MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ is an all-out, no holds barred sci-fi extravaganza

Despite some seriously questionable casting and script issues, Luc Besson's sci-fi epic is expansive, beautiful and insanely fun

| July 20, 2017

When it comes to Luc Besson films, you either are head over heels for them, or you aren’t here for them at all. This has never been more apparent than in “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” with many hailing it as a sci-fi classic, and with many calling it the worst film of 2017 so far. One thing is for sure, the age of original sci-fi films has slowed down considerably, and now more than ever, ingenuity in sci-fi films has become more polarizing. That’s not to say that the critiques leveled by detractors of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” are any less valid than those who love it, but after so much ingenuity in the genre for so many years, and the recent commercialization of said genre has bled much of the genre dry, leaving the unexplored territory more hit-and-miss than ever. Then again, if you think about much of sci-fi history, many of our most cherished films released to lukewarm reviews, most egregiously that of “Blade Runner,” which now hailed as a modern sci-fi classic, debuted to abysmal reviews and bad box-office returns. Will “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” go the route of “Blade Runner?” Or will it fall short of greatness?

Valerian (Dane DeHaan) is a federal agent for the Human Federation based on Alpha, a massive space station with representation from over 1,000 planets in the galaxy during the 28th century. His partner, Laureline (Cara Delevingne), is the object of his romantic attentions, despite his playboy attitude on all the different planets they visit with their dangerous work. When Valerian begins to receive visions and guidance from the spirit of an unknown figure on a distant planet, him and Laureline attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery behind these strange visions and coincidental happenings on Alpha. When the two realize that the information they seek is sensitive and guarded heavily by the Human Federation and Commander Filitt (Clive Owen), they must fight to find the truth behind these foreign visions before it’s too late.

Put simply: “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is one of the most beautiful films to come along in recent memory, and one of the few films to come along in a very long time that absolutely begs to be seen in the 3D format. So many movies nowadays are content with their 3D being “good” or “passable,” but in the case of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” it’s something that is used as a necessity from the opening STXfilms logo to the final shot of the film. Besson has crafted every second of this film to be lush, rich and gorgeous, and this is only made even more clear in the 3D format. I’m still a bit upset the film is releasing on the same day as “Dunkirk,” taking it out of consideration for an IMAX release, as the sheer scale of this film begs it to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

However you feel about Besson as a storyteller, there’s no doubt about it that “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” has some of the most exciting, batshit crazy action sequences of any film in the past few years. The best part about “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is that Besson has no qualms about going into kooky directions; directions that might not be considered the most serious or straightforward ways of doing things, ways in which series like “Star Wars” has attempted to normalize in stark drama. “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is a serious film, but it never once takes itself so seriously that any of its crazier aspects never work wonderfully. The way in which Besson crafts this universe is one of immense depth, knowledge and skill. I only wish we could’ve gotten an entire film of just us floating through Alpha, learning about its many species and different worlds it holds. If any studio needs to be discussing the possibility of a cinematic universe, it’s EuropaCorp with “Valerian,” not Universal with “The Mummy.”

But if there’s one thing “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” does incredibly wrong, it’s in its casting. I thought it was a bit strange during production of the casting of DeHaan and Delevingne, but I was excited to see the pair of them have the chance to really prove themselves in a movie bigger than the two of them. Sadly, neither of them shine in their roles enough to justify the risk in both of their castings. DeHaan neither has the physical presence, nor the playful attitude that’s needed for a character like Valerian, and with a film as crazy and kooky as “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is, DeHaan plays Valerian way too seriously to really make for an effective protagonist. Delevingne is far less egregious of an offender, bur simply doesn’t have the charisma for a character as fiery as Laureline, and paired with DeHaan, the complete lack of chemistry makes it even worse. I think Delevingne could’ve shined a lot in the role had she been paired with a male lead that was her equal, like Dave Franco. That being said, the lucky part of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is that much of the film focuses on spectacle and action, which makes the poor casting of the leads far less noticeable.

The supporting performances in “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” fare better in the cast though, with a group of unique standouts in brief roles much more interesting than either two of our leads. Ethan Hawke is a wonderfully quirky pimp that puts the normally super-serious actor in some incredibly funny territory. John Goodman is quite good as a sleazy smuggler alien. But it’s Rihanna who shines above the rest of the cast as Bubble, a shape-shifting alien trapped performing in Hawke’s club in the station’s sex district. This is a surprising performance from the Barbados-born artist, as she shows a great amount of vulnerability that we haven’t seen from the artist before, and one that’s incredibly fun to watch as well. From her first dancing performance to her assistance with Valerian and Laureline in their mission, Rihanna shines as one of the real casting promises of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.”

Another small issue with “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is that the dialogue can get a bit clunky at times. This really only becomes noticeable when dealing with DeHaan or Delevingne, whom neither have the charisma or talent to work past delivering clunky dialogue. Besson’s screenplays are never ones of subtle and clever wordplay, which often feels like a screenplay originally written in French and translated into English, but it’s by far no means the worst screenplay I’ve heard this year, and it’s hard to make some of the crazier things in this movie sound smooth and eloquent, but it’s an issue regardless.

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is a batshit crazy, balls to the wall, absolutely beautiful sci-fi extravaganza that’s really only hurt by the poor casting of the leads and some script issues. That being said, this film is so much more about spectacle and world-building than it is about dramatic heft. That might not completely excuse it of its sins, but having such wonderfully crafted and beautifully realized world surrounding these characters do absolve many of these. What’s even cooler about “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is that it’s by and large an indie film, albeit an indie film with a $210 million budget, but an indie film that breaks a lot of rules nonetheless. Absolutely perfect in 3D and begging to be seen on the largest screen possible, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is everything a summer blockbuster with a winking eye needs to be. It needs some work and the cast needs to re-evaluate the types of characters they’re going for in their performances, but “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is just too unique, crazy and beautiful to ignore.

4/5

Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment (EuropaCorp Films USA)

Directed by: Luc Besson
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, with Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, and Rutger Hauer.
Runtime: 137 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language.
Also available in RealD 3D, Dolby Cinema and premium large format theaters.

STXfilms and EuropaCorp Films USA present, in association with Fundamental Films, BNP Paribas, Orange Studio, Universum Film GmbH, Novo Pictures, River Road Entertainment, Belga Films, a co-production of Valerian S.A.S./TF1 Films Production, with the participation of OCS and TF1, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman

Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he’ll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Comments (1)

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  1. Geoffrey Harris says:

    This was decent, a lot like The Fifth Element. The leads came across like college kids. The male lead was week but the female lead was strong. The general and commander, Bubbles, the pimp, and the Jabba the Hut Alien, and the skinny bald aliens were all well-done.

Hunter Heilman

Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he’ll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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