I haven’t read the source material, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the most recent offering from director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy). For the film’s first 30 minutes, I was completely taken aback at the remarkable visuals, intricate world-building, and all-around creativity. The opening scene, detailing the creation of the title location, is one of the best prologues to a movie I’ve seen in years, and it’s followed by an off-world scene with gorgeous, sparkly aliens and lush topography that could make Avatar and James Cameron weep with jealously. I started to settle into the idea that I was about to see one of the most creative and spectacular films of the year. Unfortunately, after those first 30 minutes, it became clear: Valerian has a human problem.
The casting of Valerian always struck me as unexpected – Dane DeHaan, who plays the titular Valerian, and Cara Delevingne, who plays his partner Laureline, are relatively low-energy actors for a space opera. The pairing seems more akin to that of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristin Stewart in Adventureland. It’s one of those things that’s so bizarre, you think just maybe this could work in an unexpected, genius way. It does not. DeHaan and Delevingne are wildly miscast in this film, both in their respective roles and in their pairing, highlighting their lack of chemistry. I found myself actively rooting for the love interests to realize they hated one another by the film’s end, because even though it’s not how these stories usually go, you never know what to expect from a fantasy film that features giant alien frogs fishing for humans, right?
Valerian is an adaptation of Valérian and Laureline, a French comic series from 1967 set in the 28th century. The comic, by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, has yet to gain the same level of fame in the U.S. it has in Europe, where it ran for 21 volumes and influenced Besson’s earlier films, like The Fifth Element. The film adaptation focuses primarily on our human protagonists: Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline, intergalactic FBI officers of a sort, working to retrieve stolen objects being sold on the black market. As they delve further into the investigation they realize the importance of the stolen property and the role their employer had in the situation, which causes them to question how to best fulfill their duties.
When I say Valerian has a human problem, that’s what I mean specifically. The film’s human leads spend half of the movie having tepid conversations about how Valerian is ready to settle down and finally commit to Laureline after his wild years of debauchery, and how she doesn’t trust that he’s ready for that kind of commitment. This is tedious conversation in the beginning, and it gets only more grating as the film continues. Interspersed in their lovers’ feud are bright spots of scenery, location, technology and other species that give the film some redemption. We’re introduced to a series of creative set-ups, including a tourist market on a fairly isolated planet, which uses virtual and augmented reality to place the tourists directly in one of the busiest markets in the universe, though it sits within another dimensional plane. Another one of those bright-but-brief spots is Rihanna, who stars as Bubble, a shape-shifting alien who lives to perform and helps Valerian disguise himself in order to break into an enemy facility. We only get a few scenes with Bubble, but she’s probably the best performance of the film.
Although the detours and sights we see along the way of Valerian are often the most satisfying components, the destination is lackluster. DeHaan and Delevingne are wrong for the part, but there’s also only so much actors can do to polish wooden, trite dialogue etching out a tired story of a hyper-competent woman who just wants her wild man to settle down. If you’re willing to take the bad along with the good, Valerian has a number of inspired concepts and moments. You just have to be willing to drown out the film’s core cast and story to get there.