Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Luc Besson delivers the visual masterpiece he has promised for decades

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Valerian a město tisíce planet)
Directed by Luc Besson
With Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer

Luc Besson has a unique vision, and he has gone overboard in his latest sci-fi epic, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Every corner of the film is jammed with details. While there might not be 1,000 different locations, there are enough to keep the going interesting even if the plot is a little transparent.

Besson, who also wrote the script, is French and there is no mistaking that. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which was filmed in English, takes its influences from French sci-fi works like Barbarella, the 1968 futuristic spectacle with Jane Fonda. Fashion and fantasy outweigh everything else, and science definitely takes a back seat to fiction. Both films are based on French sci-fi comic series.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets largely takes place on a traveling space station that has its origins on Earth. The space station has grown to where it is a massive affair with added sections for life forms from hundreds of alien worlds, but functioning as one giant metropolis — hence the title.

Major Valerian (played by Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are two space-and-time-traveling agents. The plot is a bit convoluted, and takes us to both real and virtual worlds as the Valerian and Laureline track down some clues related to a dream one of them had.

In terms of a vision of outer space, very little has been done on this scale before. The Star Wars films come to mind, but there is joy in creating new worlds in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets that is lacking in those films. It is as if the wild spirit of the Mos Eisley Cantina in the original 1977 Star Wars film was extended for a full two hours. More than a few references are made to Star Wars, with Valerian and Laureline caught a few times in situations similar to ones that Han Solo and Princess Leia encountered.

The candy-colored clouds and iridescent pearls on one planet are matched by million market stalls that can only be seen with special virtual reality glasses on another. The station itself seems truly endless, with new styles down every corridor.

And there is no sense of cutting corners. A montage at the start shows perhaps a dozen alien life forms coming to the space station, with no other purpose than just to show off how creative the special effects team could be. These bizarre characters play no part in the plot and never turn up again.

This being a French sci-fi film, the costumes are, well, just out of this world. The film at its heart is a fashion show with a thin plot to introduce more clothes and more alien creatures.

A bit of a drawback is Dane DeHaan as Valerian. His main line of dialogue involves trying to romance Laureline, but he becomes a one-note symphony. Cara Delevingne creates a more nuanced character as Laureline, who is more on top of the situation and a bit more multifaceted.

The French are known to love jazz, and Herbie Hancock turns up as a character seen only on viewing screens. Pop star Rihanna also turns up in a substantial role as a singing shapeshifter. She does a lot better than she did in Battleship (2012).

Clive Owen and Ethan Hawke also do big star turns. Hawke seems to be trying to channel the late Dennis Hopper as a pimp. Owen sports the nicest uniform of all as a strict military type.

As a visual spectacle, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets can't be beat. Besson has been experimenting with style over substance since Subway in 1985, and did a fair job with sci-fi in The Fifth Element in 1997 and Lucy in 2014. But those films seem like study sketches for his latest work, where all of his visual themes seem to finally come together.

The plot, though, seems to be cobbled together from Star Wars, Star Trek and even Battle Star Galactica. It works as an homage to those franchises, but if the plot was as clever as the visual effects this would have been a true classic.

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