Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets Plot Summary:
After hundreds of years of space exploration, the city of Alpha has been established as a haven for thousands of planets and species. When two Federal Agents get embroiled in a crime committed by an unknown species, they uncover a dark secret that took place between humans years ago that may have ramifications on the entire city of Alpha.
If you ever wanted to see Starship Troopers, The Flintstones, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Super Mario Brothers Movie rolled into one, this is for you. Director Luc Besson is an acquired taste. Friendships have ended over The Fifth Element. Oy vey. Besson has his quirky style that at times feels disjointed and random, but he has his moments. It takes about twenty minutes to get into this movie, but eventually, I found myself enjoying the hell out of this picture. It’s flawed, like all his films, but this is definitely Luc Besson at his best.
It goes without saying that the visuals are spectacular. You can tell that from the trailer. The planets. The character design. The CG. Gorgeous. That was a given. But much like Avatar, eye candy can only take you so far. If you don’t care about the characters or story, the effects lose their pizazz. We’ll get to Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne in a minute, but their first big chase scene had me worried. It looked pretty, but this was bad Besson. He seemed to be making it up as he went along:
“Oh yeah, put your genetic code in here, and then press a button, and here’s a bunch of lasers. Look, an alien! There’s like a wall here or something, I don’t know. Whatevs. I’m Luc Besson.”
That was essentially the first twenty minutes. I was entertained, but I knew the cracks in the façade were about to break. As the movie goes along though, this story surprisingly comes into focus. It’s a movie you really have to be patient with, but if you stick with it, it’s actually a logical, satisfying ending. You get a lot of crazy sci-fi shenanigans with mystical energy, magic beans and blue glowey gobbledygook, but if you actually pay attention, it’s not completely insane.
The story was definitely hit or miss, as were the characters. I’m sure many reviews are bemoaning the two leads, Major Valerian, played by DeHaan, and Sergeant Laureline, played by Delevingne. If you really love Luc Besson movies, you’ll thoroughly enjoy these performances.
Much like the story at first, the first scene with these characters had red flags. It’s the most clichéd, over done set up in the history of movies. Valerian is the hot shot playboy trying to impress the annoyed academic. Their dialogue is awful. One of the lines from Laureline is literally “You’re afraid of commitment.” Any more questions?
After the initial set up though, I completely bought into their relationship. These characters are complete dicks, but you know what, they were really entertaining dicks. They are likable in the same way Jerry and Elaine were likable. I’ve been a Dane DeHaan defender, and he carries this film well. He wasn’t given the greatest lines ever, but his simultaneous cocky/deadpanned attitude sold the dialogue.
The best performance in this whole movie though may have been Cara Delevingne. Yes. Cara Delevingne. That’s not a typo. I’ll be alone on an island, but the reason she hit for me is because I don’t see a lot of actresses being able to do what she did. She was cold and sarcastic about everything, but she had a way about her that made it very funny. She gets so pissed about everything, I couldn’t help but be amused. Her reactions to certain alien creatures and situations were very comical. The chemistry between her and DeHaan is a big reason this movie works.
The film is also peppered with solid supporting characters. The aliens were thoroughly entertaining, in particular these three oversized rat creatures that were basically as greedy as Watto, but more cordial about it. The Commander of the Federal Agency, played by Clive Owen, isn’t in the film much, but plays a crucial role at the end. He serves his purpose well. Ethan Hawke has a small part, but it’s exceptionally memorable. He’s wildly entertaining.
The real show stopper was Rihanna. She was basically hired for one sequence, but it’s one hell of a sequence. Not only was this a great performance, but the effects were seamless. It’s the type of scene that should garner an Oscar nomination, but won’t. After her big number, Rihanna remains in the film as an extremely sympathetic, entertaining character. Her voice work was perfect and fit the mood well.
Even though the story comes together at the end, the movie takes a lot of diversions. This was a smart move. Normally, you want your scenes to keep advancing the story, but Besson has adapted such a rich environment of crazy and whacky places, it’s best for the movie to make up excuses so our main characters can explore all these hidden pockets of creativity.
That’s ultimately why this movie works. It’s not perfect. It needed a better score and a shorter run time, but it’s a weird, kooky adventure that oozes with eccentric energy. While based on a comic, it feels very much original. We need more of these, which is why the box office saddens me.
As I never miss a chance to knock Marvel, I’ll do so once again. If this was part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, people wouldn’t shut up about how clever, weird and fun it was. It’s ten times more imaginative than Doctor Strange. As Valerian isn’t part of a popular brand or franchise though, the sci-fi of it all gets dismissed as silly and goofy.
If you really love out there sci-fi, you’ll absolutely get your money’s worth.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10 (Very Good)