If a picture is worth a thousand words, the inverse must be true for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the latest film by writer/director Luc Besson. Returning to the space opera genre 20 years after his similarly colorful and vibrant The Fifth Element, Valerian takes that film’s visuals and sense of spectacle to uncharted heights. If only that hadn’t come at the cost of a plot, a compelling script, or a cast as uniformly perfect as its spiritual predecessor.
Set in the 28th century, our title character (Dane DeHaan) is a special agent charged with keeping order in an galactic federation made up of hundreds of species. Along with his long-time partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne), Valerian’s adventure begins when a mysterious alien race kidnap his superior Commander Filitt (Clive Owen). In their mission to rescue him, Valerian and Laureline discover long-buried secrets that endanger the order established in Alpha, a massive space station metropolis where every race in the galaxy meets to share knowledge and experience.
Summarizing the plot in Valerian, however, belies the nature of the film itself. That paragraph might seem relatively straightforward, but it also represents nearly the entirety of the narrative of a film that’s over two hours long. It doesn’t take long for the story to get buried under countless layers of visual splendor, laser-blasting action, and intriguing world-building details. When the big reveal comes in act three, the reminder that there was a reason for all of these striking images honestly comes as a bit of a shock.
And that’s perfectly okay. Most of the time.
Besson’s film is based on the long-running French comic book series Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, specifically on the sixth book in the series, Ambassador of the Shadows. If a lot of what we see and experience in the film feels familiar, that’s probably because the series was an enormous influence on any number of sci-fi blockbusters, most notably a little film called Star Wars and Besson’s own The Fifth Element (which Mézières himself worked on). Besson has been anxious to make a film based on the comics for decades, and his love of the material shows through in literally every frame. Valerian the film has been meticulously crafted and designed, each piece of it fitting neatly (if not smoothly) into the framework of the film’s story.
Fans of the comics will probably get much more out of that story than those who are unfamiliar, as Besson completely skips any kind of origin story for the characters aside from an opening sequence set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that shows the development of Alpha itself from a humble space station in 1975 to the massive construct it is several hundred years later. This approach works far more often than it doesn’t, placing things in an implied context that only occasionally becomes explicit. There is no audience surrogate, and the characters all treat their surroundings as normal and natural. That approach helped sell the setting of The Fifth Element, and it’s just as easy to get into Besson’s groove here, too.
Valerian is many times denser and more complex than Element, though, and virtually every scene is full of details that show Besson’s dedication to building a film as loyal to the source material as possible. It’s easy to lose count of the number of alien species we’re introduced or all the fascinating locations Valerian and Laureline travel to in the course of their mission. Besson’s visual flair is impeccable, and his eye for spectacle is unparalleled. He allows the film to gently flow and unfold instead of racing from one set piece to the next, giving each scene the proper space and time needed to thrive on its own merits. It’s given a great assist by Alexandre Desplat’s sympathetic score; strong without ever being bombastic and perfectly mirroring the distinct emotional hooks of frequent Besson collaborator Eric Serra.
If only Besson had paid as much attention to the story he was telling. The plot is, to be generous, a chaotic and jumbled mess that quickly gets crushed under the searing visuals. The focus is centered nearly completely on the “who” or the “where”, and that isn’t always a problem until the third act, when Besson suddenly remembers where he put the “why.” A relatively light-hearted and giddy story suddenly takes a dark and serious shift that’s as jarring to the audience as it is to the momentum of the film. It doesn’t help that said climax is made of mostly of a set of long, expository speeches followed by an action sequence that pales in comparison to the ones that came before it.
The incoherent nature of the story isn’t always helped by the main cast, many of whom seem miscast or at the very least unhappy to be there. Dane DeHaan is fine as Valerian, even if he seems a bit too slight and sleepy-eyed for an action hero. “Dashing rogue” is not a role that comes easily to him, but even if he never seems like quite the right fit for the role, he never truly embarrasses himself. Cara Delevingne is actually quite appealing as Laureline, displaying an easy, organic charm that was never apparent in her monochromatic turn as Enchantress in Suicide Squad. While both actors do well in their roles, their chemistry together is far from perfect, and they work better apart than they do together. At any rate, they never come off as two people who’ve spent the better part of a decade working as a tightly-knit duo.
The supporting cast is surprisingly small for a film of this scope since most of the action is focused squarely on Valerian and Laureline. Clive Owen’s part amounts to a glorified cameo, and the Commander is much more of a plot device than he ever is a character. Owen himself doesn’t do much to ameliorate this, often angrily sleepwalking through his scenes. In fact, the supporting roles that provide the most color and amusement are both aliens with little direct bearing on the story. One is a Jabba-like smuggler voiced by John Goodman and the other a shapeshifter played by Rihanna. Goodman has more personality in a voice-only performance than Owen ever manages, and Rihanna is surprisingly, perhaps even shockingly good in her role. Her scenes are without a doubt one of the film’s biggest highlights, and she has more believable chemistry with both DeHaan and Delevingne than the two have on their own.
While some of that may seem like some high-caliber shade, it really isn’t in many ways. The plot and script might be among Besson’s weakest, but the images he puts on screen more than make up for it with their unique, inventive beauty. Valerian is a non-stop feast for the eyes, a dizzying head-rush of color, light, and every kind of alien you could possibly imagine. Had the film also been just as stimulating for the brain, however, Besson would have made something that’s worth several thousand words and several thousand pictures at the same time.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 (B-)