The Green Enchantress
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is an action-adventure film with sci-fi elements. The film is directed by Luc Besson, and stars Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as Major Valerian (DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Delevingne), two human agents/space soldiers who embark on dangerous missions as partners. In a universe where millions of alien species live in harmony on the space station Alpha – the City of a Thousand Planets, Valerian and Laureline are tasked with the delivery of a mysterious package to Alpha. When members of an unknown species attempt to steal the package, Valerian and Laureline must travel through the weird and wonderful districts of Alpha, investigating a suspicious sector of the city in order to uncover a truth which may threaten the safety and integrity of the humans’ intergalactic relationships.
Coming off the commercially successful but critically divisive Lucy, Luc Besson returns with another visual effects-heavy Hollywood release, demanding a budget of up to $175 million. Though we have seen wildly successful films with revolutionary visual effects and non-A-listers as the leads (Avatar), Besson does not quite have the household acclaim that James Cameron does. Nor for that matter do the two leads, DeHaan and Delevingne, artists who are better known among those in the younger generation. The studio thus took a huge risk by greenlighting Valerian’s production, most probably banking on the novelty of a new world with outstanding CGI to rake in returns. Can Besson deliver on the promise of great visuals as well as a tight, unconvoluted screenplay? Or will unnecessary world-building cause Valerian to reek of Jupiter Ascending-itis?
Valerian’s stunning graphics and engaging first half are more than completely wiped out by a poorly-structured second-half narrative, lazy expositional writing and an unfortunate lack of chemistry between Valerian and Laureline. The high from the originality and diversity of Alpha wears off by the last act, replaced with impressions of a predictable, heavy-handed finale. Pop icon Rihanna’s appearance is familiar but comes off more as a gimmick than anything else. Overall, the film may give fans of the graphic novel some hope of it being a good adaptation, but they will surely be disappointed at some of Besson’s handling of the material. If you’re a fan of colourful, mostly fun sci-fi, as well as seeing humans interact with lots of different alien species, then Valerian may be for you. Otherwise, the film is easily forgettable and not exactly worth the price of admission.
To its credit, Valerian opens with a beautifully rendered tropical planet setting, and continues the trend of impressing visually for most of the film. Throughout most of the story, Besson takes us through the City of a Thousand Planets with ease and an incredible attention to detail, going through the various sections and districts dynamically, treating our eyes with just enough beauty to leave us wanting more. The world building is complemented with a fantastic use of colour that pops with a vibrancy you’d expect from a space fantasy. Think of Alpha as a combination of Coruscant from Star Wars, the Citadel from Mass Effect, and Rapture from Bioshock. Its vastness and diverse environments are demonstrated fully in a particularly good action scene involving Valerian blasting and crashing his way through various sections in pursuit of a target. Graphics aside, the fun, adventurous and lighthearted tone of the film is a nice departure from the dark, end-of-the-world scenarios seen in other sci-fi/fantasy flicks. A large part of this is Alexandre Desplat’s well-crafted score, which is far from his best but still of a good quality.
Ground Control to Filmmakers
For all its positives, Valerian ends up falling flat on its face with a plot that seems to give up on itself towards the end of the film. While the first half was engaging and a haven for the curious, the second does nothing to further the world-building, choosing to focus solely on the main narrative, which in turn isn’t great. At a certain point, the film’s story takes an almost 90-degree turn where we meet Rihanna’s character. If this sudden detour doesn’t already turn some viewers off, then what comes after probably will. It’s as if Luc Besson had this great idea to adapt a property he was passionate about into a film, but realised halfway through writing it that he didn’t have a smart way to reach the end of the story. As a result, the motivations of the antagonist are almost completely blurted out to the audience in the form of long, pretentious expositional scenes. It’s baffling to think of how this could happen considering the talent involved, and one could conjecture that perhaps the screenplay was too long, causing scenes to be reduced to yawn-inducing exposition. Who knows?
The film mostly disappoints from an acting standpoint too, as Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne come off as wooden in their dialogue delivery despite their solid acting history (let’s forget Suicide Squad for a moment). The film tries to force the audience to care about a romance that shows not a smidge of authenticity, ultimately being unnecessary and at times, cringe-worthy. Veterans like Rutger Hauer and Ethan Hawke also appear in the film but are almost completely wasted in inconsequential and (in Hawke’s case) embarrassingly ridiculous roles.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a film of a thousand missteps, ultimately prevented from being awful by the quality of its amazing visual effects. Judging by its budget, it’s almost inevitable that the film will cost the studio a hefty loss, while putting a dent in Luc Besson’s career. A Star Trek or Star Wars it is not, but Valerian is at least a respectable attempt to introduce an original world to audiences, nowhere near as unconvincing as Jupiter Ascending. At the end of the day, a famous graphic novel’s legacy continues, though probably not in the way fans wanted it to. And though the near future holds very little with regards to sequels and spinoffs for Valerian, you never know if the film, however good or bad, can inspire someone today to create tomorrow’s masterpiece of an adaptation.
Overall Score: 5.9/10