Valerian and the Cit of a Thousand Planets – By Luc Besson
Kristen and I got a chance to see this on Tuesday, and it’s officially releasing on July 21st, 2017. So as you’re making your plans for the weekend, I get to help you answer the question: is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets worth seeing?
The story is based on a French comic called Valerian and Laureline, which was first published in 1967 and wrapped up in 2010. Needless to say, they didn’t try and fit the whole story into the movie. The story revolves around the two main characters, Valerian and Laureline, as they try and determine what is going on in Alpha City, the City of a Thousand Planets, and why an attack is happening that is making parts of the city and station uninhabitable. This city was sent away from its decaying Earth orbit after it got too large, but that was 400 years ago. Since then, this city, which had a good number of alien inhabitants while around Earth, has picked up many, many more aliens, and everyone lives together peacefully for the most part. However, there is a zone of radiation that is growing, making parts of the station uninhabitable. So Valerian and Laureline are tasked with helping Commander Filitt, played by Clive Owen, find out who is behind it all.
Some initial thoughts about this movie — first of all, it was better than I expected. I thought it was very likely that we would see nearly all of the thousand alien races, but we probably only saw several dozen It was still a lot, but the trailers made this movie look like it was going to be shiny alien races galore and not much plot. Now, that’s not to say that there is a great plot — there are multiple plot threads and one that runs throughout the whole thing, but it isn’t a tightly constructed plot. In fact, we meet a character pretty early on in the film who seems to be a Chekhov’s gun; however, the film then forgets about him, and we’re left wondering whether there was something left on the editing room floor, or if the writers just forgot to come back to him. The best compliment that I can pay to this film is that it is very reminiscent of The Fifth Element, another Luc Besson film (albeit shinier — which wasn’t always in its favor).
Let’s talk about the acting in this film. The simplest way to put it was that it was kind of a hot mess. This film focuses heavily on the characters of Valerian and Laureline played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. It seems Valerian is supposed to be very like Korben Dallas from The Fifth Element; however, in Bruce Willis’s portrayal of Dallas, the character had rough edges but ends up being generally likable. Though it’s clear that DeHaan’s Valerian is supposed to be likable, he isn’t given the same rough edges and depth that Korben Dallas has. Some of that is because the portrayals of Laureline by Cara Delevingne and Bubble by Rihanna, both whom are evidently supposed to help Valerian grow and develop as a character, do not work all that well as foils to him. Rihanna’s performance generally just seemed to take up space in the film, as it ended up adding nothing besides a dance scene and an attempt at boosting Valerian’s character growth. Cara Delevingne’s performance was better; however, her acting range seems limited, so while she was believable, for the most part, as the government agent partnered with Valerian, she wasn’t as believable as a character who was supposed to grow significantly like Valerian and also encourage him to be a better person. While DeHaan did a decent job of trying to show that growth, the fact that Delevingne’s acting style is reminiscent of Nicholas Cage’s (i.e. they seem to basically play themselves in films) meant that there wasn’t much for DeHaan to play off of. Despite these flaws, though, there were a few solid performances. For example, Sam Spruell, who plays a General on the Alpha Base/City was really enjoyable to watch, and it was compelling to see him make tough decisions.
The aliens in the world are generally well done. However, they weren’t without flaws either. There is an alien race that you meet early on, called the Pearls, that felt like a miss to me. They are generally humanoid and almost remind one of the aliens from Avatar. They were presented as a very happy and peaceful race, and this was conveyed through their flowing, almost dance-like way of moving. This didn’t make any sense to me, though, as it would be impossible to maintain without having much more muscular shoulders than these aliens had; they were generally tall and wispy looking. This was a shame, as we meet them early on, and it gives the film a bit of a rocky start. But the CGI and other special effects were generally quite well done.
One last critical note — I do want to talk a little bit about the length of this film, and some issues with the story itself that I saw, without giving away too much. This film is two and a half hours long, which I felt was a good 45 minutes too long for the material in the film. Now, some of this comes from the creators trying to jam more aliens into this film than needed, but a fair amount of it is just odd pacing, or odd additions of comedy at certain points. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets needed one more good pass-through by the editors, director, and studio to trim the fat. It also needed better direction in terms of the protagonists’ relationship — since the movie takes place in under 24 hours, it feels like the studio determined that the film needed to include a complete love story that resolved by the end. That was just a bad plan, as it felt rushed, and there was no real reason to bring it full-circle. I felt it would have been more compelling if, at the end, they’d had the girl kiss the guy and say something like, “We’ll see where this leads down the road,” to leave things more open-ended. There was no real reason to rush it and force it.
So I’ve talked about how this film was better than I expected — so why was that the case? First off, I’m sure it was partly because it exceeded my expectations by a long way. I was pretty sure from seeing the trailer that while it looked like it could be interesting, it was more likely going to be mostly a slog, punctuated by lots of pretty or impressive-looking aliens with no strong plot to pull it together. However, it did have a decent overarching plot (albeit a bit weak and overdone). Second, I liked it because it has a nostalgia factor due to its simliarity to The Fifth Element. These two films very much feel like they’re essentially the same film, and that’s not a bad thing. I still prefer The Fifth Element to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, but there was something familiar about the film that made it more enjoyable for me. Finally, once you figure out that it isn’t trying to be a serious film and that it’s meant to be a popcorn flick, it allows you to enjoy some of the more well-done characters — for example, the Shingouz, who are information brokers. The three of them go to great, comical lengths to get Laureline to like them, and feel like a cross between Alf and half Howard the Duck.
What is my final takeaway from this movie? In short, it’s a popcorn movie; there isn’t much more to it than that. It touches loosely on some deeper themes, like the pitfalls of colonialism, but that mainly felt a bit borrowed from Avatar and didn’t add a great deal to the story. Is it worth seeing in theaters? It certainly was pretty to see in 3D, and there are lot of shiny aliens and special effects, but I don’t know that I would want to pay full price to go see it. This film is not a great piece of filmmaking, but I and most of the theater found it quite enjoyable nonetheless.
Critical Grade: D
Popcorn Grade: B-
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