The opening scenes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are practically dialog-free, allowing the breathtaking visuals to tell a story about our universe’s evolution into the 28th century and the tragic fall of a peaceful society. What’s interesting is that the rest of the film is incredibly dialog-driven with words flying by a mile a minute. While a lot of the technical jargon can fly over your head, the characters are still written with plenty of wit and charm. Most importantly, the film never loses its flair for stunning imagery. What it lacks is a coherent narrative, which makes the experience on the whole a mixed bag.
Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, two highly talented young actors, star as Valerian and Laureline, respectively. They’re a couple of space-and-time-traveling agents/lovers that are called to the metropolis of Alpha. While there, the two discover a menacing force that’ll put the City of a Thousand Planets in jeopardy. Digging further, they stumble upon a mystery that involves government conspiracies and lost civilizations. They also run into countless bizarre aliens, leading to several misadventures.
It’s been almost twenty years since director Luc Besson brought us the dazzling Fifth Element. Valerian is another visual feat from Besson that masterfully blends CGI with practical effects, warranting serious Oscar consideration for art, costume, and makeup design. The highlight is a chase through an interdimensional market, which is like an extravagant VR game meets a paintball match. Every second that goes by, this film throws another inventive gadget, colorful setting, or strange creation at the audience. Perhaps the most extraordinary sight of all is Rihanna as a shapeshifter named Bubble. Although there is a fair deal of exposition, Valerian mercifully doesn’t stop to explain every little detail about this complex universe, letting us go along for the ride without overthinking.
Since Valerian packs in so many ideas and visuals, though, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the story is all over the place. You know how the opening to Return of the Jedi at Jabba’s palace is kind of a detour and then the main plot takes off? Well, the middle of Valerian is nothing but detours that really don’t connect to anything. On one hand, much of the second act could’ve been cut out and it wouldn’t have affected the primary narrative. On the other hand, the middle is actually where the film’s creativeness mainly shines through. Ironically, it’s when the story gets back on track that the movie lags.
Valerian basically becomes Avatar in its third act with an alien race that’s connected to nature and the big bad military that simply wants to blow everything up. The fact that Avatar was already treading on very familiar territory doesn’t help. Valerian likely would’ve worked better if it were just a fun road trip movie where our heroes have a series of random encounters with weird characters. Think Alice in Wonderland in space. Since it tries to have a point, though, we’re left with a film that excels on a visual level and falls flat whenever it tries to tell a flowing story.
Although it’s definitely one that will leave people on the fence, Valerian is fortunately given a boost thanks to its leads. DeHaan and Delevingne have natural chemistry, playing off each other wonderfully. It’s also refreshing that Valerian and Laureline are already in a committed relationship and thus know one another like the back of their own hands. We don’t have to go through the tedious hurdle of watching them fall in love, which is rare for mainstream entertainment. They truly give the film a personality, which is more than can be said about lifeless eye candy like Warcraft and Jupiter Ascending.