Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Despite its indelicate storyteling, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a swaggering, gorgeous old-school adventure in visualizing intercultural harmony.

The first fifteen minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the triangulation of its conceptual kernels. Splendidly, writer-director Luc Besson gave his 200-million-dollar indie project a threefold preface. He sets up The Alpha Station—the situation and the overarching theme of harmony, then the Pearls of Mül—the consequential conflict, and lastly the main characters—uneven special operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne).

The outset is a montage of neighborly hand-shaking between peoples of Earth on Alpha Station before various aliens visit us with goodwill. Fast forward to the 28th century, it has been moving into deep space to become the galaxy’s metropolis, housing and celebrating pluralism, hence the name “City of a Thousand Planets.” Next, the movie takes considerable time to demonstrate the planet Mül. Though its inhabitants—Na’vi-ish, prismatic Pearls—are low-tech creatures, their society is still prosperous and spiritually fulfilling. This honorable ethnographic introduction criticizes imperialism by refusing the notion of “low-tech means savages.” It’s a thoughtful masterpiece of visual storytelling to guide the audience to knowing and appreciating the basis of this civilization.

A dubious catastrophe, however, comes upon Mül before Major Valerian wakes up—what we’ve just witnessed is his eerie dream—next to his partner Laureline. Because their relationship is spoon-fed to us through their recital about characteristics and feelings, we recognize this dynamic at once. He is the overconfident bachelor who has zero trouble in sleeping with women, but only one in staying faithful to any of them. She is the smart and snarky Ivy League graduate who works alongside him long enough to not be annoyed by his cavalier faux-adoration. This outdated afraid-of-commitment archetype from a bygone era is worsened by a misogynist Playlist—his collection of one-night stands. Luckily, we take a break from these will-they-won’t-they ribbings after Valerian’s impertinent proposal to Laureline. They must now penetrate a transaction in the Big Market to retrieve a cute aardvark-like creature called Mül Converter, which can multiply anything it swallows. Valerian may or may not recall this animal from his dream about the Pearls.

Dane DeHaan as Valerian

This movie is undoubtedly the most expensive indie heretofore thanks to Besson's push for crowdfunding. Its source material is the 60s French Bandes dessinées (drawn strips) Valerian and Laureline written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières. Apart from flat storytelling and the unavoidable sexism of its era, the comics boast fantastic worldbuilding and sci-fi ideas revolving around spacio-temporal travel—though the temporal part is only touched upon once in the movie. It also explores totalitarianism, government corruption, racism, and multicultural communication. For the movie, Besson modifies the sixth volume, “Ambassador of the Shadows.” Viewers might find themes and motifs similar to well-known sci-fi movies like Star Wars or Avatar, but in fact, Christin and Mézières’ comic book series inspired those properties. Han Solo being frozen in carbonite, slave girl Leia, the Millennium Falcon’s design, the Na'vi, to name a select few, all came from the pages of Valerian and Laureline. Perhaps that's the disadvantage of adapting a 50-year-old sci-fi story, which now suffers from the Seinfeld effect.

Besson, having matured from the Cinéma du look movement, wanted to make a Valerian and Laureline movie 20 years ago because the books are one of his fond childhood memories. The 90s technical advancement didn't satisfy him, so he gave us The Fifth Element, of which visuals (Mézières served as an advisor) were more than enough for a cult classic. After an overlooked, fascinating The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec in 2011 before his abhorred Lucy in 2014, Besson’s visual forte continues to transpire to the spectacle of Valerian. Visual supervisor Scott Stokdyk and Besson’s old-time DP Thierry Arbogast make sure the dazzling optical effects can keep the audience engulfed in galactic affairs. With attention to colors and large-scale lighting, the surreal wide shots will drop many jaws. Remarkable details are exalted by delirious flashes of the Alpha Station, a society of bug-eyed frog-ogres, a hat that gives Marie Antoinette a run for her gold franc, and fluorescent butterflies.

