Film Review: ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’

'Lucy' director Luc Besson returns to the realm of sci-fi, serving up an expansive, expensive adventure whose creativity outweighs its more uneven elements.

A long time ago in our very own galaxy, Luc Besson dreamed of directing a movie version of “Valérian and Laureline,” a sexy French comic book series featuring a pair of futuristic crime fighters who travel through space and time to uphold the law. Although scholars consider the pulp source material to have been an influence on George Lucas’ original “Star Wars” movie, the equation clearly works the other way around in Besson’s hands, as “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” finds the director doing his best “Star Wars” impression.

It’s a bold goal in a marketplace that hasn’t traditionally been very welcoming to “Star Wars” imitators, but Besson is one of the few living directors with both the ambition and the ability to establish his own rival universe. At a time when “Star Wars” itself has gone corporate (granted, the tight control has yielded some of the series’ best entries), “Valerian” manages to be both cutting-edge and delightfully old-school — the kind of wild, endlessly creative thrill ride that only the director of “Lucy” and “The Fifth Element” could deliver, constructed as an episodic series of missions, scrapes and near-misses featuring a mind-blowing array of environments and stunning computer-generated alien characters.

Too bad Valerian himself is such a dud. Written as a kind of cocky intergalactic lothario, Valerian ought to be as sexy and charismatic as a young Han Solo, though “Chronicle” star Dane DeHaan — so good in brooding-emo mode — seems incapable of playing the kind of aloof insouciance that made Harrison Ford so irresistible. Despite holding the rank of major, Valerian looks like an overgrown kid, overcompensating via an unconvincingly gruff faux Keanu Reeves accent (with the questionable dye job to match).

Fortunately, his co-star is cool enough for the both of them: As played by British fashion model Cara Delevingne (downright wooden in last summer’s “Suicide Squad,” but a revelation here: sassy, sarcastic and spontaneous), Laureline holds true to one of Besson’s core beliefs — that nothing’s sexier than an assertive, empowered leading lady. Sure, she needs rescuing at times, but more often than not, she’s the one getting Valerian out of trouble. She’s just a sergeant, but every bit as capable as her commanding officer, and the film is considerably more fun when following her character.

The chemistry between the two may be odd, but they make a good team, constantly trying to prove themselves to one another while each pretending not to care. In their first scene together, Valerian asks Laureline to marry him — a strangely old-fashioned demand, given the 28th-century setting, that plays like a 1950s ploy to seduce the virginal preacher’s daughter. And yet, in so many ways, she seems worldlier than he does, right down to the film’s climactic monologue, in which Laureline lectures Valerian on the meaning of love.

Most of the time, he’s too busy following orders to question what his superiors are asking, but such blind obedience has its bounds, since the plot of “Valerian” concerns a vast military coverup for a cataclysm Besson depicts in the film’s opening minutes: the near-annihilation of a seemingly primitive, yet peaceful species known as Pearls. Tall, slender and scantily dressed, like “Avatar’s” Na’vi, with bald heads and iridescent opaline skin, the Pearl are the most elegant and expressive of the movie’s many computer-generated aliens. Their long limbs give them a graceful, supermodel gait, while their faces are nuanced enough to convey even subtle emotions — testament to just how sophisticated performance capture technology has become, even in someone other than Andy Serkis’ hands.

Such innovations make it possible for Besson to build upon the multiculturalism of the “Star Wars” series in a big way, taking the intermingling of species in the classic cantina scene and expanding it to a vast city named Alpha, where a seemingly infinite number of aliens happily stick to their roles (like a pre-equal-opportunity Zootopia), while humans of all colors run the show (including Herbie Hancock as the city’s Minister of Defense). No doubt, there are dark and sordid “Blade Runner”-esque corners to this hyper-modern megalopolis, but Besson never lingers long enough for us to play more than fly-by tourist as he follows Valerian and Laureline through these various realms.

Generally speaking, Besson works at a fast clip, using dynamic framing and tight editing to convey loads of visual information on the go. The movie is designed to propel us from one cliffhanger to the next, and it’s remarkably effective at doing so without providing a clear notion of what the duo’s mission is supposed to be. Early on, they’re sent to Big Market, a massive virtual-reality bazaar where Valerian manages to retrieve an adorable, ultra-rare creature known as a Mül Converter, which can make copies of anything it ingests (except itself, apparently), from a Jabba the Hutt-like black marketeer voiced by John Goodman.

