It’s been said “No journey is too long with the right company.” Too bad for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets that the inverse is also true—even the most exotic, extravagant trip can be a real drag if your companions are a pain in the ass.
The film, written and directed by French filmmaker Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional, Lucy) and based on the French sci-fi comic series, Valerian and Laureline, is a visual spectacle from start to finish. No argument there. It’s colorful, mostly original, and backed by some ingenious, world-building ideas. But the characters guiding us through this world—our avatars, if you will—are so flimsy and frustrating that no 3D glasses can give them the dimension that they lack.
Four hundred years in the future, two space and time traveling special agents, Valerian and Laureline (played here by Cara Delevingne and Dane DeHaan), work as government operatives tasked with preserving peace and order in the human territories. When a mission takes them to Alpha (the titular city of a thousand planets, a floating metropolis inhabited by every imaginable intergalactic species), they learn that there is mysterious presence is lurking in the center, feeding off of the city’s resources and threatening to upset its careful peace. Unfortunately, the universe’s two most unbelievable and unlikeable agents are determined to figure out what’s up.
The problem with this duo is one of both character and casting. I was never sure if I was meant to interpret them as competent adults, or as the sort of quippy, self-involved teens who populate YA novels. They look young, and they act young, and yet they’re singlehandedly in charge of some of the most important jobs in the galaxy. I have no trouble believing in the proficiency of youth; the issue is, DeHaan and Delevingne don’t sell it.
To his credit, DeHaan is mostly endearing. He has the mischievous charm and husky voice of a very young Josh Hartnett (meant here as a compliment), and gives his all to the groan-inducing dialogue. His Valerian is confident, quick-thinking, and risk-taking, and would’ve been a plausible hero were it not for the fact that other characters keep remarking on his “commitment to duty,” and “devotion” to his governmental responsibilities, as if he’s a by-the-book dude who just needs to loosen up. At a particularly pivotal moment, he himself declares “I’m a soldier…I follow the rules,” prompting the man in the seat next to me to blurt out “What?! He just punched out his commanding officer!” If this inconsistency is intended as nuanced character development, it instead just reads as sloppy writing.
In addition to Valerian being unable to determine if he’s a “go rogue” or “follow the rules” type of guy, he has one other glaring weakness: his love for Lauraline. Affection in general is not the problem; it’s affection for this particular woman that is. Lauraline is almost wholly unlikable; she’s spoiled, ungrateful, and petty, and Delevingne plays her using primarily sighs and eye rolls. After an entire bus of their comrades die trying to get them to safety, she has the gall to quip, “You ruined my dress!” In a post-Hermione, post-Rey, post Wonder Woman cinematic world, sass no longer suffices as the only necessary quality for a female heroine (nor should it ever have). Delevingne, who quit modeling to act, has the expressive allure of an porcelain cat, petulant and unblinking. I didn’t believe for a second that she had the necessary skills to save one planet, much less a thousand, nor that she would’ve stirred up anything in the heart of her partner aside from the strong urge to push her off the nearest space platform.
Unfortunately, none of the other actors do much better at salvaging the consistently robotic, cliched dialogue. Ethan Hawke musters a bit of pizzazz as a pimp cowboy, and a weathered Clive Owen is serviceable as a corrupt commander. And in the most head-scratching cameo since Ed Sheeran appeared in Game of Thrones a week ago, Rihanna plays Bubbles, a “glam-bot” who tags along to help Valerian and Lauraline. There’s also a slew of non-human characters from the planet Yul, created using CGI, who are bald, blueish, and very remote. I wish I could say they’re more compelling than the live actors, but instead they have the troubling appearance of wax replicas and the warmth to match. Their failure evoke an emotional response has less to do with any technological shortcomings and more to do with the fact that none of them have any distinctive personality traits.
BUT…all species and the actors who bring them to life aside…Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is one hell of a ride. Have you ever played laser tag on rollerblades in the Mall of America while tripping on acid? No? Me neither, but after watching this film I think I have a pretty good idea of what it’d be like. Whether or not this is an experience you’d purposely seek out, it’s sure to be a memorable one. Besson packs his film with so many clever inventions, zany details, and stunning set pieces that it’s impossible not to be in awe.
In one scene, tourists are guided through Big Market, a virtual bazar where they can purchase eccentric souvenirs and explore a circus-like maze of streets. (Imagine Jaba’s gangster pad plus the cantina scene plus Maz Kanata’s palace with a little bit of Diagon Alley thrown in for good measure.) Visitors use “matter boxes” to transport their objects between the virtual world and the real world, an invention Valerian uses to ensure that his very real bullets strike their virtual targets. Other agents use body control darts to manipulate the movements of the guards, and a special blaster setting allows them to create instant landing pads as they jump from ship to ship. Alleyways flanked by skyscrapers are covered in light-up screens, creating the effect of massive stained-glass windows; golden, bee-like robots mine a mountain-sized database for information; a triangular, streamlined space-ship suddenly scatters mid-flight into dozens of star-shaped vessels. More than a few moments had me completely overwhelmed with wonder.
So it really is a shame that our traveling companions are such a nuisance. The experience of watching Valerian felt sort of a felt like winning tickets for your dream vacation, only to be informed that you’ll be accompanied by your least favorite girl from high school and that guy who never stopped hitting on you. Some will say the opportunity is worth it anyways; others will opt out for a more tempered but less obnoxious experience (ideally, one with a tighter plot and better dialogue).
There is one character amidst this mess of a film who I found endearing, and that character is Luc Besson himself. There’s a childlike quality to how limitless his imagination is, and to how freely and generously he infuses his world with detail and invention. He’s like the little kid unafraid to put all his best ideas into a single drawing, because he hasn’t yet learned to fear that they’ll run out. Besson creates with the confidence that he has enough material for not just a thousand planets, but a million.