Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian rev Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets  (2017)    STX Entertainment/Sci-Fi-Action-Adventure    RT: 137 minutes    Rated PG-13 (sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material, brief language)    Director: Luc Besson    Screenplay: Luc Besson    Music: Alexandre Desplat    Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast    Release date: July 21, 2017 (US)    Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Rutger Hauer.

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 Twenty years ago, in the halcyon summer of ’97, I urged my friends to check out The Fifth Element. I felt it was my duty to steer loved ones away from crap like The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Speed 2 and Batman and Robin. If you want any specific thoughts on The Fifth Element, you can read my review on the website. Right now, I’m here to talk about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, another pop sci-fi piece from writer-director Luc Besson. I’ll start by saying it’s much more entertaining than the soulless assault vehicles that usually occupy multiplexes during the hot months. Instead of depicting the future as a dystopian hellhole, Valerian paints a more optimistic picture. Based on the French comic book series Valerian and Laureline, it’s a bumpy but fun ride.

valerian poster Like The Fifth Element, Valerian can’t be explained in a single sentence which I guess is a good thing because it means it has an actual plot rather than just a concept. Besson put a lot of thought into his screenplay and the story largely works. It starts by showing us how Alpha- aka “The City of a Thousand Planets”- came to be. It’s a massive floating metropolis where beings from all parts of the universe live together in peace and harmony. It became so large that Earth had to release it from its gravitational field into space. We see the evolution of the ever-expanding city as David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” plays on the soundtrack.

 Then we get into the story. Set in the 28th century, special agents Valerian (DeHaan, Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Laureline (Delevingne, Suicide Squad) receive their latest assignment. They are to go to a place called “Big Market”, a virtual-reality bazaar where the vendors and their goods can only be seen with special equipment, and retrieve a powerful little creature called a “Mul Converter”, a cute-ish alien critter capable of reproducing anything it swallows. Valerian is your typical cocky male hero who thinks he’s got it all covered until the opposite proves true (one gets the impression this happens a lot). At this point, Laureline steps in and saves his ass. In this instance, Valerian literally finds himself caught between two worlds (his arm is stuck in VR, the rest of him is in the RW). How he gets out of it is pretty cool.

 They return to Alpha with the intention of delivering the Mul Converter to their commander Arun Filitt (Owen, Children of Men). Apparently, it will be used to quell some trouble, the kind that comes from within. There’s a conspiracy involving a huge cover-up of the total destruction of a peaceful planet some years before. Valerian and Laureline try to get to the bottom of things before it’s too late and Alpha gets destroyed by dark enemy forces.

 For me, the weakest element of Valerian is the two lead actors. DeHaan doesn’t possess the necessary heft to portray a convincing action hero. He’s more a teenager trying to impress his new girlfriend by imitating somebody much cooler like Han Solo or John McClane. Delevingne comes off slightly better but still doesn’t quite cut it. I never for a minute believed them as a romantic couple as there’s no detectable chemistry between them. Their dialogue is clunky; it’s almost as bad as Attack of the Clones. At all time, the leads are overshadowed by the movie’s visual aspects. Although much of it is CGI, Valerian is still fairly impressive looking. Many of the special effects are dazzling. There’s an early sequence set on the planet that’s ultimately annihilated. We get to see Besson’s awesome imagination at work. It’s a bright, sunny planet with beautifully designed inhabitants living simply and peacefully. To be fair, it’s slightly reminiscent of Avatar but it’s still cool. The sets and alien design are also very good. There are aliens of every shape, size and type in Alpha, a city larger than many continents. I didn’t see Valerian in 3D but I think it would look really cool.

 While I can’t say much for the two main actors, I will praise Ethan Hawke (Maudie) and singer Rihanna who play a pimp and shape-shifting cabaret singer respectively. Rihanna’s intro is a nice nod to Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. She ends up helping Valerian out of a pretty bad jam. I wish she had played a bigger part in the adventure. Hawke adds nice comic relief which itself is funny since he’s not known for his comedic skills. He finally took my advice to lighten up (LOL!). The narrative is this side of convoluted but it never gets so bad that you sit there in utter confusion. There’s a lot going on in Valerian but Besson keeps it under control more or less. He takes a light-hearted approach to the story, never letting it get too bogged down with attempts at serious statements about refugees and political corruption. It may have its flaws and imperfections but Valerian is still, by far, one of the summer’s better movies. I didn’t leave the theater with the same hollow feeling I usually have after watching a summer blockbusters. It’s closer in spirit to a summer movie from the 80s. For me, that’s high praise. 

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