Based on the French sci-fi comic book Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) follows two interstellar agents on a quest to uncover the cause of a mysterious radiation bubble in Alpha, a massive space station home to over a thousand species from across the galaxy.
Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are reluctant heroes. Valerian seems more concerned with convincing Laureline to marry him and Laureline in keeping Valerian out of trouble. Overall, the film is visually stunning, creative, rich with color and spectacle, and epic in scale. Cara Delevingne is beautiful and charming. Just enough to make it good but not great.
Valerian is largely a victim of poor timing. Valérian and Laureline came out in 1967 and though not well known in the U.S., had a huge influence on sci-fi films, including The Fifth Element (for which artist Jean-Claude Mézières created concept art). Unfortunately, by 2017 the movie feels like a copy of all the things its source material inspired.
I found myself constantly recognizing characters and settings I’ve seen before, including from The Fifth Element but also films like Avatar (2009). You can’t help comparing the Mülians to Pandorans. They’re virtually identical both in appearance and what they represent.
The only element that “feels original” is the concept of inter-dimensional travel, which was brilliantly executed in a scene in which Valerian and Laureline travel to a market to retrieve a rare creature. In our dimension, the setting is an open desert and a walled enclosure, but by putting on special equipment, shoppers are able to enter another dimension to a bustling, multi-story shopper’s paradise.
The plot is interesting in that it’s not another apocalyptic scenario, though it’s played off as one at first. I appreciated the attempt at complexity. Compared to Gary Oldman’s character in The Fifth Element, however, Clive Owen plays an uninspired antagonist. Whereas Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg relishes in being evil, Commander Arun Filitt is just trying to save his own skin. Anyone could have played this generic bad guy.
Dane DeHaan was not a good choice to play Major Valerian. Valerian is supposed to be the classic hero: a tough guy and cocksure ladies’ man. DeHaan comes across as pale, weak, juvenile, and kinda creepy. When his character is introduced, we’re told he has a trophy collection of photos of women he’s slept with, including multiple subordinates. Gross. If he was an officer in today’s military, he would be court-martialed, demoted, and booted out of the service.
In The Fifth Element, Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) had everything Major Valerian lacked. His character spoke little and was emotionally reserved, but Bruce Willis is comfortable playing a strong action hero. Dane DeHaan just couldn’t pull that off. I had a hard time believing he was in charge of Sergeant Laureline and not the other way around.
Finally, the film actually treats audiences to a recap of the plot in which Valerian and Laureline explain Commander Filitt’s master plan Scooby-Doo-style. A successful movie never has to do this because the plot should be clear enough to the audience. Director Luc Besson, who wrote and directed The Fifth Element, either wasn’t confident in his movie or thought the audience would be too dumb to understand it. That section of dialog should have gone on the cutting room floor.
While Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was entertaining, rich with detail, and visually magnificent, it just wasn’t enough to overcome the deficiencies in its lead actors. It lacked the heart of Luc Besson’s earlier films, which is a shame. Valerian had the potential for something greater.