Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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Luc Besson is responsible for several memorable and innovative cinematic efforts such as Nikita, Léon: The Professional and The Fifth Element, and there is therefore no question about the mark his distinct style has left on the world of cinema. With Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Besson’s lifelong quest to bring the world of the highly influential Valérian and Laureline science-fiction comic series to life is finally complete, and the result of his independently financed passion project is undoubtedly one of the most visually stunning films to be released this year. Much like The Fifth Element had a lusciously vivid visual style that was mixed with snappy humor and snappier editing, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets displays a similar style and tone, which gives the impression that the two films could easily be part of the same cinematic universe.

The opening sequence of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and the subsequent introduction to the people of Mül are both equally gorgeous and moving. The latter sequence also sets up the highly imaginative nature of the film, and the mission sequence that follows showcases just how interesting and layered this particular world is, but the first mission is not only a highly entertaining and creative set piece, it also serves as a very elaborate world-building sequence. Besson continues this detailed world-building throughout the film by utilizing digital effects to their fullest to create mesmerizing visuals of a playfully wacky and whimsical world. Additionally, you would also be forgiven for thinking you missed a sign saying that the market Valerian and Laureline find themselves at during the first mission is inside Mos Eisley spaceport of 1977’s Star Wars; by paying so much attention to detail when creating the highly imaginative environment of Valérian and Laureline, Besson by default also makes it very evident just how much inspiration George Lucas took from the Valérian and Laureline comics when creating his Star Wars universe.

However, since the parallels that can be drawn between the environments of Star Wars and Valérian and Laureline make for visuals saturated with details in terms of both properties, the many similarities therefore also make it all too easy to compare the dynamics of Valerian and Laureline’s relationship to the interactions of Harrison Ford’s Han and Carrie Fisher’s Leia in the Star Wars films. While the performances of Ford and Fisher are considered iconic thanks to a combination of excellent casting, great talent and remarkable chemistry, DeHaan and Delevingne are not only miscast, they also have absolutely nothing to offer in terms of chemistry, which makes it impossible for the viewer to invest in them.

DeHaan and Delevingne are not terrible actors, though; DeHaan has more than proven his merit as an actor elsewhere, but when he is as painfully miscast as he is here as the Han Solo-esque Valerian, his portrayal of the character is bound to fail. As for Delevingne, while she may not be the second coming of Meryl Streep, her natural feistiness serves her well throughout the film, and she does the best she can with what she has been given. As such, the two leads are far from being entirely to blame for the film’s inability to engage its audience. Instead, the main issue is rather Besson’s lackluster script. Not only is the film filled with stilted dialogue, the structure of both the character arcs as well as the progression of the overarching narrative is weighed down by a highly convoluted plot, and the focus is all too often removed from the plot because of the myriad of visually stunning but narratively disengaging detours.

Fans of The Fifth Element are more likely to find enjoyment in the Besson-isms of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets than others, but there is no denying that what made the oddball The Fifth Element work was not only a string of wacky, yet entertaining performances by Chris Tucker, Ian Holm and Gary Oldman, it was also how well-cast Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich were as the leads, as well as the amount of chemistry they had. As a result, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is therefore breathtaking in terms of its visual achievements, but in terms of storytelling and character arcs, it fails.

Verdict: 5 out of 10.

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