“Valerian and the city of a Thousand Planets” was supposed to be the comeback of European shlock-buster director Luc Besson. Having found lasting cult success with his sugary 1997 space opera “The Fifth Element,” which was also based on a French sci-fi comic book, many hoped that the mad scientist would get his mojo back with another high-budget passion project, after years of producing middling action programmers and throwaway children’s movies. While “Valerian” is too problematic and clunky to bring his style back into relevance, its gaudy visuals, cult aesthetics and zany idiosyncrasies are a welcome change of pace, even if the film as a whole is a garbled mess.
The plot centers on a young space cadet named Valerian (Dane DeHaan) who is sent on a mission to obtain a rainbow-colored, echidna-looking, Pokémon thing that sheds multiples of whatever you feed it, including pearls and diamonds. After he and his partner/lover Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevigne) manage to smuggle the creature from the sweaty palms of a gangster space-hog voiced by John Goodman, the couple are then ping-ponged from one disconnected set-piece to another upon an intergalactic colony of disparate cultures and species who have occupied segments of a man-made city-planet. What the couple don’t know, while they’re gallivanting around the City of a Thousand Planets with a singing jelly-fish named Bubble (Rihanna), is that they’re mission is part of a larger government cover-up that deals with a destruction of a planet of peaceful oceanic villagers that were the casualties of a human civil war.
One of this feature’s many weaknesses comes from Besson’s struggle to find the emotional or thematic anchor within this episodic jumble of ideas. The movie zips along and throws enough at you to keep you entertained, but we can never be sure where the dramatic tension lies within the story. The bad guy and his master plan is revealed far too early and pseudo love story between Dehaan and Delevigne is underdeveloped and completely unconvincing. It’s only in the final third of the film, when these threads are supposed to pay-off, that we realize that Besson was too busy world building and stylizing to lay a proper foundation for these failed story components.
I can’t stress enough how miscast the leads are. DeHaan’s shy, brooding demeanor and boyish frame is completely at odds with the character of Valerian, who's supposed to be a jockish, Han Solo style, arrogant every-man. Likewise, young model-turned-actress Delevigne is supposed to be a deceivingly ditzy but strong-willed female warrior, but her icy performance and stern eye-brow delivery never gives the character enough warmth to counter Valerian’s aloofness. Neither of them are blessed with particularly deep or revealing dialogue to help them fill out these roles and from the first scene their chirpy banter falls flat and their romantic chemistry is awkwardly non-existent.
Still, while I didn’t care for the plot or character’s, I have to appreciate the picture’s total commitment to its over-budgeted, everything and kitchen sink insanity. Divorced from the importance of narrative cohesion, the aesthetic framework around it pops like a drag show, a light-up pin-ball machine and Vegas stage show all in one. The tone is light and bouncy and the visuals, while obviously digitally manipulated, have a cartoonish quality that reinforces the movie’s celebratory artifice. “Valerian and the City of Thousand Planets” is, by most accounts, bad, but it’s also fun and unique and lacks just enough self-awareness to enjoy as a piece of psychedelic, sci-fi kitsch.
Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/July-2017
Listen to this week's episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "Valerian."