Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Violence and Action, Suggestive Material and brief Language
Directed by: Luc Besson
Written by: Luc Besson
(based on the VALERIAN AND LAURELINE comics by Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mezieres)
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer, John Goodman, Elizabeth Debicki & Sam Spruell
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS has been a passion project for director/writer Luc Besson since the late 90s. While filming THE FIFTH ELEMENT, Besson believed that a VALERIAN adaptation would be unfilmable because special effects still needed to catch up to the ambitious material. James Cameron’s AVATAR (which had a mediocre plot, but sported fantastic visuals) served as the signal Besson needed. VALERIAN is based on the 1960s French comics VALERIAN AND LAURELINE, predating STAR WARS and serving as a massive influence on loads of sci-fi material that arrived in its wake. Besson’s big screen adaptation of VALERIAN has phenomenal visuals and is guaranteed to gain a cult following over time (much like THE FIFTH ELEMENT), but it suffers from undeniable flaws (much like THE FIFTH ELEMENT).
Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are special agents in the 28th century. Their latest assignment has them guarding Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) as he gives a special conference on Alpha, a vast space station that houses millions of alien races and has many strange cultures. Valerian and Laureline soon find themselves on a rescue mission when Filitt is kidnapped by an unknown race of aliens. This leads the two special space agents into Alpha’s most dangerous areas as they attempt to save Filitt, possibly thwart a terrorist plot, and discover long-buried secrets.
VALERIAN is visually phenomenal. While THE FIFTH ELEMENT has aged a bit in its computer effects and looks pretty cheesy today, it’s impossible to imagine VALERIAN looking like its dated at any point in the near future. The effects in this movie are fantastic and you will believe that the human characters are interacting with many different monsters. The design of Alpha itself is insane as we see underwater worlds, various otherworldly climates, and (of course) a BLADE RUNNER-esque city of humans. One chase sequence has Valerian jumping from alien climate to alien climate and is absolutely breathtaking to behold. Taken on sheer spectacle, VALERIAN is amazing.
That’s not to say that this film is perfect though. The visuals, action sequences, and goofy sense of humor are on point, but VALERIAN struggles when it comes to plot and performances. The main plot takes a little too long to fully take off because the audience is treated to two different prologues. One of these prologues is a blast to behold as Valerian and Laureline infiltrate an interdimensional market to take down a space pirate (featuring an all-too-brief role from John Goodman as the blubbery alien bad guy). The prologue before that prologue reveals too much of VALERIAN’s hand, so that later revelations which are played for surprises wind up not being surprising at all. This results in the plot feeling predictable and by-the-numbers, even though we get many fun subplots of Valerian and Laureline encountering different alien threats.
In a movie that revolves around two special space agents, it’s also sad to say that VALERIAN’s two leads occasionally stumble. Dane DeHaan can be phenomenal in the right roles, but he seems a bit uncomfortable here and has some wooden line delivery early on. This is especially true in scenes where he’s trying to woo Laureline, played by a much-more assured and comfortable Cara Delevingne (who’s significantly stepped it up after her dull performance as Enchantress in last year’s SUICIDE SQUAD). The chemistry between DeHaan and Delevigne is there as partners, but feels terribly forced in a romantic subplot. Their unbelievable love-interest chemistry ensures that certain moments are eye-rollingly stale.
On a positive note, VALERIAN features colorful supporting characters who chew the scenery in over-the-top ways. Clive Owen is fun as the stern commander, even though his character is unconscious for a majority of the film’s running time. Ethan Hawke shows up as a flamboyant pimp, while Rihanna is memorable as a shapeshifting stripper. Besides the already mentioned John Goodman in a voice role, Rutger Hauer briefly shows up for a cameo. The non-speaking alien characters are pretty damn enjoyable too, with a hungry monster king receiving one of the funniest scenes in the entire film.
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS works as sci-fi spectacle with a goofy sense of a humor, but stumbles in its on-and-off chemistry between the two leads, a very predictable plot that offers little in the way of surprising revelations, and annoying attempts at unearned emotional moments. However, there’s more than enough entertainment value here to make Luc Besson’s latest offering worth a recommendation. If you’re a fan of THE FIFTH ELEMENT, I imagine that you’ll likely be a fan of VALERIAN too. This is far from Besson’s best, but VALERIAN is guaranteed to receive a passionate cult following and reputation in the years to come. This is the new generation’s FIFTH ELEMENT.