The movie kicks in during the Big Market sequence, which is where audiences first feel like we’re discovering a truly visionary new environment for the first time — though Besson manages to sustain that effect throughout the film’s time on Alpha. There we meet Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen), the four-star general who’s been using Valerian to help fulfill his own dastardly agenda, and discover a world of eye-popping costumes. Besson’s script may occasionally leave something to be desired, but one can hardly fault the way his characters are dressed, as costume designer Olivier Bériot gives us a sample of the future of fashion (so avant garde that it could take decades for sci-fi to catch up).

In one case — that of a glampod named Bubble (played by Rihanna, when in human form) — a shape-shifting alien actually functions as a kind of elaborate costume, wrapping herself around Valerian so he can infiltrate the dangerous gourmands who plan to eat his darling Laureline. In a nifty trick, Bubble can remove her hat and change outfits entirely, making for the galaxy’s sexiest exotic dance routine.

Even Besson, who convinced the world that Milla Jovovich could act (in “The Fifth Element”), can’t salvage Rihanna’s awkward line readings — unless that’s the effect this sophisticated, Shakespeare-trained glampod is going for. But that’s a small hiccup considering what the director gets from Delevingne: She doesn’t just save Alpha; she saves the movie as well. And though audiences may not be clamoring for a “Valerian” sequel after this, another “Laureline” adventure would be most welcome.

Film Review: 'Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets'

Reviewed at Regal L.A. Live, July 7, 2017. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 137 MIN.

Production

(France) An STX Entertainment (in U.S.), EuropaCorp (in France) release and presentation of a Valerian SAS, TF1 Films Prod. co-production, with the participation of OCS, TF1, in association with Fundamental Films, BNP Paribas, Orange Studio, Universum Film GmbH, Novo Pictures, River Road Entertainment, Belga Films. Producers: Luc Besson, Virginie Besson-Silla.

Crew

Director: Luc Besson. Screenplay: Besson, based on the comic book series “Valerian and Laureline” by Pierre Christin, Jean-Claude Mézières. Camera (color, widescreen, 3D): Thierry Arbogast. Editor: Julien Rey. Music: Alexandre Desplat.

With

Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer, Sasha Luss, Aymeline Valade.

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  1. paruru kan says:

    After the big disaster that was Alien Covenant, Valerian is one of the best pictures of the year.

    I respect the author of this article, but I think that he has NOT read the Valerian comic-books. Because he is saying a lot of things that are… I don’t want to say. ..

    It’s fun, because this movie is the proof that Internet is destroying cinema saying LIES.

    This is the first time after Avatar that I have seen a movie that tells something so deep that demonstrates the truth about science fiction movies: Science fiction is much better genre than a lot of
    “intellectuals” thought. This movie has really good characters with personality, good script, a much better movie than some absurd Disney’s movies. I loved Valerian, I loved Laureline and I completely loved The Pearls. The movie criticizes the bad use of the military power, like Avatar.

    Valerian: 9,8 / 10

  2. Paruru Kan says:

    VALERIAN IS ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES I HAD SEEN IN MY LIFE. THIS IS WHAT CINEMA NEEDS: BRILLIANT AND DEEP. SEXY, NOT SEXIST. POWERFULL. I LOVE THIS MOVIE TO PIECES. ONE OF THE BESY MOVIES OF THE YEAR.

    Valerian: 9,8 / 10

  3. I have read many movie reviews before your but your review about valerian and the city of a thousand planets brings me a different thought about this movie. All most reviews which I have read recommended to watch this movie. But your and this review at moviesz give me another choosen. Thank your review so much! I think I should watch another movie.

  4. Jason says:

    Ugh. This movie was literally about a piece of excrement. It was a poor mashup of AVATAR (the Pearl replacing the Navi) and STAR WARS (the evil British space generals, Jabba the Hutt, Watto), with a dash of STARGATE (Kull Warriors) and STAR TREK (Laureline carrying McCoy’s katra, holodecks) and TOTAL RECALL (strip club scene) thrown in. The leads had no chemistry; I never bought for a moment they were military personnel; and DeHaan’s delivery was more wooden than Keanu Reeves in a movie that demanded an impish rogue like Chris Pratt.

    It’s too bad, because somewhere in here there was an embryonic good movie about the nature of obligation to the state versus your conscience, again somewhat like in AVATAR. Pity that never came out.

  5. Jknbt says:

    Let’s say a few good things about Dane DeHaan’s performance in Valerian, okay?

