By Hannah Wisterman
Blog Content Contributor
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
I’ll be entirely honest: when I first saw the trailer for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, I was awe-struck. It looked like a whirlwind romp through space, with Avatar-like colors and textures, and I was immediately convinced that it would be self-indulgent summer fun that I would guiltily treasure. I’m a sucker for visual playgrounds, and Valerian promised to be one. I soon learned that Luc Besson, who directed The Fifth Element (and many other films), was heading the film, and my excitement climbed another notch. After all, Fifth Element is a complete gem of a film, and Valerian looked like it would follow in its footsteps. A Fifth Element for millennials? That had to be great fun.
Then I saw the film, and, well… yes and no.
Let’s start with the positives. The story itself has pretty decent bones: intergalactic federal agents Valerian and Laureline must retrieve a little alien pet-like creature who is actually a valuable power converter. They must also try to solve the mystery of a dangerous, unknown threat growing at the center of the city, and how Valerian’s vision of a destroyed alien race fits in. The story moves pretty naturally, with the exception of a detour to Rihanna-land (more on that later), and has all the themes of war crimes and cultural differences coming together that I expect from a space-colonization movie.
Additionally, the visual language of Valerian is beyond stunning. Anyone who has seen The Fifth Element will see Besson’s touch in each shot. The opening sequence alone inspires childlike wonder, and that wonder just keeps coming. There is of course Mül, the paradise planet with a unique pearl motif; Kyrian, a tourist planet with the clever element of having another dimension occupying it, only visible through certain glasses; and the titular city of a thousand planets, Alpha. The visual design of each successfully makes them tempting destinations. The costume and styling choices were also pretty pleasing—again, a Besson touch reminiscent of Fifth Element.
The design of each character and world makes for a charming, enchanting fantasy. If this is what the inside of Luc Besson’s head looks like, I want to live there. The designs felt both contemporary and classic, but most of all, they felt like they were coming from someone with experience. I didn’t notice any clumsy design; it all felt inspired, and considering the enormous breadth and variety of alien species and cultures to represent, they still all felt coherent. It’s a marvelous thing to pull off.
So, visual language? A huge success. Spoken language? Dear. God. No. I mean, no. I don’t want to be as critical as I am, because I understand that Besson (responsible for the screenplay), is a native French speaker, not English, but there is a level of writing I cannot forgive, and he reached it. He reached it and surpassed it. The majority of the dialogue is horribly forced, and I would say 70 percent of it is dedicated to telling the audience what’s happening, as opposed to letting those stunning visuals go to work and showing us. It’s an age-old writing adage: show, don’t tell, and yet Besson loves to tell. The audience is told almost everything, from Dane DeHaan’s Valerian telling us he’s a bad boy, and a soldier, and perfect at his job, to Alex, their spaceship AI, telling us about the demographics and geography of Alpha, to Commander Filitt telling us exactly what the conflict is. As storytelling goes, it’s dirt cheap. This style of writing expects its audience to be dumb and impatient. I remember thinking that based on script alone, Valerian felt like a B-grade Syfy original movie, except that Syfy originals tend to have more compelling characters.
For instance, DeHaan’s Valerian relies on extremely tired tropes mashed together: the playboy, the overprotective boyfriend, the chosen one, etc. I can’t tell if it’s a result of poor writing or poor acting or both, but I didn’t detect a shred of (likable) personality in him. Cara Delevingne’s Laureline is barely more enjoyable, and spends more time rolling her eyes and spitting out clichés than doing anything really interesting. Both characters are some of the most gender-stereotyped I have yet seen, even down to Laureline being a bad driver. Valerian especially reeks of chauvinism, and Laureline’s “I’m-tough-and-angry” routine is one that I’ve seen in a thousand other films when male directors don’t know how to present a complex woman. At this point it’s almost as sexist as playing a damsel in distress, especially given that Laureline’s armor has special individual boob plates. DeHaan and Delevingne share little to no chemistry, and so the attempted will-they-won’t-they romance feels more like please-make-it-stop irritation.
A character I did enjoy? Rihanna’s Bubble, a cute, interesting, sweet shapeshifter. She brought more to the table in terms of interest than either Valerian or Laureline, whose cookie-cutter-ness especially came through when sharing the screen with her. I genuinely enjoyed Rihanna’s acting, and Bubble’s unique motivations and idiosyncrasies were a breath of fresh air. Valerian tasks her with helping him rescue Laureline from bumbling savages that have captured her, and Bubble proves more than helpful. Unfortunately, she’s killed off mere minutes after being introduced, and her death feels, of all things, contrived, and not a bit emotionally moving. This is a result of a previous writing mistake. Early in the film, several of Valerian and Laureline’s colleagues are killed in a skirmish, and not a single second is spared to mourn or even acknowledge them, even though they clearly demonstrated rapport. This establishes the precedent that death has no gravity, and so when Bubble dies? Not a bit of remorse. Add in that Valerian’s rescue mission feels like nothing more than an excuse to have Rihanna in the film, and the past 20 minutes or so feel like a waste of time.
To say the least, the film could use some work. Namely, that script needs to be gutted, the casting needs to be re-hauled, and Rihanna needs to be there for much more of it. But as far as stories go, it is relatively satisfying, and the visual fantasy is a playground that any audience would love to explore. Overall, I would begrudgingly recommend it, but my advice? Go for the fantasy, not the writing or the acting.
Featured image via IMDb.com.