Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets
By: Jamie Steinberg
Right from the fantastic opening sequence you can tell that Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets, from Luc Besson (writer of The Fifth Element) is going to be epic. And it does not disappoint! Besson recently stated in an interview that Valerian is the movie he’s been wanting to make for his entire career and oh what a career that has been, bringing us some of the greatest action movies of the last decade as well as sci-fi/action hyrbids like Lockout and Lucy. Now, you can add Valerian to that list.
Based off the iconic French comic series by the same name that inspired Star Wars, Valerian is a hard science fiction story about Agent Valerian (Dane DeHaan), the best operative at the behest of the human police force on an intergalactic space station known as Alpha or the City of a Thousand Planets. As if maintaining diplomatic relations between thousands of species from across the multiverse isn’t challenging enough, an anomaly deep within the core of the station finds Valerian and his partner, agent Lauraline (Cara Delevingne), heading off-world on a classified mission to recover a dangerous weapon before an unknown entity can get its hands on it. Their missions give way to a conspiracy that could bring down all of Alpha and threaten the very existence of humanity.
Valerian is every bit the epic adventure you were hoping it would be. The film never fails to drive the plot forward in any given seen and, amazingly, still manages to incorporate some of the most immersive world building I’ve ever seen while simultaneously maintaining the pace and feel of an action movie. With a film universe as expansive as the one in Valerian, it’s easy to imagine getting off-track and waylaying in the visual distractions of marvels like a marketplace in an alternate dimension you can only see through a matter-transporting helmet or a red-light district that’s a melting pot of countless alien species. However, Besson’s experience as an action-writer had him focusing on the right scenes, for the appropriate amount of time (give or take some slower character building moments).
Valerian manages to strike a similar balance of adventure, action and humor to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, similarly making you wish the movie will never end. While the characters in Valerian are by no means as charming or dynamic as the cast of Guardians, I felt that they functioned more as a portal into the world; lenses from which we get to experience the incredible planets in the film and function as the glue that ties them all together. In Guardians of The Galaxy, the world building comes second or even third to the wonderful banter and character relationships. I believe a lot of critics will fault Valerian for having what they might describe as weak leads that lack personality. I won’t say that either Major Valerian or Sergeant Lauraline are the best characters I’ve ever seen, but I think that in a movie such as Valerian where it was all about the stories of the different aliens and the crazy adventure that ties them together, that having characters that commanded too much scene-stealing attention would not have been the best way to experience the movie. Characters like Star Lord, with his refreshing humor and charm, can very easily distract and take away from the seriousness of a film. In this movie, agent Valerian isn’t quiet per-se, but when he’s in the field operating he becomes that silent avatar guiding us along rather than the glowing beacon pulling us in. I think it’s just what the movie needed. That being said, you won’t come away talking about Major Valerian or Sargeant Laurline and you’ll likely forget them in a few weeks, which is not ideal either. And yet, I still loved the movie.
By advertising Valerian as “From the visionary writer of The Fifth Element” the film already opens itself up to intense criticism, as fans of film will inevitably compare it with one of the most iconic science fiction films of all time. I haven’t seen The Fifth Element for many years, but I remember it being a film of many firsts and how it felt different from other movies. Everything from the incredible alien sets, to the colorful alien races they brought to life through the masterful use prosthetics and animatronics. Valerian, unfortunately, does not get to benefit from being the first film to do anything and as such must rely solely on the quality and ingenuity of its sets, aliens and graphics – and I thought it looked really, really good. The alien species were diverse, convincing, authentic and many were non-humanoid, which is never an easy thing to animate. One of the most important things when creating movies with aliens and their planets are the aspects of believability and detail. I think Valerian did an excellent job paying attention to details like alien biology based off the worlds they come from. No alien felt like it was just tossed in the movie with no thought to where it came from, how it functions and the society to which it belongs. Everything felt deliberate and that really added to the quality of the world building within the film.
The plot was great. It was layered, dynamic, structured and (most important) believable – given the context of alien worlds. In an adventure movie like Valerian, one that has us traveling between space stations and diverse planets, it’s important to weave a narrative that feels believable and appropriately connects all the planets. The format of The Fate of The Furious would not have worked at all for this movie. In the Fast and the Furious films, they are set up like a consecutive series of elaborate “jobs” or massively complex sequences that are loosely connected by a plot; almost as if the movie sequences are elaborate rides in an amusement park and the writer just drew a map telling you how to get to each scene/ride. Movies like Valerian, where we inevitably must see many different settings and worlds in order for the film to deliver what it promised, could easy end up feeling the same way. Fortunately, it didn’t. In Valerian, the plot came first. Like a detective, clues and intel point Valerian and Lauraline where to go next and so it never feels like they are just being pulled along into the next scene.
Dane DeHaan as the leading man in an action/adventure movie felt a bit underwhelming. I read in another review that they felt his portrayal of Major Valerian was like a bad impression of Keanu Reeves. I thought that was pretty funny. He definitely mumbled a little and didn’t command the presence of a leading man. At times, DeHaan’s excellent focus into the rolls he plays shone through and you were reminded how excellent an actor he is, but with a character as bare and simple as Major Valerian he didn’t have much to work with. Likewise, I don’t have much praise of Cara Delevingne’s performance as Lauraline either. She was very stiff and robotic and while it sort-of appeared like she may have been having fun filming, it seemed like she was trying so hard to be in-character that she lost a lot of the fun that could’ve gone into her performance. I definitely wouldn’t cast her as “Doctor Who.”
You may have noticed from the trailer that Rihanna is also in Valerian! She was awesome! I don’t know what percentage of her performance was actually her versus a motion captured contortionist and a lot of CGI, but she did some really cool stuff. I hope they release her performance as a music video because if you’re not interested in the movie, her performance was unquestionably worth seeing.
Overall, I’d rate Valerian as being the best science fiction film of the year. It was extremely enjoyable, a load of fun and while suffering from some poor dialog and weak lead characters, it had a great plot and perfectly captured the essence of an adventure movie in a brilliant sci-fi setting. With the exception of Star Wars and Star Trek, there really aren’t many truly hard science fiction films of this scale. I thought they made a great use of their $197 million, delivering some of the best we’ve seen in computer graphics. I don’t imagine it will do well enough to get a sequel, but I hope that after international sales they at least come away with a profit for all their hard work. Science fiction films are a fairly large genre at this point, but again, very few have the budget or the ambition to go as far as Valerian did. If you’re not convinced into seeing it by my review, you should at the very least watch it when it becomes available on Netflix for what it contributes to the genre of hard sci-fi.
Be sure to check out the Special Features as “Citizens of Imagintion: Creating The Universe of Valerian” gives you an epic look into the creation of this cosmic world. Photography fans can get a glimpse at the posters and art work created for the film in “The Art of Valerian Photo Gallery.” Plus, spend a few minutes watching the teaser trailer and final trailer before pushing play on the movie.