    1) He was tasked with interpreting for the big screen a character that is a remorseless psych-opath. This is not your stock space opera stereotypical hero that we have all seen a thousand times. Valerian is in deep hiding, hiding in plain sight, which is the hardest to recognize. He is in deep denial. He has an amoral complete lack of remorse for all the people he killed. DeHaan played the character with an indifferent detachment, which actually got him a lot of criticism, especially from the pro critics who did not recognize Valerian as a psych-opath. He has an amoral disregard for the women he used on previous assignments, and pretend to love the Laureline character so he can similarly use her.
    2) A lot of critics bashed DeHaan and Cara for a lack of empathy. Psych-opaths do not have any empathy in the first place. Valerian is lying when he says he loves Laureline. So he was in character when he showed no empathy for the female lead or his compatriots.
    3) If DeHaan researched the role by reading the comics, the books, and Besson’s script, and if he planned out his interpretation of the character to come out like it did, he has shown a very high skill level in his craft. Why don’t any of the pro critics recognize this? Yes, a lot of if’s….If he knew what he was doing and carried it out so effortlessly, DeHaan deserves an Oscar nomination.

  6. Grown-up Eurokid says:

    I really enjoyed the movie. Even though the banter of the main couple did not really work and saw the “surprises” at the end miles away.

    The thing is: even with this casting, the movie might work better, if Besson had stayed truer to source material. Comic-book Valerian is not a super-confident and cocky bad boy, but brave and good-hearted, not terribly bright, boy-scout type, trained to follow orders from his superiors – much closer to Luke Skywalker than Han Solo.

    Laureline was the more capable of the two and became the true star of the comics (and of the wet dreams of thousands of preteens), especially in later albums. Also, since she was originally from elsewhere (11th-century France), she was more likely to question orders.

    I think this dynamic would have suited the two leads better than what Besson tried.

  7. Tom Siebert says:

    Seen it twice. Amazing on big screen. Badly miscast, but this is going to be a cult movie that in 5-10 years everybody’s going to wish they saw in the theater. If they’d gotten somebody with real roguish charm and some gravitas, it would’ve been classic. She’s better, but not much, and more problem than solution. Doesn’t matter. Film is visual creative orgy of the best possible summer ride. Loved it.

  8. kittyb says:

    I wanted to love this. I really did. I’m a huge fan of Luc Besson’s films and while I admire the high bar he set for himself. However, the result is an overly long, visually stunning piece without much of a story to tell. Much of the dialogue was laughably bad. I never cared what happened to Valerian and while it was fun to Laureline tromp around the universe saving her partner and being a “bad-ass”, she didn’t seem like a fully formed character. Neither of the leads did. There are certainly interesting parts of the story– like the opening sequence when the city of 1,000 planets are forming– but the majority of the story feels like it was borrowed from other sci-fi scripts. I did love the visuals, from the Pearls world to Big Market to the city of 1,000 planets itself. And the chase scene in Big Market was fun and clever! I wish the rest of the 2+ hours were nearly as entertaining. That said, my seven year old daughter thought it was great. Enjoy!

  9. Vincent Menton says:

    Why is Dunkirk getting all the great reviews? I Just saw it and I think the whole story could been told in just 30min… Besides all that handheld camera got me seasick… Now all the IMAX’s are blocked so I guess Valerian must now wait and that kinda sucks… And too bad Cara is in it, but hey it’s a Luc Besson and Thierry Arbogast film…

  10. Ronald Johnson says:

    Loved the movie. The flaw is the two main characters. In fact, while they tried to make the movie orbit around the personalities of the two, it was the very thing I tried desperately to avoid. The aliens should consider themselves fortunate the pair didn’t stay on their new planet.

  11. spevilgenius says:

    When I saw that Dunkirk was kicking Valerian out of IMAX I almost went ballistic!! I like Nolan in some ways, but Valerian is what I want to see in IMAX and I never planned on seeing yet another war movie like Dunkirk. I really can’t stand knowing a movie is in IMAX 3D and not being able to see it because another less desirable film gets the screen time :( Consider me miffed!!!

  12. paully says:

    This is a tough call but I will see it Day 1..
    Sci Fi Films need the right (elusive) tone, and it seems to be hard to reproduce..
    Sharing the same opening day as Dunkirk has locked this film out from almost all IMAX screens, this will hurt them..

