Review: Theatrical Run
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets | Luc Besson | France | 2017 | 137 minutes
Now Playing at Marcus Theaters, New Vision Theaters

Erik Oliver discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Luc Besson’s comic book adaptation, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and concludes that Besson’s cool sci-fi canvas outclasses his uncool approach to storytelling.

Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy) has made an unprecedentedly expensive English-language adaptation of a beloved French comic that was doomed to fail at the North American box office despite his belief in the project.

But thanks to his vision, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets…looks cool.

That isn’t a derisive comment. Valerian’s visuals are undoubtedly its main attraction. Valerian doesn’t just look cool—it looks really, really cool. Besson constantly finds new visual ideas within this unique sci-fi universe, even as everything else about the approach is blisteringly, deliriously uncool. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an old pulp novel, where it’s too busy being in awe of itself to bother much with involving you in its psychology or story. Its magic is that amidst labored goofiness and stilted setups it sometimes manages to transfer that awe to you.

Valerian follows special agent Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) as they attempt to settle a series of galactic diplomatic conflicts, all of which seem to be tied into a larger conspiracy involving a species thought to be extinct. In doing so, their search takes them across and deep into the eponymous city of Alpha, a multi-biome space station populated by millions of intergalactic denizens. Also, there’s a romance between the two that essentially amounts to persistent sexual harassment.

It’s good, though! Valerian’s main setting effectively condenses a supposedly gigantic, infinitely diverse universe into a navigable central location, and offers endless possibilities for visual splendor, possibilities that Valerian takes advantage of. The distinctly European, very strange, and very colorful brand of science fiction in the original comic, Valerian and Laureline, makes for a singularly bright, almost psychedelic visual style.

Movie technology has caught up with Valerian, but Besson doesn’t simply substitute CGI for things that would be harder to achieve practically; Valerian’s creatures decidedly lack texture or verisimilitude. Instead, he opens up a whole new canvas, and seemingly bottomless detail. Every frame is packed with vibrant color and detail. Besson stages set-piece after set-piece with new, distinctive visual ideas. Highlights include: a bazaar that exists only in another dimension one needs special goggles to see; luminescent butterflies that are actually fishing lures used by ogre-like aliens; an ocean full of mammalian creatures attached to symbiotic psychic jellyfish. They all look great. Valerian’s creative team rigorously thought through the logic of each of the distinct settings and atmospheres depicted.

Your mileage may vary, but if you like wacky alien sci-fi—and boy, do I like wacky alien sci-fi—Valerian will be a pleasure. The visual density might actually prove to be a problem for some viewers, but despite being so packed and colorful, Valerian avoids becoming an eyesore. It is a legitimately dazzling movie, full of outside-the-box ideas.

But then, Valerian as a movie doesn’t seem to have much use for those ideas. For all its weirdness in texture and mannerism, the structural core of Valerian is exceedingly conventional, hitting rote conspiracy and romance beats we’ve seen before along the way to an inscrutable final reveal. The twists are telegraphed and familiar anyway; the dialogue is stilted; the sense of humor lies mostly in the absurd whimsy of it all and, at its worst, in throwaway jokes that feel like placeholders. In that sense, it calls back to The Fifth Element, Besson’s last attempt at sci-fi on this scale; though Valerian doesn’t have quite the tonal extremes of that film, it has a similar everything-goes approach to generic material.

Valerian mostly chugs along with a compelling-enough conspiracy plot, making room for action where action can be found in the digital realms its design team has dreamt up. At over two hours, it can feel sluggish while its characters work through a story that no one involved seems very engaged in.

And that matter isn’t really helped by DeHaan and Delevingne—neither the most expressive of actors—who play Valerian and Laureline with almost entirely deadpan affect. Movies like this thrive on performances that can either anchor audiences or revel in the fun, and these two largely fail to do so. Delevingne’s Laureline does fare better; she’s let down by the title, but she’s the true co-lead, and a more appealing hero than Valerian. She has a certain sullen determination that makes for a nice contrast to Valerian’s chauvinistic waffling, and her deadpan seems to indicate an aloof character rather than a vacant one. As a team, though, the two seem bored, and though that’s sort of a fun choice in a movie as manic as this one, their relationship, supposedly built on crackling, frictional chemistry, comes across as obligatory and forced, for the characters as well as the film.

The supporting cast fares better, given the lease to do seemingly whatever they want. Besson’s movies have long been a place for actors to try out weirdness, and Valerian is no exception. Rihanna is earnest and fun here as Bubble, a shape-shifting burlesque dancer, though she manages her (admittedly bizarre) melancholic moments better than the one-liners thrown at her by the screenplay. Ethan Hawke, in a brief appearance, is doing something or other very enthusiastically as Jolly the Pimp. Clive Owen is essentially playing a stern British commander type, but he’s doing it well, and he represents the more sedate, formal side of the galaxy in a way that nicely fleshes out the extremes of the universe. It’s a movie populated with one-off characters, so it can feel unmoored at times, but the ones meant to count all make an impression, and it helps bring a vibrancy where the leads don’t.

While a lot of this may sound objectively negative, Valerian has a quality—an ephemeral, probably entirely subjective quality—that does make up for it. It treats its actual story and structure with ambivalence, but it also isn’t trying for coherence or narrative drive. It’s perfectly happy to dash with abandon through a world it’s creating as it goes, and in a way that’s exhilarating.