Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

valerian french posterDon’t discount Luc Besson‘s newest film because it seems derivative: it’s based on classic French comics that inspired everyone from George Lucas to Besson himself. But, you should discount it because its characters are flimsy, script is weak and the film, while interesting to look at, is terminally boring.

Our story centers around Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), federal agents from the space station Alpha, a giant city of millions of inhabitants from thousands of worlds. When sent on a mission to retrieve a valuable item from an inter-dimensional crime lord, they find themselves at the heart of a conspiracy to cover up something rotten at the heart of Alpha.

It’s gorgeous to look at. The inter-dimensional crime boss? He’s played by John Goodman, and literally is in an alternate dimension. Tourists show up to this barren wasteland and by putting on goggles and going through a special scanner, can see and interact with a giant open bazaar dozens of stories tall and miles across that exists in an alternate reality. It’s like Space Mall of America times 1000. It is the most amazing concept and pulled off brilliantly, as is a gag involving Valerian literally having one hand (and his gun) in one universe and the rest of him in ours.

And then there’s Alpha itself, which you can directly see as an inspiration on Besson’s vision of future New York in The Fifth Element as well as George Lucas’s visions of Coruscant as a giant city-planet in the Star Wars prequels. It’s breathtaking, and a chase through multiple levels is one of the best realized action sequences in the film.

But that’s where the good parts of the film end. If you turned the sound down and made up your own script, it might be more enjoyable. If Besson had spent anywhere near as much attention to writing good dialogue that illuminated his characters as he did to his visual design and effects, this would have been a stellar movie.

Instead, characters are left spouting drivel that sounds more like a middle schooler trying to ape pithy, pulpy verbal patter reminiscent of 1940s classics or noir. Unfortunately, Dane Dehaan is not Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant. And Cara Delevingne is not Ingrid Bergman or either Hepburn.

Their characterizations are strained as well. The film starts with a proposal on a beach, but Dehane and Delevigne don’t act like longtime work partners or seem to have romantic interest in one another. They try to create a sort of Sam and Dianne bickering sexual tension, but it just never works. You don’t get that either of them actually cares for one another except that they’re expected to because. . .  movie trope.

There are other dubious character choices. Remember the inter-dimensional crime lord? Sounds like a cool character to have throughout the movie, right? Yeah, no. He’s inexplicably gone after the first act. Rihanna and Ethan Hawke show up as a shape-shifting alien named Bubble making her way as an exotic dancer(/hooker? it never gets that far) and her pimp, but they come and go far too soon. We’re also expected to feel for the death of a character who had only been introduced fifteen minutes earlier. Spoiler alert: we don’t.

However, the film ends with a nice rumination on colonialism and how we treat civilizations who we feel are inferior. It’s too bad this wasn’t a stronger theme throughout, or it might have made the wooden acting and hollow script more palatable.

No, this is not as good as The Fifth Element. Somehow just because Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich make it look effortless to make their way through their film, we think it is. But that script looks like Shakespeare compared to this. And missing is Gary Oldman and his Mangalore cohorts– this film has no discernible villain and the absence is noticeable. Both Fifth Element and the Star Wars prequels, despite their flaws, look so much more impressive when compared to this.

There’s certainly an audience for this film, but your tolerance for style over substance will have to be incredibly high. That said, it’s visually stunning and should be lauded for bringing the fantastic vision of the future from these classic comics.

2 out of 5 stars