“I’ll find you Federal Agent Valerian.”
Passion projects. Some work, but most do not. For Luc Beeson, the later seems to be a better fit.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a visual odyssey that somewhere along the way forgot it needed to incorporate a story. Capturing a plethora of different cultures and species, Besson’s imagination runs wild as the members of Alpha, a world slowly created over hundreds of years in space, are quickly introduced. The montage of handshakes proves to be an interesting introduction to the city, it also conveniently allows Beeson to visually craft characters without having to fully explain their role within the evolving society.
The fifteen minutes we spend on Mül, a beautifully bright planet whose inhabitants are fully in tune with nature, living off the land while ensuring they give back to it, prove to be the film’s most endearing. When spaceships crash through the atmosphere of Mül and send its inhabitants running for their lives, the planet becomes collateral damage in a war the natives weren’t involved in. And so it sits, without a single word in English, we get a powerful, heartfelt and emotionally ridden story of peace, war, and loss, all backed by beautiful CGI visuals.
With an explosion the world is warped into a dream as a beam of light slices across the sky. Though we will eventually wrap our way back around to these nameless characters, it is quickly realized that they are not the film’s central stars; Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sargent Laureline (Cara Delevingne) get that title.
The two humans have major difficulty convincingly portraying a couple; however, one thing is certain, the pair is good at their job. But things become a bit dicey when they uncover a potential intergalactic conspiracy within Alpha. Throughout their investigation we get to travel through the many worlds that comprise the wondrous city - though Valerian’s quick mrauvering make many of them a mere CGI spectacle that Besson conveniently never has to develop.
But it is in this unveiling that Valerian suffers the most. Outside of its horrendous acting and painful dialogue, the film attempts to take itself seriously as a sci-fi adventure. But within that run for validation it constantly counters its serious moments with that of the ridiculous kind. Like any good fantasy the fate of the universe lies in the balance. At the same time the path to a greater understanding runs through a jellyfish’s asshole.
The film generates a second wind when Valerian travels into Alpha’s pleasure district and enlists the help of a shape-shifting glampod named Bubble. Though a bit ridiculous and over the top, it marks the only time in the film that Besson embraces the humor behind the story, utilizing both Bubble (Rihanna) and her loud, abrasive pimp (Ethan Hawke) to transform the film’s overall tone to one of excitement.
But that elation is short lived. Ultimately Bubble has to depart for the evening and we are left with DeHaan and Delevingne as they stumble through the remaining plot points that encompass the story. Fortunately for us, the ending is narratively interesting, albeit painstakingly cliché. It’s sad that in a world as lavishly complex as Alpha we can’t have it all. For Besson he spent a bit too much time on the visuals and not enough time on the story in which to back it. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets isn’t downright terrible - its just ultimately not that interesting.