I seriously wanted to like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. I expected to love it. It’s directed by Luc Besson (director of The Fifth Element), it’s got some tremendous actors in it, and the trailer looked fantastic.
The opening montage, set to David Bowie’s Ground Control to Major Tom, is the best part of the entire film. It set my hopes high, which made the resulting disappointment that much more frustrating.
Between frequent lapses into exposition and increasingly contrived dialogue and character interactions, Valerian’s story does not feel polished or cohesive. The undeveloped two main characters act mostly as tour guides for the film’s expansive (and expensive) universe. The sheer scope of said universe makes Valerian seem better suited to a TV show format. There is certainly an episodic feel to how it approaches minor conflict after minor conflict, constantly veering away from its main plot rather than toward it.
Minor characters sporadically pop in and out, each more interesting than the last, all of them more interesting than the two main characters. I couldn’t help but feel when we got to Rihanna that the movie would be more interesting if it ditched the main characters and meandering plot altogether, and focused instead on the lovingly-crafted details which so much effort clearly went into.
Major Valerian (played by Dane DeHaan), like many things in the movie, is about as deep as bath water. His frequent smirking, swaggering presumption and pestering refusal to accept Laureline’s consistent rejections made me constantly want to roll my eyes, and only amplified the forcedness of the inevitable ending. As a protagonist, he doesn’t have anything to offer the central conflict or the plot that another character couldn’t offer in his absence. He isn’t ordinary enough to be an Everyman, and he isn’t compelling enough to be a Chosen One. He lazily sprawls somewhere in the middle, with all the advantages of a hero and none of the charisma.
Sergeant Laureline (played by Cara Delevingne) is equally under-characterized, but in the girl way. She is competent and committed, but only when it doesn’t prevent Valerian from rescuing her. Her motivations are never strongly realized, possibly because they completely change depending on what would be convenient or attractive for Valerian. She gets to punch guys and have Opinions, capital O, but that is as fleshed-out as she gets beyond her introduction, which literally shows her in her underwear for no apparent reason other than Underwear, capital U.
The visuals and the universe are Valerian’s only strengths, and even those aren’t strong enough to carry the film. Valerian is beautiful, but it does not innovate. There is nothing there that has not been done in Mass Effect or Star Wars. The aforementioned universe, while vast, feels more visited than created. If you went into the movie not knowing that it was adapted from a comic, you’d guess it pretty quickly.
I want to stress this, on its own, is not a bad thing. Many adaptations do it – but some of them do it well, and some don’t.
A lack of balance is where the movie ultimately fails. The ending tries to answer a major question which was barely set up, and it does so with an info-dump. I won’t spoil it for you, but given the nature of the catastrophe described, they really should have shown rather than told. Minimal effort was made to tie Valerian to the central plot, and by the end it almost seems like Besson forgot what he wrote and had to shoot an emergency scene where Valerian reveals his mysterious intuition, which works about as well as a band-aid over a pothole.
I’ll add, though: my opinion is only the opinion of one person. Valerian bombed in America and is doing poorly here, but did much better in France. You could chalk this up to the movie being about a French comic series, or the storytelling differences between Western VS European cult icons. Likewise, just because I didn’t like Valerian doesn’t mean that you won’t.
In the end, I can only recommend watching Valerian for the visual effects and the easter eggs (Jessica Rabbit, anyone?). And of course for Rihanna, who managed to make me care more about her character in three lines of dialogue than I did about either of the main characters in over an hour of watching them spout one-liners.