Movie Review: “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” with Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, and Ethan Hawke
I can respect misguided ambition, but I cannot respect self-indulgent fuckery—and too often, that’s what filmmaker Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is. A nonsensical and poorly plotted would-be sci-fi epic that is attempting to deliver memorable visuals while also saying something critical about the election of our 45th President, Valerian is too much an extension of Besson’s most absurd ideas to truly connect with viewers.
“What in the actual fuck?” is something I have written down in my Valerian notes, and I don’t exactly know to what scene I was referring because I honestly could have been referring to any of them. There are a lot of problems here: an excess of derivative-looking CGI; a script that is almost unbelievably bad; leads Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne play characters with barely any personality development and even less romantic chemistry; and the much-hyped Rihanna cameo is barely 10 minutes long and defined entirely by its clunky dialogue. Awkward lines like “I’m also here for a noble cause: It’s called the law” and “It’s a drag when you don’t have an identity to call your own” aren’t the outliers; they’re the painful norm.
Based somewhat on the popular French comic books Valérian and Laureline, which ran for nearly 40 years, Besson’s film mixes in commentary about our current international political climate, with very on-the-nose lines about illegal immigration, terrorism, border safety, xenophobia, and refugees. That is all stuff I care about! I think I generally agree with Besson politically! But there is no nuance to any of his ideas, no subtlety in his messaging. The villain is a war criminal who doesn’t care about the millions of people he has murdered. The heroes are wide-eyed (white) kids who don’t want to follow the rules. There is no middle ground: no understanding of how that bad guy would draw followers to himself and would be protected by the system that created him, or how the idealism of those heroes would be endangered and stifled by the bureaucracy in which they operate. Valerian operates so much in extremes that it loses all impact.
In the year 2550, much of the life in space is centered in the Alpha space station, home to 1,000 planets, thousands of citizens, and hundreds of languages. Alpha is maintained by the World State Federation, which sends its agents all around the galaxy; two of the most infamous are Valerian (DeHaan, of The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Laureline (Delevingne, of Suicide Squad). The former is a smooth-talking, almost reckless soldier who identifies as a “galaxy-hopping bad boy” and is in full-on lust with Laureline, his Ivy League-trained, super-intelligent colleague. “I only work with my partner; we’re a team,” he’s fond of saying. Even if it seems like Laureline can’t stand him, he proposes to her because THIS MOVIE IS CRAZY.
That proposal hangs out for the length of the film, after a dream in which Valerian sees a planet full of glimmering, androgynous, Avatar-like cat people and their troughs of incandescent, iridescent pearls, destroyed by spaceships falling out of the sky. With that dream lingering in his mind, Valerian and Laureline are then tasked with recovering a “converter,” a small animal that can reproduce any material that is placed inside of it (and then poop it out, of course), and bringing it to Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen, of The Confirmation) on Alpha.
When the commander is placed under their protection, Valerian and Laureline start to sense something fishy (“It’s our mission that doesn’t make sense, sir”) and begin their own investigation into what seems like a massive Federation cover-up. Chased throughout the corners of Alpha, evading underwater monsters and sketchy pimps in nightclubs, and finally discovering a secret at the center of the space station, Valerian and Laureline try to right a wrong—even if that means abandoning their orders.
Valerian is the kind of movie that relies on increasingly nonsensical set pieces to get from one plot point to another, so the first few scenes are its strongest. The best is the opening, which demonstrates the evolution of Alpha: multiracial and multiethnic groups of humans in space interacting with creatively designed, somewhat bizarre-looking aliens (sliminess is a guarantee), all with a common goal of exploration and cooperation. The first major action sequence, in which Valerian and Laureline track down the converter on a desert planet that is revealed to be a massive bazaar, is thrilling and imaginative. Valerian shooting magnetized beads at baddies to weigh them down so they stop chasing him is an ingenious trick, and the entire sequence has a grungy, steampunk feel to it that is enthralling.
But with each plot twist, the movie loses more and more charm. By the time Laureline is shoving her head in a mind-reading octopus’s butt, or Valerian is sitting down to watch Rihanna’s CGI-heavy burlesque show while Ethan Hawke’s sleazy nightclub owner is maniacally laughing in the background, or when the final big bad is spouting off about immigrants being a “bunch of savages,” it’s all just too much.
It doesn’t help that DeHaan and Delevingne are utterly lacking in chemistry and fail to inject steady energy into their performances, or that the entire narrative feels indebted to the same evil-military-industrial-complex of Avatar, which in and of itself was jacked from FernGully: The Last Rainforest, or that the love story between Valerian and Laureline seems more like sexual harassment than romance. Everything is slightly off, and combines into a movie which is most consistent in its lack of cohesiveness.
In Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Besson has made an unsteady film that doesn’t find balance anywhere—not in its flimsy characters, its ludicrous script, or its repetitive visuals. Maybe there was a good idea here somewhere. But it’s buried under so much intolerable foolishness, it’s nearly impossible to find.