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A wide range of creatures and habitats—deserts, gigantic circuit boards, and an underwater ecosystem where giant monsters have a parasitic jellyfish Laureline needs—is included. As Besson never brushes over these territories, cultural traits are lovingly incorporated to the adventure. The concept of an outstanding Big Market, whose multidimensional attribute is a VR experience, elevates the first fast-paced action scene. Valerian also leads us through an array of environments in a sequence where he runs his shortcut across the Alpha Station. Edits are enough for our eyes to register the boundless and meticulous creativity of shapes and textures. This vision, however, takes over Besson’s prioritization for narrative substance.

Visuals aside, the plot is a simplistic quagmire. It takes a while to present the inciting event: the abduction of General Arün Filitt (Clive Owen) by mysterious creatures, who trap others in gooey bags. Thanks to his nine-year experience, Valerian saves everyone in the room; otherwise, the situation would halt permanently. He rushes after the abductors, leaving behind a worried Laureline and two default good guys—Commander Okto Bar (Sam Spruell) and Sergeant Neza (Kris Wu)—to solve an immediate problem later in the third act.

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Valerian meanders through locations with few riveting developments, either on the relationship or the mission. There's no midpoint to reframe and propel the purpose, which stays on course without significant changes of mindset or opinion. To round up a messy linkage of events, the script spills all explanations over a short exposition by General Filitt. That jumble includes a toxic zone inside Alpha Station no one bothers to emphasize, one pearl we don’t even remember, a slightly readable political cover-up, Laureline’s monologue about love reminiscing of Interstellar, and on-the-nose opinions about current America. Alien races and their diverse cultures are an impressive watch, but the convenience of racial issues amongst a thousand of species is obvious.

Besson’s personal undertaking could rise above his weak screenplay if the main characters were entertaining and well-acted, but DeHaan lacked the physicality and charismatic arrogance of the original Valerian. The actor is more suitable for a soulful young man caught in adolescent peculiarity than an insincere hothead swinging instantaneously into the danger. I don’t think he is miscast. It’s more likely Besson still hates the conventional masculinity, at least when it comes to his male leads—though Valerian still clings on to his blind loyalty. As for Laureline, the character could have been the perfect foil for her partner if DeHaan carried Valerian with enough conviction. Still, Delevingne gave a persuasive performance as the assertive, unwavering female in the office with virtually no sexist remnant of the source material. One scene reminds you of The Silence of the Lambs, even though Laureline faces the problem with an uncompromising attitude and the Commander treats her with respect.

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Valerian and Laureline must go through their own trials to assure the romance by saving each other. That explains Besson’s change from the source material, where Valerian is captured and Laureline does all the heavy-lifting. On screen, the flexible and resourceful Laureline disobeys the direct order to rescue her darling with the help by an info-trio, whose words add up to a complete sentence. She further proves her competence and strong affection for Valerian by enduring 10 seconds more than the limitation of the psychic jellyfish. In exchange, Valerian must infiltrate the frog-ogre citadel to save her, but not before meeting Jolly the Pimp (Ethan Hawke) and a shape-shifting sex worker named Bubble (Rihanna). She gives Valerian a show-stopping dance, where the wardrobe from costume designer Olivier Bériot and Riri’s sexy performance hold our absolute attention for three minutes. Her voice, plus the appreciation from Valerian, gives this faceless alien a recognizable identity before she encourages him to be in touch with his feelings. Yet, the trope is so overplayed that we find DeHaan even more underwhelming.

Valerian is so unsure of itself when conveying the positive yet graceless messages of compassion and duty—I blame the lack of delicacy. Despite those flaws, it’s worth checking out exclusively because of the director’s respect to the books, proved by his dedication to visualize the unique intercultural harmony in this swaggering, gorgeous old-school adventure. Especially when 2017 hasn't been going well for sci-fi adaptations from decades-old sources. I'm looking at you, Ghost in the Shell and Transformers.