Though not a Pixar film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets comes with its own accompanying short film. Technically it is just the opening credits sequence, but not even Watchmen‘s brilliant, tuneful introduction is as perfect. It’s like a rare mineral flung out in space for eons, finally orbiting back to us with luminescence, and explaining just how mankind might possibly save itself from extinction, all set to a David Bowie song.
Valerian comes with history—an important one. Based on a 1960s French comic strip (or bande dessinées), writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières original creation Valérian et Laureline served as inspiration for sci-fi films for decades, including director Luc Besson’s own influential work The Fifth Element. Now, Besson’s trying his hand a proper adaptation of the impactful-yet-little-known sci-fi franchise.
After the film’s Bowie-filled opening sequence sets the stage for Alpha, a hodgepodge collection of ships parts that have formed a city filled with species from a thousand planets, we meet our heroes. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) is our brash 007 and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) his wiser and (maybe) deadlier partner. Their attitudes reflect their age, but definitely with a sophisticated filter.
Although Valerian and Laureline are at the center of the action, they’re performance isn’t really the selling point. At times the film’s dialogue feels wooden and stiff, as if translated from another language. But what the film lacks in chemistry, it more than makes up for in visual beauty, a CGI seduction of the eyes that rivals the awe and impact of James Cameron’s Avatar. If this movie has no other legacy, know that the goal posts for convention cosplay have drastically changed.
Apart from the ships, weapons, and groovy graphic interfaces, most of Besson’s attention is heaped upon Delevingne, who retains the smarts and ass-kicking attitude of the original Laureline. Her reaction shots range from typical action-adventure athleticism to screwball comedy, oftentimes just a fraction of a second apart.
Although drawing greedily from its source material, Valerian pulls in visual cues from many other sources. For example, one of the film’s starships looks remarkably similar to Star Trek’s Fesarius and another scene looks like it belongs on the cover of a Journey album.
Luckily, the story that breezes us through this outstanding optic panoply has just enough of the goods to keep us interested, though it certainly stumbles across the finish line. Without diving into spoilers, the city of Alpha becomes the center of a conspiracy, one that implicates Valerian and Laureline’s military outfit, and it’s up to our time-cop duo to figure out the mystery. While the the surrounding visuals sell a story unlike any other, the core plot of the film is relatively formulaic.
But even Valerian‘s lackluster plot isn’t this movie’s biggest problem—and unfortunately the problem is right there in the title. Simply put, DeHaan is no star-hopping rogue. While what makes “good acting” is certainly subjective, DeHaan just doesn’t deliver the devilish charm required for this one. Instead of portraying a brave-yet-flawed space adventurer you can’t help but root for, he’s a collapsed neutron star of fun. You could make the argument that DeHaan was going for a Keanu Reeves-style performance à la The Matrix, but it never comes together in any satisfying or convincing way and ultimately, along with a few other misfires, keeps Valerian from entering the rarefied air of other sci-fi legends.
Despite its faults, Valerian remains a film the likes of which you’ve never seen. Yeah, it has Rihanna (and she’s ok), but it’s the film’s seamless adoption of technology, its creation of fascinating worlds, and its memorable sequences jam-packed with 100 percent sci-fi goodness that makes Valerian a decent summer blockbuster.
But more than anything, the film allows Besson’s imagination to run wild—and we’re just lucky to join the ride.
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