Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are government agents on Alpha, an artificially-created planet comprised of beings all around the galaxy peacefully coexisting and collaborating. Whilst on course for a mission, Valerian receives a vision of a planet exploding. After returning with a creature and orb seen in the vision, Alpha is attacked by beings from said planet and Valerian and Laureline’s commander Fillit (Clive Owen) is kidnapped. Thus, they are set on a quest to get to the centre of Alpha, which has been made mysteriously uninhabitable.
Valerian and Laureline is a French comic book series published between 1967 to 2010. It has influenced much great sci-fi, including Star Wars. One of these influences was Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, which hired the book’s artist to work on concepts for the film. He was the one who suggested that Besson just adapt the book, and 20 years later that idea was realised. Was it realised well, though?
If you take nothing else from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, it’s that it has a stupidly long name. The other thing you can take from it is its visuals. The vibrancy and imagination behind nearly every shot is something to behold, and the camera works effortlessly to put you inside these environments. I love the design of the creatures, each having a uniqueness to them even down to how some of the individuals of the species are given their own designs. The CG is a little ropey, but it works in putting you into that environment. The ideas here are imaginative and really gets your brain active, and some of the shots could have been cut out of a comic book.
There’s also a great humanistic message here. I love the idea that all these cultures and alien beings coming together to share the spoils of their discoveries and expertise. The opening, set to David Bowie’s Space Oddity, gets across this message beautifully. It also tackles ideas of cultural superiority, exclusion and what we are willing to do for what we believe to be progress, and while they can be clumsily handled, it’s appreciated that this kind of unity is not entirely without its set of problems.
So, with all that, and I need to stress that I really do enjoy a lot of aspects of this movie, I sadly need to point out that Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne suuuuuuuuuuuuuck so much as the leads! They’re charmless, have little chemistry, and their characters are obnoxious as hell. It says a lot when the most nuanced character is Rihanna’s Bubble, who is barely in the thing. The plot is also lacklustre and relies way too much on convenience for convenience sake (the aliens have a new arbitrary power that helps them continue the plot, it seems). It’s worth noting that the scenes worth watching ignore the plot entirely, and you could nearly make a mastercut of just them as short vignettes if it wasn’t designed to follow the false facsimile of a story.
The movie is a mess, but it’s a glorious mess full of imaginative concepts, a delightful message of humanism, Besson’s usual strange and offbeat sense of humour and a great deal of passion and whimsy. It’s a shame that the story and characters part of this deal are pretty flimsy in contrast with the rest of the film. Time will tell if this will capture minds like The Fifth Element eventually did, but it’s worth checking out for some damn impressive ideas.