“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” is a sprawling, overwhelming, exhausting Sci fi epic. Writer/director Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element,” “Lucy”) crafts a weird, vibrant Sci fi world bursting at the seams with creativity and visual splendor. A plethora of diverse alien cultures, civilizations, eco systems and nifty gadgets mesh together in absurd and exhilarating ways. As in “The Fifth Element,” world building is this film’s greatest strength and it almost distracts you from the bland protagonists and overly convoluted plot.
The titular ‘City of a Thousand Planets” (known as Alpha in the movie) is actually the new and improved International Space Station. As we see in the film’s inventive opening credit montage, what was once a station inhabited by humans from thousands of countries around the world has slowly grown into a home for hundreds of alien races and species from across the universe. In another section, we’re transported to a seemingly barren desert planet called Kyrien that’s home to a massive, bustling marketplace that exists in another dimension and can only be accessed via special equipment.
Besson and production designer Hugues Tissandier create a living, breathing cinematic environment. The City of a Thousand Planets isn’t just a one-dimensional backdrop for the characters to stand in front of and play out the central plot; it’s a character in and of itself. There’s a lot of detail and texture here; you’re overwhelmed by it but you also can’t get enough. The first hour and a half of the picture is an immersive, breathless wonder-- Besson guides us through this chaotic and intricate filmic space, introducing us to dozens of eccentric bit characters and creatures (that could have their own movies) along the way.
If only the rest of “Valerian” had been better. The plot is that of a socially conscious mystery involving government cover-ups, alien refugees and the importance of not covering up ones ugly past. This all sounds intriguing enough and it can be but it also gets needlessly convoluted. During the last third the cool and irreverent world building ceases and the film just becomes a confusing slog. When we reach the pivotal moment, wherein all facets of the central mystery are finally revealed, a lot of additional exposition is shoehorned in, making for a tedious and mind-numbing finale. Besson ties up all the narrative lose ends in sloppy, overly melodramatic and even heavy-handed ways.
“Valerian” also suffers from ho hum main characters. Our protagonists are Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline, (Cara Delevinge) two young agents that work for Alpha and are semi dating. Valerian and Laureline are standard issue: he’s the laid back, cocky playboy while she’s uptight and no nonsense. Pretty much all of their personal and romantic drama consists of Valerian trying to prove to Laureline he’s mature enough for her. Yawn. For a movie that takes place in such a vivid futuristic world and loaded with various alien species, it’s kind of disappointing that our protagonists are so run of the mill. There’s nothing particularly memorable or unique about them.
DeHaan does his best to play slick and charming but his low voiced, too-cool-for- school attitude is affected to the point of obnoxiousness. He consistently takes you out of the film. Delevinge fairs a little better but even her performance, her runway model-esque body movements and facial expressions, can come off robotic. Although Besson’s screenplay doesn’t do either actor any favors. It’s full of terribly cliché dialogue—the romantic banter is cloying while the comedic banter is painfully awkward and unfunny. Valerian and Laureline’s romance is cornball to say the least, which isn’t inherently a bad thing but the script renders it inauthentic.
Ultimately, I stopped caring about Valerian and Laureline, instead wanting to go exploring in this rich and colorful Sci fi world on my own. There’s a lot to look at and experience in “Valerian,” which means I can’t totally dismiss the film. But it certainly could have been better.