Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Luc Besson gambles $200 million on the most ambitious new sci-fi movie since 2009’s Avatar. Does he manage to pull it off?

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets review by Paul Heath.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets review
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets review

Boasting a hefty price-tag, one that is rumoured to be the biggest budget independent movie of all time, Luc Besson’s passion project Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets comes to screens, some twenty-plus years after the legendary French filmmaker started work on the first screenplay.

Adapted from the series of comic books Valérian and Laureline created by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets follows Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as special agents of the human police forces Valerian and Laureline, a pair we’re first introduced to at the end of a completed mission. During some down time, images of a tropical planet where a low-tech humanoid race lives peacefully, comes to Valerian in a dream. After initially dismissing said dream, Valerian soon becomes aware that its significance may indeed be greater than he first thought.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets review
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets review

Valerian and Laureline are dispatched on a mission to retrieve a small animal – called a ‘converter’ – from a black market dealer on a nearby planet. There, he obtains said object along with a mysterious pearl, which he also manages to get away with – but these two objects are more than they first appear to be – and have a big connection with the happenings in Valerian’s dream. What follows is two-hours plus of very abstract and indeed very complex storytelling as the pair strive to save a planet’s race while battling superior authority and literally hundreds of space aliens and creatures in a rather ambitious intergalactic tale that is quite literally out of this world.

One thing’s for sure, Valerian and the City Of A Thousand Planets looks and sounds amazing. If you picture The Fifth Element from a couple of decades ago then you’ll get a little of what’s on offer in Besson’s new sci-fi movie. But this new world is vast; is bigger and bolder, and in the opening frames the filmmaker cleverly builds his world gradually –  from archived space footage with Bowie’s Space Odyssey over the soundtrack, through to futuristic images of aliens meeting and ‘trading’ on a space station in the future. Besson gradually leads us to the time period in which this film is set, the 28th century. It is here where we are introduced to the title character and Delevingne’s Laureline, and it is apparent from the outset that Besson has a underlying love story in mind for us, a plot point obviously lifted from the source material.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets review
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets review

Separately, there are no issues with DeHaan and Delevingne – both are clearly talented actors with glowing careers in their own right, but the issue here is their casting and chemistry together, of which there seems very little. DeHaan particularly seems totally miscast as our hero – suggested to be a wise-cracking intergalactic ladies man a la Han Solo or Peter Quill – but one who comes across as just… well, wrong in every way. There’s a lot to like about DeHaan as an actor, but the role of Valerian is a complete misstep. Delevingne manages to get away with the role of Laureline a little better – in fact she’s totally fine as the more level-headed of the pair, and one who manages to deliver some of the more lighter moments in the movie as she attempts to side-step Valerian’s continuous advances.

Valerian is a long movie, and there’s a lot crammed in as Besson strives to set-up this new world which is clearly planted as the first of a potential franchise. I have to admit, apart from the aforementioned casting issues, I liked a lot of what Besson and his crew are trying to say in this. There are issues, of course. Take Rihanna’s involvement – her character is essentially an extended cameo limited to just a couple of scenes with the pop star and sometimes actress assuming the role of shape-shifting stage performer Bubble. I’m not sure if the film would have lost an awful lot if she was completely excluded from proceedings – or if at least 30 minutes were shaved off the running time -perhaps leaving behind some of the peripheral characters to save them for future chapters. But, of course there’s a huge commercial value to Rihanna’s participation, and to be honest, she’s pretty decent.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets review
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets review

Valerian serves up a very strange, off-beat tone and approach which you’ll either love or hate, but the filmmaker is clearly influenced by more mainstream stuff too – you’ll often see nods to Star Wars, Guardians Of The Galaxy and even his previous work. The problem is that outside of its homeland, the source material is not all that well known, so getting punters into the multiplexes to see the movie is its first battle. It’s second is having them walk away with the sense of having seen something that they can connect to, which is perhaps what I initially struggled with. In the days that have passed since I viewed the movie, I must admit it has grown on me a little, and aside for my mentioned issues with it, I look forward to seeing where Besson takes us next. Whether he’ll have the chance to do so remains to be seen.

A definite step-up from Lucy (oh how I hated that movie), but an all-together average-at-best Besson, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is just about a worthy summer movie, one slightly different than anything else you’ll see this year, which, in itself, may be worth the entry price alone.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets review by Paul Heath, August 2017.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is released in UK cinemas on August 2nd 2017.

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Valerian and the City Of A Thousand Planets