Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a case study in what to avoid when trying to establish a sci-fi universe. At first glance, the comic-inspired sci-fi action flick from Lucy director Luc Besson seems to channel his 20-year-old cinematic high-point, The Fifth Element — A shoot first, ask questions later action movie set in a vibrant and enchanting vision of the future. When I took on the task of writing our Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets review, I had hoped I’d be evangelizing the second coming of that classic film. Instead, I found an almost inscrutable movie baked in a hollow, sometimes flashy, world.
The movie follows the eponymous hero Valerian, a major in the universal human military, and his partner (and love interest), Sergeant Laureline, as they investigate a mystery that threatens to destroy Alpha, an enormous space station that plays home to millions of species from across the universe. The threat serves as an entry point for the duo to discover and unravel a massive cover-up spanning space (and time).
The movie goes out of its way to keep the story and the action separated
It also isn’t that important. The mystery on Alpha station is the primary conflict of the movie, but it mostly serves as an ancillary support system for Valerian and Laureline’s aimless wandering. The duo chase conspirators and go on rescue missions to save each other from random alien threats. Their investigation takes long, winding turns across Alpha — facilitating chase scenes in spaceships and submarines, gunfights, and a sequence where Valerian kills off an entire room of gray brutish creatures with a sword. None of their meandering moves the plot along.
Instead of integrating the mystery into these scenes, many of the movie’s action sequences are punctuated by short conversations in Alpha’s human military headquarters, far away, where secondary characters, who you’d normally deem unimportant, discuss how they’re solving the plot’s core problem, step-by-step. The movie seems to go out of its way to keep the story and the action separated: At one point, key information is literally delivered by omniscient duck-billed information brokers, rather than worked into Valerian and Laureline’s story.
Valerian, played by Amazing Spider-Man 2’s Dane DeHaan, is technically the star, but he and Laureline (Suicide Squad’s Cara Delevigne) are propped up early on as a sloppy, but effective space cop duo and love affair rolled into one. They have a flirty rapport, punctuated by brief moments of earnest emotion, but neither of these dynamics feel especially genuine. Valerian sounds equally boring whether he’s trying to act earnest and romantic, or witty and charming. Laureline, armed with charming quips and wide-eyed surprise, keeps the “chemistry” between the two of them alive at times, but never gets the opportunity to make her character feel like more than a foil for her co-star.
Valerian’s coolest designs don’t get the time and attention they deserve
The problem is not exclusive to DeHaan and Delevigne. Despite the film’s strong supporting cast, which includes Clive Owen, Ethan Hawke, Rihanna, and John Goodman (in voiceover), every character in this movie sounds like they’re talking at you, the viewer, rather than to whomever they’re supposed to be speaking.
Even if its characters are no fun to listen to, Valerian is very pleasant to look at. Every pore of the movie is filled with creative, highly stylized costumes, creatures, and buildings. Though much of it seems deliberately tame — there are few, if any, intelligent aliens that don’t walk and talk like a human being, for example — there is a steady stream of interesting designs to observe.
Unfortunately, many of Valerian’s coolest designs — the underwater alien farmers, walking goldfish bowls, and peacock-human hybrids of Alpha Station — don’t get the time and attention they deserve. A city of a thousand planets is too big to show in its entirety, of course, but instead of weaving these wondrous elements into the film’s most important scenes, Besson uses them as exposition and window dressing.
When Valerian and Laureline arrive at Alpha Station, their ship’s AI simply parades out a few alien species in rapid succession with brief explanations, like a visual encyclopedia. Normally, this kind of sequence would be a way to convey important information you’ll need later in the movie, but none of the alien info makes an appearance later in the film. The explanation is merely an excuse to jam more concept art on screen.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets shows flashes of the fun, excitement, and infatuating creativity you’d hope to see in a modern space opera. (Without giving it away, the film’s first 5-10 minutes, which provide an abridged montage of Alpha Station’s origin, using the film’s interesting art and design to great effect.) Despite these glimpses of compelling lore, most of Valerian feels like a series of concepts, connected by an extremely bare-bones action tale. From afar, its best ideas look as if they’ve been drawn from an imagination running wild — but get closer and there’s no aspect of this movie that really stands out.