I imagine in the years to come, other filmmakers will rip off parts of Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It’s not because it’s a great film; it’s because there are plenty of great things in it. A film doesn’t have to be a home run to inspire others, and Besson’s sci-fi adventure is jam-packed with terrific ideas, scenes, sets, characters, and effects that other storytellers will likely put to better use. Despite the wondrous trappings of the futuristic setting, Valerian is constantly let down by a clunky, ham-fisted script and the horrendous miscasting of Dane DeHaan as a roguish hero. With a stronger screenplay, Valerian could have been a sci-fi classic, but as it stands, it feels like a film that will serve as fodder for better movies.
After a clever prologue that shows the construction of Alpha, a space-station that becomes home to over 5,000 civilizations (hence the “City of a Thousand Planets”), we cut to an idyllic planet of Mul, whose Navi-like inhabitants look like rejected designs from Avatar, but they enjoy a peaceful existence until their planet is destroyed. The planet’s dying princess sends out a mental shockwave, which awakens Major Valerian (DeHaan), a soldier working alongside fellow special ops agent Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne). Valerian works to uncover the meaning of this vision of Mul’s destruction while he and Laureline try to recover a valuable species. However, when they arrive on Alpha, they discover that their troubles have just begun.
Taken piecemeal, Valerian is brimming with cool visuals and imaginative set pieces. The designs of the alien species are largely fantastic, but it’s in the settings where Besson really lets loose. The showstopper is the mission through Big Market, something that may have seem convoluted on paper but Besson makes it work beautifully. Essentially, Big Market is an alternate dimension, so in our dimension, it looks like a largely open desert, but if you put on special glasses and gloves, you can see and interact with the alternate dimension. In another movie, the conceit of the Big Market would be enough for the entire plot, but for Besson, it’s just another thing to make Valerian feel truly massive and diverse.
For a guy who has been making movies for a couple decades, Besson approaches Valerian like it’s his last chance to make a film, and he overstuffs it with everything he can. It’s not enough for Laureline to get a special mind jellyfish that can tell her Valerian’s location. We need a long scene where Laureline meets a submarine captain, they see a giant aquatic creature, and then they pluck the jellyfish from its back. It’s not enough for Valerian to go after Laureline by trying to find a special pod that will transform his appearance; he needs a detour where he gets a pole dance from a shapeshifting alien (Rihanna). On the one hand, these detours continually slow down the plot and remove urgency from the story, but on the other hand, I can’t deny that they lead to fun, exciting moments.
Perhaps these detours would be a bit more bearable if we were more invested in the lead characters, but the work of storytelling and character development seems like a chore to Besson. If he’s not plunging us further into his bizarre universe, he’s not happy, so he has Valerian and Laureline bark exposition at each other and clumsily insert information into a film that desperately needs an audience surrogate. For example, both Valerian and Laureline are experienced operatives, but they need their ship’s computer to tell them about Alpha, one of the most valuable human outposts in the galaxy.
The film becomes even more of a hurdle with DeHaan in the lead. I think DeHaan is a fantastic actor in the right role. I thought he was outstanding in Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines, and Kill Your Darlings, but he’s completely miscast as the roguish action hero. He’s not charming enough to play Valerian’s cockiness, and he’s not commanding enough to make us believe that he’s an accomplished operative. And because he’s been miscast, Delevingne, who really shines in her role, completely acts him off the screen, so we’re left wondering why the movie isn’t called Laureline and the City of a Thousand Planets.
There are so many places where you can see how Valerian could have been a better movie. With a different lead actor, with a refined relationship between Valerian and Laureline (the movie drops us into the middle of the relationship and just expects us to care about the duo rather than watching them learn how to work together), and some tough but necessary sacrifices to move the plot along, Valerian could have easily stood alongside Besson’s classic The Fifth Element. Unfortunately, while there’s plenty to gawk at in Valerian, the story and the leads will have you rolling your eyes.