TL;DR – Truly beautiful visuals, and fascinating worlds, and … well not a whole lot else unfortunately
Score – 2.5 out of 5 stars
I’ve really been impressed by Luc Besson previous work, indeed, I would probably put The Fifth Element on my top 10 Films of All-time List if I ever got around to making one, which I should, come to think of it. So given everything I have seen of Luc Besson’s filmography, I’m going to be honest, I came into Valerian with really high expectations, indeed maybe that was the problem. So in today’s review, we are going to first look at the production side of things, and the world building, before taking a stab at the story.
So to set the scene, Valerian starts in the near future with China joining the International Space Station, and then we see how over the years more and more countries join as the station expands, and then even alien race join in. The ISS expands so much that it becomes a liability for Earth, because its size was so big that if it fell out of orbit the impact would be catastrophic. So Earth spared no expense sending the ISS, now called Alpha and home to hundreds of races and cultures, out into deep space to be a beacon of Earth in the galaxy. So far so good, bar the fact that during this 400-year history the leader of the ISS has always been an older white man, but I digress. This set up is at the heart of one of the things that really works for Valerian, there is so much you could do with a world like this, thousands of alien races working on the one super space station, the possibilities are endless. But alas that is not the story they chose to tell, but we’ll look at that a bit later.
So I’m probably going to sound very negative in this review, so I wanted to start us off with some of the good aspects of the film, because a lot of work has gone into many aspects of the film that needs recognition. One of the highlights of the film is the visuals, both the practical and visual effects are really at the top of their game. All of the creature creation is really top notch, with a lot of time and effort has gone into getting the aliens to look real. The highlight for me were the aliens from Műn who has this interesting touch sensitive bioluminescence. Also, many of the location, had a great look to them, like the Great Bazar whose inter-dimensional nature meant that you had an interesting set up to work with. Overall I think Weta-Digital have out done themselves here with the quality and scope of their work creating the world of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and no matter what else I say in this review if they got nominated for a visual effects Oscar, it would have earned it. As well as this, I think the film was well filmed, with a good use of space in every shot, with the editing it was really easy to follow, so you didn’t get lost between cuts. Also, I really liked Alexandre Desplat’s orchestral score, it really captures the feel of a grand space opera. I’ve not really heard his work since the last Deathly Hallows but he is still amazing.
Ok now let’s look at the things that didn’t work, and the main issues here are story and casting, now since we are talking about the story there will be [SPOILERS] ahead. It is such an interesting world that they have built here, but unfortunately, they have used the most boring story imaginable to set their narrative in. At the core of the story is a betrayal that you can see coming a mile away, and a deception that might have had some weight to it if we knew the characters, which would have meant that the betrayal would have mattered. Instead, we are lead to what is almost an hour and a half of world building without really exploring the world that they are in. All of this is a pity because, as I said before, this is such a fascinating world, so it is sad that they almost only give it lip service, and exposition dumps. This is all exasperated by whole sections of the movie that could have been cut out and the narrative would not have been affected. For example, the whole side track sequence after Laureline (Cara Delevingne) was captured, was a complete waste of time, and also went against everything they had set up in their world building.
Now a lacklustre story could have been fine, or at least manageable, but what really impacts on Valerian is the casting and dialogue. We have two leads in Valerian, the titular Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Laureline, and well, it has been a long time since I have seen two characters with such little chemistry try and pretend to be in some kind of relationship. I honestly don’t know if it was the acting or just the script but the dialogue between the two of them hit almost Star Wars Prequel levels of awfulness. Indeed there are moments where the film actually where it almost works and those moments are when they are separated so we don’t have to sit through their interactions. It is not just the leads, you have Clive Owen being completely wasted as Arün Filitt Valerian and Laureline’s clearly dubious commander, who somehow outranks a general. You have Ethan Hawke appear as a weird pimp, you have Rihanna actually doing a great job of acting the multiple levels of someone who is trapped in the sex service industry. But she is killed off after a few minutes with no real emotional impact. It is almost like people thought that you liked zany in The Fifth Element, but forgot that there had to be chemistry as well.
Look a part of me feels bad being so negative here, especially since I have already trashed the other film Dane DeHaan was in this year A Cure for Wellness (review). Indeed, maybe I just built this film up too much before I went to see it. In the end, can we recommend Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets? Well maybe. The action is good, the world building is interesting, and the visuals/soundtrack and production is spectacular. However, to see all that you have to sit through a lukewarm story, led by frustratingly bad characters. So it is up to you if that would be a deal breaker or not.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Directed by – Luc Besson
Screenplay by – Luc Besson
Based on – Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mézières
Music by – Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography by – Thierry Arbogast
Edited by – Julien Rey
Starring – Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer, John Goodman, Elizabeth Debicki & Sam Spruell
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: PG; Germany: 12; New Zealand: M; United Kingdom: 12A; United States: PG-13