  13. CogInTheWheel says:

    But how good is it compared to Star Wars? Don’t think that was mentioned enough in this review…..

    Honestly though, the trailers and leading actors for this movie never painted it in a good light. The quick fight scene clips in the trailer look sloppy, Dane and Cara still have a lot to learn as actors….so far they’re on par with that Twilight girl that sucks. I hope to see them break out a little here.

    Having said all that, boy am I ready for a different kind of genre movie. One that doesnt feel as stuffy as a lot of the recent COMIC BOOK CORPORATION movies. Besides Deadpool and Logan, the rest have turned into predictable fluff, more focused on selling a sequel than anything else.

  14. BTK says:

    Lol these people in the movie are actors. There’s a lot of blabbering on about who these actors are but how would you even begin to know. If they suck in a film it is because the direction was not on par. Otherwise they would not have been casted. It looks interesting but could also be a Michael Bay esque vomit pile of CG and over the top action. I hope the story flows. Besson’s Lucy was absolute garbage though so no high hopes. FYI that was Scarlett Johansson at her worst and she should not be remembered or praised for that role.

  15. Kyle Lehn says:

    Yes, because EVERY sci-fi space movie HAS to be a rip-off of Star Wars right? Therefore every world must be compared to Star Wars, every character has to be compared to a corresponding Star Wars character, and the movie’s impact and overall success as a film must be compared to Star Wars. This review is lazy. Instead of forming honest, original opinions and critiques about the film this critic has just rehashed every review made about a space movie since Star Wars, by generally saying, “It’s decent, but compared to Star Wars, it sucks.”

  16. ageless says:

    And one should not expect anything derivative from this one. This is based on pre Star Wars material and made by great creative minds. It just might be too creative for the average US consumer though. But better a creative cult movie for ‘all times’ than a low brow, derivative, corporate entertainment cash cow! Even Luc Besson would agree with that, even though his company certainly is on the line with this one. Still hope the global b.o. will be enough…..

  17. ageless says:

    Definitely a must see, even in low light 3D!

  18. John Stinson says:

    Considering that the TV ads are calling it a spectacular 3D event, reviewing a flat 2D version is ludicrous. If one reviewed AVATAR in 2D only, the derivative plot of that movie would be apparent. It was the visuals in 3D that took it over the top. Since this review makes no mention of how well that is done for this movie, the review is meaningless and irrelevant.

  19. jacksrbetter says:

    When I first saw the trailer, I was reminded of “Barbarella”. Now that comparison has actually been confirmed by other film reviewers. This movie just smacks of “pretty young people who can’t act run around in space for some reason”. I liked “The Big Blue”, “La Femme Nikita” & “The Fifth Element” (the last one only sort of). But there is absolutely no way I am going to shell out my money for this. Not a chance.

  20. Diana says:

    Cara Delavingne…..I just can’t. I love Besson’s movies but I believe I will pass that one because of her. It’s a mystery how she got casted in such movie.

    • ageless says:

      I like Cara. Strong young woman.

      • Diana says:

        Cara is everything BUT a “strong woman”. She’s just a wealthy kid who got a career because her family has businesses in fashion and media industry. She never had to fight for a role or anything. Nepotism. Don’t be deceived by her popularity or her fake “I’m too cool for school” fake vibe.

      • Joe says:

        ageless, for all your love of the “strong women” cliché, please, make them warmer, friendlier and more likable than Cara. There’s nothing wrong with being more feminine. Where are all the nice girls gone?

  21. Chris Darling says:

    So see it in Imax if you are a fan, see it in regular showings if you just want to see something different and go to a Saturday morning AMC screening for 7.00 if you are dubious. The thing is, this is a huge work by a seminal director who has put one through the goalposts far more often than he has missed. So the lead guy is a doze, we all agree the etc will be utterly unlike American films and hey, it may even have a story somewhere in there. Go see it. Supp
    Port the alternatives or all we will have left is Marvel Films.

  22. John says:

    I hate Cara Delevingne.

    She always comes across as cold, arrogant, bitchy, girlie or blasé. There’s no depth or warmth to her on screen. Milla Jovovich has it. Scarlett has it. All Besson girls had it. But Cara ? No.

    If Valerian is such a wimp in this movie and only Cara is there to look at, then this movie is in deep trouble.

    At the end of the day “the close-up is more important than the wide shot” as William Friedkin learned the hard way on “Sorcerer”…who cares about all these eye candy visuals that look like straight out of a video game, if your main characters and actors are not appealing?

