Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Unsurprisingly crazy and weird, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is pure Luc Besson crazy sci-fi – it’s got many faults, but at least tries to make a unique and distinctive world for its characters, even if they aren’t quite capable of matching its zaniness.

Hundreds of years into the future, what used to be the International Space Station is now ‘Alpha’ – a huge, teeming world made up of millions of alien craft, as the universe’s many species come together. Adept but cocky Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his exasperated partner/unrequited love interest Laureline (Cara Delevigne) operate as space police, and are pulled into a plot to destroy the station, which ties in their commander (Clive Owen), a mysterious race of humanoid aliens and more…

Straight out of the gate, this is clearly a Luc Besson movie. The French director’s films are nothing if not distinctive – see The Fifth Element or Lucy, for example. Here he writes and directs, and appears to have been given free reign to go mad with special effects. The plot is based on a French graphic novel series – but if you didn’t know that you’d accept it was just his creation, so Besson-like are the characters and environments.

And this works in the film’s favour for large parts, because it’s all so weird – you feel like you’re finally seeing something more original when it comes to aliens and space, the Frenchman largely to thank alongside his designers and effects workers. However, as fun and strange as it is, the character work (and character writing) are not great. Neither main character is particularly nuanced, some weirdly sleazy nonsense from Valerian coming off as almost Bond-lite flirting.

With the larger story, I imagine the idea was to show his progression from smarmy star agent to more rounded human being, but it comes off quite odd and you don’t really care. The jumps in tone between doom-laden opening scenes and comedy are poorly managed, particularly later when Rihanna’s character appears (the movie at that point takes an abrupt shift from ‘fun for the whole family’ to slightly naughty, for a few minutes anyway).

Overall, you can see Besson’s frantic and mad fingerprints all over this movie, for better and for worse, but I would have liked the slightly schizophrenic tone to be a little better judged in terms of the overall story. The (mostly) impressive effects transport you to the futuristic worlds, melding together many visual sci-fi tropes, from Alien-style industrial ships through to polished plastics of Star Wars. Additionally, the very interesting and distinctive alien species on display are a brave attempt to make aliens, well, alien – though this errs more on the side of childish and amusing sometimes, an odd mix with some of the more serious elements. 

The movie is musically forgettable beyond the scenes with Rihanna (who doesn’t sing), unfortunately for famous composer Alexandre Desplat, while Thierry Arbogast’s cinematography is hit and miss – working really well with the diverse spaceship environments, but looking a bit plastic on some of the planets (this is also where green screen CGI – the less impressive effects – are more clearly visible). The editing is better however, with a quite convoluted story given clear throughlines by the work of Julien Rey.

Dane DeHaan, it must be said, is not most people’s idea of an action hero. He’s definitely more suited to dramatic, character roles, so casting him as the heroic superagent seems very odd. His performance in comedic scenes comes off a bit odd because of his intensity, and while his chemistry with Delevigne is (sometimes) tangible, often it seems incredibly forced. It’s a shame, because he’s a good actor and this could have been a good crossover opportunity, but he should probably stay away from this sort of role in future.

Delevigne surprised me, especially as models becoming actresses tend not to do so well. Her performance in Suicide Squad made me think she might be heading down that road, but here she effortlessly mixes a sardonic, resigned and driven Laureline and handles most of the changes in tone well (she’s quite adept in the comedic scenes). Her “expressive” face (read: eyebrows) distinguishes her immediately from DeHaan’s perma-smirk, and it did make me think she might have been a stronger foil for a better lead male actor.

Clive Owen (where did he go until now?!) phones it in as the gruff commander of the space police, little distinguishing between what could have been interesting character elements. Sam Spruell’s lower-level commander is another character with potential not really met, while Rihanna’s bizarre cameo (very like the operatic blue alien in The Fifth Element) starts off provocatively before concluding on a serious note, though the singer is unfortunately better when she doesn’t speak for the most part. Finally, a series of odd cameos (John Goodman, an utterly crazy Ethan Hawke and Rutger Hauer) don’t really register, probably because of their sheer number.

Really, this film is to be lauded for being odd and at least for trying. That doesn’t really make up for its naff character work and frenetic plot, but I enjoyed it nonetheless – it’s probably another of those that’s worth a watch if you’re bored or a sci-fi fan, but don’t rush to the cinema to see it by any means.

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