A dark force threatens Alpha, a vast metropolis and home to species from a thousand planets. Special operatives Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a 2017 French science fiction action/adventure film, written and directed by Luc Besson. It stars Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevingne as his partner Laureline. It is based on the French comic book series Valérian and Laureline, which was first published in 1967, with a final installment released in 2010. A decorated and influential series in European pop culture, its impact can be felt here as well, where echoes of the series’ ideas can apparently be found in other science fiction films and franchises such as Star Wars.
At the onset, I was pretty on board with this film. Beginning only a few years into our future, we see space stations forming together in orbit around Earth, with peoples from two different nations shaking hands in celebration of this union. What follows is a montage of further and further points in history with humanity shaking hands with new and strange species from across the galaxy, adding themselves to this ever-growing conglomerate of worlds. This concludes with the station so large that it must propel itself from the orbit of Earth to parts unknown in the galaxy, lest it threaten to crash into the planet. Thus Alpha, the titular city of a thousand planets as we come to know it, is born. I liked this setup for its quirky simplicity. The story is set in the 28th century, and while there is a lot of history left unsaid, I found it a nicely concise way to establish what becomes the setting for much of the film.
The film went drastically downhill from here on out. Between the flat, bothersome characters and the constant loss of focus on the plot, it was an utter mess. Possibly the most egregious thing about it for me is the core plot could have been quite good if executed effectively. It had the potential to be a great story about the consequences of Galactic war and of civilizations of this scale being negligent to species less technologically developed. The villain, though barely featured, had strong motivations that make actual sense, whether or not you agree with him, which could have been used to flesh him out into a more compelling character.
Besson seemed to be bored with constructing a storyline that weaves itself artfully around such a plot, however. At numerous points plot devices are introduced out of nowhere, character motivations and actions contradict themselves without consequence, and the second act literally contains filler (you’ll find Rihanna here). This entire chunk of story — taking place between events trying to be concerned with the core plot — literally has no effect nor offers anything of difference to the final act. Its purpose seems to be to showcase Alpha a little more, which could have been integrated into the plot in any number of ways, and otherwise just pads out the runtime.
Valerian himself is an obnoxiously one-note character. He is another Kirk-esque womanizing space captain, which the dialogue goes through great pains to tell us, but we never see. The majority of the time when communicating with Laureline, if not engaged in action, he excessively flirts with her and grandiosely expresses his love. Their dialogue together is usually as follows:
Valerian: “I really love you lots. I definitely don’t just want to get into your pants. Flirty remark. Let’s get married.”
Laureline: “I’m dubious about your sincerity. The mission, Major. Sarcastic dismissal [secret longing].”
It hits the ground running with this too, doing nothing to establish a baseline for their relationship (unless I’m to assume he’s always harassed her like this), nor does it earn where they end up. Thanks to DeHaan’s adolescent appearance and often petulant demeanor he comes across as someone desperately trying to look like something he’s not. This would be interesting for an insecure yet competent character, but here it’s taken as read. Laureline and the world around him stress his reputation as legitimate, despite how performative it all appears, and I just couldn’t buy into it. Why he loves Laureline and why she isn’t just another co-worker he wants to sleep with is never made clear either, nor is the reason for her feelings for him, impatient and sarcastic with him all the while. I know I’m leaning hard on the romance angle between the two, but that’s not my fault. Aside from the generic idea that they’re good at what they do, this is pretty much all there is to them for the duration of the film.
The one thing I will give the film credit for is the art direction and visual effects. The people responsible for imagining and creating it all did a fantastic job. While dissenters of CGI may feel differently, I thought the effects were of spectacular quality. The various alien races are really interesting to look at, as are their unique locales within Alpha. There are also numerous cute and horrifying beasts to behold over the course of the film. Though less of a visual matter, there are also neat concepts explored, such as a tourist market found in an alternate dimension that one needs a special visor and gloves to interact with.
If you’re into vibrant, futuristic sci-fi worlds represented beautifully on screen, check out Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Otherwise, don’t expect to get much from this in terms of character or story. Some of the supporting characters are neat and/or fun, but I found the weakness of the two leads and the blunder of a story overshadowed any other positive things in that area of the film.