    Luc Besson obviously thought a few years ago that Cara and Dane would become big stars, but this didn’t happen. He might have made the same fatal miscasting that Michael Mann did in “Blackhat”.

    And one word about “questionable dye job” of Dane/Valerian: If they spend millions of dollars on cutting-edge F/X, production design, costume design and visuals, how is it possible, that they can’t create a believable hair color ?

    “The Fifth Element”, a vastly overrated film anyway, had the same problem: All the hair looked like it had been dyed for $10 at your local shop. It looked totally fake. It took you out of the movie, because you looked at the hair, not at the characters.

    To all F/X wizards out there:
    Solve the hair-dye problem instead of creating strange planets !

    • ageless says:

      I like Cara. She’s fresh, funny, intelligent and will bring in the cool young crowd, at least outside of the ‘new USA’. Also a young power woman. But of course more cult and arthouse then bread for the (low brow) masses.

      • Paula says:

        Ugh, exactly – I hate Cara, too – for all those reasons you just stated. I absolutely adore all of Besson’s films because of his strong female leads and great casting choices. What a huge mistake – I just don’t get what the casting directors see in her. Her talent, looks and attitude should be getting her bit parts, at best, even with her family connections. And unfortunately, it’s because of her that I cannot bring myself to shell out any cash to watch this movie. What a shame….

      • Joe says:

        Sorry, but you must be out of your mind. Or Cara Delevingne. Just compare her to all leading ladies in Besson’s films before…and try not to laugh at your comment ;-)

  23. Timely Comment says:

    Chacun à son SF cinema gôut?

    The genre nerd in me is excited for this film— Besson is a film stylist that has always been interesting ever since finding a dvd of LE DERNIER COMBAT. SUBWAY and LA FEMME NIKITA and THE PROFESSIONAL were really striking and paved the way to his SF grand opera of THE FIFTH ELEMENT (yay for the Moebius designs, that opera singer and I think a needed SF ‘pulpiness’ of the film, nay for Chris Tucker’s helium voice)…

    Not too taken with his TAKENs and LUCY or his more recent outputs, so curious to see his return to Space Opera here. Non-American/Brit, European Science Fiction— and here sourced from a comicbook bande dessine classic— is always a treat to experience; and quite curious to see how modern “multiculturalism” is is contrasted and handled in French film made outside the Hollywood movie-making machinery (a return to THE FIFTH ELEMENT form?)…

  24. For some reason this trailer bores me to death. The visuals are dazzling for sure, but none of the characters look particularly interesting.

  25. Com ment says:

    I’m a huge fan of many of Besson the director (Leon, Nokia, Le Grand bleu, even the 5th element)
    but it’ll take an extraordinary good word of mouth to go see Valerian after having seen trailers and teasers with 2 can’t play stars ans nothing the least exciting.

  26. Tatsu says:

    There is other space scifi stuff besides Star Wars… just saying…

    • David Knowles says:

      Yeah, there um star trek and that about it for cinema, a star trek has been largely at the cinema with it last great film being insurrection. That why I’m going, I want to see another franchise set in space.

    • Noyfb says:

      No she doesn’t. She can’t act, is stuck up socialite, and has a career because her family forced it. Even if she could act it would only be in bit parts if any. She’s a terrible human to boot.

  27. Spider says:

    I’m intrigued. The idea of visiting such diverse and visually-arresting realms with a story I’m totally unfamiliar with, like “The Fifth Element”, fascinates me. I’m glad director Luc Besson is bringing “Valerian” to the big screen. Although, I have slight trepidation about the DeHaan/Delavigne casting combo, I will keep an open mind. I’m in!

  28. Harper says:

    Man, this film is getting some mixed reviews.

    • ageless says:

      Agreed, but I wonder which critic’s brain has malfunction and how political critics actually are? Euro Cinema bashing or just limited brains?

  29. cn says:

    So it’s a decently made film. I’m definitely watching it.

    • cn says:

      Not just because it’s decent. I like both Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. I’m a huge fan of Rihanna. I love immersive fictional worlds/universes (like those in Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings). I really hope Valerian at least doesn’t bomb and neither should Dunkirk, so fingers crossed.

  30. I have watched the previews for this movie. Visually it looks cool but story-wise and acting wise it is going to suck. I may shill out some money to watch in 3D so I can confirm my theory.

  31. millerfilm says:

    No listing of credits?

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