Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Posted July 21, 2017 by in

Quick Stats

Genre: sci-fi
Director: Luc Besson
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Actors: Dane DaHaan, Cara Delevingne
Length: 2 hours 17 minutes
Release Date: 7-21-2017
Studio: Europacorp
What We Thought

Mesmerizing.  No matter its other faults—and they are many—the latest space opera is a feast for the eyes.

by Daniel Hodgson
Full Article
You can’t take your eyes off of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, that’s for sure.  A visually stunning film, director Luc Besson’s latest is populated with weird aliens of all kinds, who inhabit a gigantic space station in the farthest corner of the galaxy.  Every frame offers creatures like you’ve never seen before.  It’s mesmerizing.  No matter its other faults—and they are many—the latest space opera is a feast for the eyes.
     The film is adapted from Valerian et Laureline, a french sci-fi comic book by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières, which served as the inspiration for Star Wars and Besson’s own The 5th Element, and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.  The film begins with the construction of Alpha, a space station orbiting earth, presented in a montage that spans centuries.  Representatives from various alien species arrive at the ever-expanding space station and greet the human representatives.  In time, Alpha becomes too large to stay in orbit, and voyages into deep space.
     Cut to the planet Mül, a tropical paradise where a lithe species of humanoids live in oversized seashells.  However, their planet is attacked by invaders who are not revealed until much later in the story.  Only after these two different extended prologues do we meet Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline (Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne), who are on a mission to recover a “Converter”, an adorable spiky lizard creature who secretes (or excretes?) ten times what you feed it.
     Why the Converter is so important is not explained until the end of the film, which is the fatal flaw of Valerian.  Because it is left a mystery, we do not understand what’s at stake.  In Star Wars, we learn right away that the Empire is evil, the Death Star is bad news, and that it’s critical to deliver R2D2’s data to the Rebellion.  But for 90% of this movie, I wondered, so what if Valerian and Laureline fail?  Who are the bad guys?  Why should I care?
     As bad as the plotting is, the romantic subplot is much worse, repugnant and implausible.  When they are first introduced, we learn that Valerian is brave but a womanizer, with three dozen or more notches in his belt.  “You have a problem with commitment,” Laureline spells out for us.  To prove his dedication to her, Valerian proposes to her on the spot, prior to any real relationship.  He then spends the rest of the movie bossing her around as they pursue their mission (he is her superior officer, but still).  However much he protests to the contrary, you and I both know she is nothing more than conquest.
     For much of the running time, the movie doesn’t want Laureline to do much, or won’t let her.  She takes over as protagonist briefly when Valerian disappears, during which time, she has a fight scene in which she reveals that she’s a bad-ass.  Who knew?  But afterwards, she reverts to full-on damsel-in-distress.  It gets worse.  Laureline is spit on, and at one point, she puts her head inside an all-seeing alien jellyfish so she can locate Valerian.  “That is not its mouth,” a trio of bird aliens explain.  Later on, a scene is devoted to prostitutes, and Rihanna puts on a burlesque show for Valerian, in which she changes into various fetish outfits.  Given Laureline’s lack of agency, and that an entire sequence is dedicated to the objectification of women, it’s fair to say that sexism is alive and well in the 24th century.  In the context of current sci-fi cinema, such as Guardians of the Galaxy and the new Star Wars films, in which female protagonist are just as active as their male counterparts, Valerian comes off as backwards.
     There is too much dialog in this movie.  Some of it is bad, very bad.  I don’t understand the emphasis on all this chatty-chat-chat when the incredible visuals and outrageous action scenes speak for themselves.  Besson is, first and foremost, an action filmmaker, and the film boasts an impressive chase scene in which Valerian punches his way through the space station’s walls, shooting floating platforms out of his gun as races across chasms.  The only thing like it that I can think of is the accelerator suit chase scene in G.I. Joe, but Besson is gifted enough as a director to does it in an extended single take.  When the film wants to be, it’s fairly thrilling.
     It’s funny, too.  Valerian doesn’t take itself too seriously, and allows the clash of alien cultures to serve as a vehicle for comedy.  There is a deliberately silly scene in which a big fat alien wants Laureline to try on dresses.  She tries to explain that she has other priorities, but the alien doesn’t speak English, and offers more dresses.  Valerian wants to be a crowd-pleaser, tries to be a crowd pleaser.  If only it would stop talking, and give Laureline something to do.
     Besson wanted to make this film for a long time.  Finally, he has.  It’s strange and whimsical, and he does whatever he wants with it.  This is not Besson’s Star Wars.  This is his Phantom Menace, heavy on CGI, but light on likeable characters.  DeHaan demonstrated what a fine actor he is in 2012’s Chronicle, but this material calls for a more tongue-in-cheek performance than he delivers, while Delevingne scowls through most of the film and looks generally disinterested.  But for all its faults, and I did say they were many, my eyes were glued to the screen.  If it does only one thing, it does it well.  Special effects.  Nominations are in order for that.  The rest is a mixed bag.  2.5 out of 5 stars.

About the Author

Daniel Hodgson

Daniel has a degree in film from the University of Texas at Austin, and writes about himself in the third-person, because that's the fashion.


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