People come to the movie theater to see spectacle. To see what demands to be seen on the large screen. This is one ideology, at least.
Director Luc Besson enjoys his spectacle. With $200 million dollars at his disposable, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is what comes of this affection for the visually bombastic.
The film stars Dane DeHaan as the titular Major Valerian, a government soldier at Alpha, the space station galaxy encompassing 1,000 different planets. Although he plays the title role, however, DeHaan is eclipsed in screentime by Cara Delevigne, who plays a slightly more interesting character in Laureline (it is worth noting that the comic book from which this is based features her character in the title as well).
Either way, both leads fail to bring charisma to the world that is brimming with color and vivacity. Instead, they walk stone-faced through the universe of the film shallowly one-lining their way through a will-they-or-won’t-they marriage plot that is obvious and tedious from the get-go.
Remove these two characters—strike that, remove all of the human characters—from this movie and you will have something rich with sci-fi world building and visual splendor. The extended prologue of this film is somewhat fascinating, in that it presents us a lived-in world of a species suddenly ravaged by human interference, ironic in that this destroyed utopia follows from an introductory montage that shows humanity’s rise to intergalactic diplomacy.
Because some things never change.
Besson’s Valerian has pomp and circumstance. It has CG-rendered worlds that leave you in awe, at times. But it also feels surprisingly flat. Not only is it flat from our lead performances, but even the backdrops of the 1,000-planet world lack depth.
This green screen artifice is reminiscent of George Lucas at his most reviled: technically revolutionary, if only people liked it. Valerian does feel like a Star Wars clone in other ways, too.
The various species of alien that pop in feel like things out of the Mos Eisley Cantina (except that they are computer generated and not puppeteered). It is more intriguing to wonder about how these creatures live their normal lives than it is to watch the plot unfold.
This plot is mostly boilerplate, and it unfolds in a logical way. It is illogical only in that it takes the film over two hours to run its course. Besson enjoys pausing on the more visual moments, and the film only truly succeeds when it does.
This seems to be the biggest problem with Besson as a director. He understands what is cinematic about a given moment, but the films themselves rarely amount to anything more than the biggest set pieces.
Valerian is vibrant and bright, throwing science fiction imagery in our faces until the cows come home. But it could use more than that. It could use characters, an engaging central narrative arc, and strong performances. It doesn’t have any of these things, so the film plucks its one string until the audience loses interest.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)