutes if it’s ever on Netflix or YouTube, but turn it off before Dane DeHaan gets a chance to open his mouth.

Final Verdict:Though fun at times and loaded with style, Valerian disappoints too frequently. Wait to watch it at home.