Luc Besson’s space epic is spectacular, but also spectacularly lazy.
Luc Besson is no stranger to directing and/or writing attractive movies with underwhelming scripts. There are exceptions of course, but his bread and butter are cool people doing exciting things that ultimately make little to no sense. Films and franchises like Lucy, The Transporter, Taken, and The Fifth Element are goofy fun at best, and that’s not a knock — the power of goofy fun should never be underestimated. His latest directorial effort looks by all accounts to be more of the same, but unfortunately, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a colorful mess dragged down by the two blandest and least engaging leads in the history of space and time.
It starts strong though as David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” plays over scenes moving viewers through the history, past, and future, of intergalactic meet-ups. From 1975’s joint mission between the U.S. and the Soviets to later meetings, we see newcomers welcomed to the International Space Station from Middle Eastern countries, African nations, and others before the arrivals become decidedly less human. The station grows larger with each addition, and eventually, it’s set free from Earth’s orbit. Alpha becomes home to thousands of cultures over the centuries, and hidden among the masses sits a secret of genocidal proportions.
Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) is a cocky soldier known for getting even the most dangerous jobs done, and along with his partner, Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), he’s tasked with one involving Alpha. As the pair investigate an internal threat against the station they also deal with their own feelings for each other. Can they prevent the destruction of Alpha, save an entire species, and prove that two slices of walking, talking Wonder Bread can engage viewers for over two hours?
Well, two out of three ain’t bad.
There’s no denying that Besson has delivered a colorful, visually-attractive world with Valerian, and comparisons to the likes of James Cameron’s Avatar are well-deserved particularly in the form of one Na’vi-like species at the heart of the tale. They look spectacular, and Besson’s preference of bright, dynamic colors paired with interesting design choices elsewhere keeps viewers’ eyes open and frequently satisfied. Some action beats work well too including a foot chase in a virtual marketplace. It’s a pretty movie.
But… and this is a big ol’ but… the experience is tanked by Besson’s lazy script and two lead performances/personalities that make you wish he had cast recently painted walls in the roles instead.
The story here manages to be both convoluted in its telling and incredibly simplistic. It’s an empty love story about the power of love, and it works neither on the grand scale with the main story nor on the more intimate with the relationship between Valerian and Laureline. Big themes are summed up in characters’ death bed words — “Life’s a drag when you don’t have an identity of your own” is a favorite — and silly spectacle constantly one-ups narrative stakes and character drama. Valerian stops at one point knowing Laureline is in grave danger to enjoy an admittedly eye-catching dance number from Rihanna as a shape-shifting alien named Bubble. It’s a showstopper, but again, the woman he loves is in imminent danger, and Valerian’s indifference to her well-being become our own.
That said, even if Besson’s script cared about these two it seems unavoidable that viewers wouldn’t thanks to the presence of DeHaan and Delevingne. DeHaan, in particular, does best in roles where he’s squirrely or the one things are happening to, but he doesn’t pull off the active hero vibe. (There’s a reason you’ll laugh aloud when he pulls Clive Owen aside for a “man to man” talk.) Both DeHaan and Delevingne have delivered competent work elsewhere, but neither has the charisma needed to portray — let alone carry — a sci-fi/action film. Both give flat performances that mistake constant eye-rolls, dryly-delivered dialogue, and a lack of enthusiasm as heroic, roguish character traits, and as badly as they fail individually their collective heat is nonexistent. They share zero chemistry and fail to convince as lovers, soldiers, or human beings.
Unrelated to the story itself, Besson makes some odd choices for a film that starts off implying a feeling of inclusion. The opening scenes of newcomers being welcomed to the station feature a variety of ethnicities, but without fail the captain at the head of each group on either side is male. (It’s a fun beat though noticing that several of them are directors who’ve worked with Besson.) And Rihanna’s stunt casting aside, characters with more than a few lines of dialogue throughout the film are almost exclusively white dudes.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is appealing to the eyes and features a handful of cool ideas, but its empty dullness is the exact inverse of the endlessly exciting possibilities out in the vast reaches of space.
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