Firstly, I have to admit that at the beginning of the year, looking at the list of upcoming 2017 films, Valerian was actually in my “films to avoid” list. Primarily because after Suicide Squad, I was wholeheartedly determined not to see Cara Delevingne in another film for a good long while, abysmal character that Enchantress was. But I guess that I was still curious enough to see what Valerian was all about, especially since, almost a year on, those wounds from Suicide Squad have just about healed.
Anyway, Luc Besson’s latest film takes place in the far future where humanity has formed a federation alongside thousands of different intergalactic species aboard Alpha, a massive space superstation that has been pieced together over hundreds of years. In amongst all of this, government agents Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are tasked with retrieving a living matter converter and later learn of a “danger zone” within Alpha that may very well cause a catastrophic event to occur. When their commander (Clive Owen) is abducted by a race of beings long since thought to have been exterminated, the duo set out to save him (and each other) but also uncover a hidden conspiracy that is being kept quiet by the higher powers of the human government.
Given the opening preamble, I guess I’d better start with Cara Delevingne. Thankfully, she’s downright bearable in this, dangerously close to actually being likeable. Although her character, like that of Dane Dehaan’s, is thinly written, mainly existing to be the archetypal kick-ass, no-nonsense female, rolling her eyes at Valerian’s actions and spouting many a sarcastic quip, Delevingne is actually the better of the two and gives it all she’s got, despite the problematic nature of the film itself. As others have noted, Dane Dehaan is miscast in the title role of Valerian; an apparent amalgam of James Kirk, Star-Lord and Han Solo, Dehaan just doesn’t quite suit the character as he is too young-looking to convincingly act as a decorated Major, with nine years of experience under his belt, and he has a weird way of speaking, not quite getting the desired speech cadences right, sometimes difficult to understand.
Dehaan and Delevingne are alright together but their characters have little to no depth at all and are the archetypal characters that we can expect from a film like this. What’s more, they often act as though they’re in a high school drama, with all the “flirtatious” back and forths, the rejections and the overarching “will they/won’t they” bit that doesn’t amount to much. They are also compelled to provide tons of exposition, plainly spelling out Valerian’s character in their opening scene and having their on-board computer narrate the entire history of Alpha to them, even though they would most certainly be aware of what it is – the explanation is purely to spell Alpha’s history out for us, the audience.
Valerian has plenty of well known names attached; Clive Owen is okay as the government commander, a fairly bland, clichéd and uninteresting role, top-billed Rutger Hauer appears for all of ten seconds to deliver some explanatory dialogue, John Goodman effectively lends his distinctive voice to proceedings and Ethan Hawke looks like he’s genuinely enjoying himself as the mad, eccentric, flamboyant Jolly the Pimp. And then of course there’s Rihanna, another big reason why I initially wanted to avoid this film, who takes the part of shape-shifting dancer Bubble. Similar to Delevingne, she’s that little bit more bearable than expected, doing alright with what she’s given, but her pivotal dance performance is mired in that awkward place between being enticing and just plain silly, not quite sure what they were going for there, and her final character revelation is just another plot element that doesn’t go anywhere at all and is ultimately a completely pointless twist.
The main problem that Valerian faces, one that I’ve read in many other reviews, is that it is noticeably padded, bloated and overstuffed with “side missions” and plot strands that just don’t go anywhere – kind of like when you’re playing a videogame, working towards the final mission, but you’re required to do other things first and those things lead on to something else and so on. In this instance, Valerian and Laureline collect the matter converter, then try to rescue the commander, Laureline rescues Valerian, Valerian rescues Laureline and by the time that we return to the main plot, we’ve forgotten what it actually was in the first place!
The separate segments go on for just a bit too long, with a leisurely, drawn out pace and at the end of the day, Besson definitely required some reigning in as the film had so much more potential and could have benefited from being cut down in certain places. When you get down to it, the main plot is fairly unoriginal and a little obvious, inevitably featuring a political conspiracy, the main perpetrator of which you can see coming from a light year away, despite the film’s insistence on presenting “the reveal” as a big, unexpected twist. As mentioned before, chunks of dialogue are a bit clunky and expositional and the use of humour in the film is misjudged and awkward.
Design-wise, the film is undeniably ambitious, bright and colourful, there’s plenty of visual treats for the eyes in most every shot, but it is all just a bit too much, a bit superficial and, unless you’re seeing it in 3D or IMAX, the film doesn’t deliver enough properly innovative visuals that you’d remember after leaving the cinema, despite the film’s gargantuan budget. There are tons of high octane action sequences but for some reason or another, they aren’t actually that exciting or memorable and the opening chapter, which features the agents on a mission that takes place in two separate dimensions, just raises too many questions and is just a little bit too difficult to get your head around – the baffling logic of the scene unfortunately restricts enjoyment as you’ll most likely be trying to figure out just what’s going on.
Alexandre Desplat does provide a good musical accompaniment though and his score is fun and rousing, conjuring up a good sense of adventure. And the opening credits sequence, featuring the many first contacts with numerous alien lifeforms, set to “Space Oddity”, is actually really great.
All in all, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets isn’t actually as disappointing as some would have you believe. It’s a problematic film as the narrative is inherently flawed, the characters are two-dimensional and the pace is leisurely but it’s still a fairly decent popcorn film, it’s positively bonkers and while not the most exciting film of this year, it’s not boring either. And despite its overall length and pace, it didn’t actually feel gruellingly long, even though I, and the people sitting a few seats away from me, did yawn a few times.
Long story short: it’s okay.