“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” Movie Review


     With the continual advances in technology filmmakers have at their finger tips, it should come as no surprise that they are consistently attempting to push the envelope when it comes to the imaginative images we see on screen.  Of course, we also know sometimes too much of a good thing can be detrimental to a film, giving the audience the feeling of being overstuffed and exhausted.  That’s essentially the feeling you will have after viewing director Luc Besson’s film “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”, a cornucopia of creativity held together by characters you are not familiar with and may not care much about anyway.  The film is based on a classic French comic book series called “Valerian and Laureline” said to be an influence to countless science fiction films, including “Star Wars”, but nothing short of an up hill climb in the United States should be expected since the film will be seen more as an unknown property that will struggle to gain traction given the absence of a bankable star.

     Now that we’ve arrived into the era of filmmaking in which we can capture an actor’s performance in a computer and paint what ever costume on him or her that we can conjure in our brains, there needs to be an understanding of when these characters will work and when they won’t.  2009’s “Avatar” certainly set the standard I am referring to.  The Na’vi were not only fully realized creations on screen, but also as characters, as James Cameron allowed the audience to spend an incredible amount of time with them, learning their way of life and specifically what differentiates them from their human counterparts.  Matt Reeves also achieved this directing both “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and the recent “War for the Planet of the Apes”, tilting the final chapter in favor of the apes characters having nearly all of the screen time.  Besson clearly doesn’t agree with those concepts, as “Valerian” has a story structure similar to shopping in a mall in that our characters stop to meet his many CGI creations, but don't spend enough time for us to get to know much about them.  In fact, “Valerian” is so overstuffed, there’s no way to remember everything you’ve seen, meaning much of it is likely to be forgotten even before you leave the theater.

     Watching “Valerian” is kind of like watching “Star Wars: Episode One The Phantom Menace” but with the meaningful human characters such Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker stripped away, leaving a bunch of half wit computer generated creatures to ponder instead.  You wonder if anyone below Besson might have thought to bring in a Blu ray of Disney’s mega flop “John Carter” and said “You might wanna watch this before we proceed.”.  You may recall it was “John Carter” that caused Disney to take a $200 million write off after audiences rejected the film and its CGI alien cast paired with Taylor Kitsch, a still relatively unknown character actor turned leading man.  Even a comparison to Besson’s own kooky science fiction film, 1997’s “The Fifth Element”, doesn't hold any merit since Bruce Willis and an up and coming Mila Jovovich entertainingly anchored the story and brought some substance to the weirdly creative images on screen.

     The film is named after the main character, Valerian, played by Dane DeHaan, whose voice, particularly when he yells out “Federal Agent!” immediately reminds of the surfer like drawl employed by Keanu Reeves in “Point Break”.  I’m thinking, great, now I’ll be thinking about Johnny Utah for the next two hours!  Fact is, it really doesn’t matter who plays these characters.  DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, who plays his partner Laureline, are fine considering what they have to work with.  An actor is only as good as the script and Besson provides them with clunky stilted dialogue that is often cringe worthy and at times makes no sense, but the film does have its merits.

     The opening sequence is a marvel to behold.  A planet called Mul is home to a beautiful translucent and human like alien race who appears to be perfectly happy with their life and surroundings.  That’s before the remains of a massive space battle in the skies above their planet suddenly come plummeting down to the surface, causing a cataclysmic event and essentially wiping out their race.  If Besson had remained with this story arc and allowed the audience to know these characters better, he might of had something.  We are later introduced to Valerian and Laureline as they embark on a mission to recover an item important to the government.  They are Federal Agents and are sent to a futuristic mall that is actually fully realized in another dimension and requires visitors to wear special gear in order to actually see and feel it.  Both this and the initial sequence indicate the director hasn't lost his touch for taking the audience places they would have never imagined, but the proceedings go down hill from there.

     Whats left is a series of pit stops by the two leads, allowing them to see and explore a number of worlds, meet an abundance of various creatures, and see a few B list actors for a cameo or two for about ten minutes of screen time each and then it’s on to the next as if what came before it didn’t matter.  And most of it doesn’t.  “Valerian”, for the most part, is a theme park ride.  A film that seems to exist and serve as more of a demo reel then an actual story.  It’s something someone I know would refer to as “eye candy”, but movies have to be more than just something that is pretty to look at.  “Valerian” is like a nice looking sports car with nothing under the hood.  GRADE: C-