A long time from now, in a galaxy not too far from our own, special agents Maj. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sgt. Laureline (Cara Delevingne) partake in an act of interstellar espionage. Working together, the operatives capture one of the last remnants from a nearly extinct alien species. After Valerian and Laureline deliver this sought-after creature to military commander Arun (Clive Owen) in the gargantuan space-station city of Alpha, the commander is attacked and taken by mysterious forces. The two agents have to figure out the commander’s whereabouts and decipher the true meaning of their original mission.
Watching Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, one cannot help but think of an infamous quotation from Star Wars prequels producer Rick McCallum. “It’s so dense,” McCallum said of George Lucas’s The Phantom Menace. “Every single image has so many things going on.” That emphasis on the quantity of digital effects over the quality of storytelling is something that those sci-fi adventures share with the latest extravaganza from Luc Besson. However, remove some of the narrative and character-based hiccups, and Valerian is an absolute blast.
This eccentric, inter-galactic heist film has long been a passion project for Besson. The director has voiced his adoration for “Valerian and Laureline,” the French comics series from Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières – even using the illustrator as a production designer for The Fifth Element. Given an exorbitant budget in the neighbourhood of $200 million, Besson spared no expense. Every dollar is up on the screen, accentuated by an enhanced depth of field. The director clearly relishes showing off his access to these riches, immersing the audience with a cornucopia of dazzling planets and civilizations.
Valerian is an often bewitching summer release, unshackled from the story beats that can make some of these seasonal offerings feel derivative. The film is rarely an exposition dump, as Besson lets the images orient us with virtual dimensions and geopolitical realities. The writer/director is also confident enough in his abilities to keep the audience intrigued that he doesn’t feel the need to stop for context. Does this quell the urgency of the plotting? Perhaps, but as a series of episodic adventures and tangents into new realms with idiosyncratic CGI creations, there are plenty of delights. (The best one involves Valerian going undercover with the help of a slinky, shape-shifting exotic dancer named Bubble, voiced by and sometimes resembling Rihanna.)
The space odyssey is far from rapturous, though, and many of the shortcomings revolve around Valerian and Laureline. These characters are both physically and developmentally thin, and these shortcomings are enhanced by the rich cultures and societies populating this futuristic universe. DeHaan speaks with a dopey, Keanu Reeves-like drone that is often distracting. Delevingne gives a fine effort, although is unconvincing acting against characters who were added in post-production. Meanwhile, the two actors also have a lack of chemistry, ensuring the romantic banter becomes tiresome. One could have hoped for more compelling heroes to anchor this lush, expansive, expensive movie.
Is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets essential viewing?
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the kind of grand, sci-fi adventure that Jupiter Ascending should have been. Not all of it works, but those up for giddy thrills and eye-popping effects should line up immediately.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens Friday, July 21, 2017 at Cineplex locations. Check their website for more information.