Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Director: Luc Besson | 135 minutes | action, adventure, science fiction, fantasy | Actors: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, Rutger Hauer, Peter Hudson, Xavier Giannoli, Louis Leterrier

Every phenomenon has a predecessor on which it is based. For example, the popular science fiction film “The Matrix” is in some respects very similar to the Japanese animated film “Ghost in the Shell”. However, when a cult classic only arrives at the general public after so many years (such as with the aforementioned animation film that got an American remake in 2017 and therefore managed to reach a larger audience), it seems a lot less original than originally was the case. Despite the fact that “Ghost in the Shell” was one of the first of its kind, it is now yet another sci-fi story with an overly intelligent computer. Unfortunately, this also happens with “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”, where the various spaceships, the ugly computer-generated aliens and the wooden love plot sometimes seem very familiar to us.

The stories of the intergalactic secret agent Valerian have their origins in a series of French comics released in the mid-1960s. Quite a few concepts introduced in the comics made their way to the general public with the release of the first “Star Wars” movie in 1977; who shamelessly copied all the original ideas of the comic book series. Luc Besson must have been a big fan of the books, he is the one who must restore justice to the galaxy and give Valerian a similar cinema adventure, hoping for a new science fiction phenomenon.

Why all this is important? The visual splendor of Besson in combination with vaguely familiar space vehicles and locations is one of the few things that really works in “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”. The locations visited are beautiful and even contain a few concepts that have not (yet) been adopted by better films or series. When Besson takes us on a kind of visual tour in the world of Valerian, the film is easy at its best. It’s such a shame that there is also a script attached to it, because almost everything that can go wrong goes wrong.

To start at the beginning, the story is paper thin. An artifact of an (ultimately not such) extinct civilization emerges and multiple parties want their share. The survivors of the extinct race want to rebuild their culture, one group of people wants to investigate, and yet another group of people has nefarious plans for it. Main characters Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are of course the middle party who want to ensure that the best possible solution is chosen.
Simple, but that’s okay when the background is a bit interesting and the characters are charismatic enough to follow. As described above, that background is good, the fan of great science fiction adventures and locations will be richly rewarded.

But the movie fanatic, however, has to endure a difficult two hours. The two actors lack every ray of charisma. DeHaan does not come across at all as the rough space adventurer he has to present. Instead, he gives a kind of Keanu Reeves impersonation and completely misses the point. Delevingne is not much better. The love plot is of “Star Wars” prequels and “Twilight” level. We get to hear wooden dialogues. Many scenes are full of explanation rather than organically incorporated into the script.

The list of mistakes the movie makes is endless. Because even though the visual splendor is there, the context lacks. At one point in the film, for example, a gigantic space battle is going on, but the viewer only gets to see one side of it and we do not even know who represents the other side. It creates a lack of connection with the public, which will not care who wins. It seems like the movie isn’t going for that either. And above all it remains a moving postcard of the various cool locations. Although the dialogues are bad enough to have a good laugh and turn “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” into a cult film one day.

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