Movie Reivew - Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
I was hoping that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets would be Luc Besson’s way of saying “fuck you…THIS is how it’s done” to James Cameron and his Avatar franchise.
In some ways, it is…but unfortunately, in other ways it isn’t.
Visually, oh yes…Besson’s vision trumps that of Cameron’s in every single possible way. The entire movie is a feast for the eyes and for all the movie’s other flaws (which there aren’t exactly a lot…but those that do exist are kind of hurt-y), you can ALWAYS look at the screen and be witness to something that’s never been brought to life in just this way before. A prime example of this is Alpha itself…the city of 1000 planets that is in the title of the movie. We’re shown the evolution of Alpha rooted in the International Space Station that we have now to the massive structure it becomes and why and how it’s moved from Earth orbit to deep space. To have this sequence set to David Bowie’s Space Oddity is pitch perfect and kind of invokes a Guardians of the Galaxy feel to the film. Unfortunately, that vibe doesn’t stay for long…but we’ll get to that later. Once inside Alpha, again, the imagination just reels…as each sector has as many unique vistas as there are species aboard it. The sequence we’re shown in the trailers with Dane DeHaan’s Valerian running through walls into the various sectors is just a mere sample of the sights in store. Pulling away from Alpha, we’re also treated to the tropical planet Mul (Word won’t let me do umlauts, otherwise there’d be some over the ‘u’ there), whose destruction plays a vital part in the fairly middling plot and the Big Market of planet…ugh…the internet’s coming up empty on me here…anyway, just the Big Market sequence in general then. It lives up to its name, even though those not equipped with the proper gear will only see and feel a vast open desert...as the Market itself is actually in another dimension. How this scene unfolds is, again, both amazing and imaginatively original.
As one would expect, we’re treated to plenty of CG characters in the film and their interaction with the real-life characters mostly works well. I only caught a couple of instances where things just didn’t look right. Given the 2 hour 20 minute running time though, if there are only a few lapses…that certainly can be forgiven. The Mulians, both on their home planet and then as refugees, come the closest to flirting with the Uncanny Valley. [The late Mulian princess, you’ve seen her in the trailers, does the whole spreading arms and swishing the hips thing WAAAAAAAY too much in her short life though. That was kind of annoying. – Ed.] There are some characters that I specifically wanted to call out as enjoyable. First, there are the “pigeons”. These are three diminutive gargoyle-like creatures that fill the typical underworld informants that always manage to have the info you need…for a price. I’ve read some reviews that found them to be annoying (to say the least)…but I always found them to be enjoyable and usually providing comic relief in some segments. Should you place them in the ‘annoying’ column, their screen time is short and they disappear completely for the entirety of the third act. While Rhianna herself isn’t a CG character per se, her morphing is certainly computer assisted and her true glamopod form is a purely CG character. Other reviews have pointed out how her introductory scene pulled them out of the film…this is where I have to admit that my detachment from modern music and celebrity culture actually helped me in this regard as I didn’t find it to jarring at all. Granted, it helps that Rhianna is pretty damn hot and each time she morphs into a different outfit goes on to prove that point again and again. Honestly, I didn’t find it too different from the Diva’s performance in the Fifth Element. While she plays only a small part, she proves to be a vital role and stays on screen long enough for this appearance not to be just some glorified cameo.
I think the next step here should be to progress into the ‘meh’ aspects of the film…and that aspect consists mainly of the plot. While not as completely derivative as the aforementioned Avatar, unfortunately there’s little new to be found here. It’s your standard military cover-up starts to unravel as the innocent victims of said cover-up seek restitution and restoration while the high-level military official behind it all does everything he can to keep the cover-up in place…even if that means killing anyone that even remotely approaches the truth. Another thing that didn’t bother me but didn’t exactly feel like a positive to me either was the pacing of the film itself. I’m probably not the only one who walked into the movie hoping it would be paced a bit more like Besson’s other classic Sci-Fi film, The Fifth Element. While I understand why the film has a bit of a slower pace…after all, who wouldn’t want to linger and explore Alpha as much as possible…I think the film overall would’ve been better served with the faster pace of Besson’s earlier film. If, for no other reason, than to move quickly past the things we’re going to talk about in the next paragraph. But before I get to that, I’m also putting the two lead actors, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, under the ‘meh’ category…and not the more negative column that most reviews are resorting to. I thought this film ended up being some of the better roles for these two…although my exposure to both is pretty limited. DeHaan was fine in Chronicle but terrible in Amazing Spider-Man 2. [That may be more due to the writing than the actor but to be sure of that, we’d have to go back and watch the movie aaaaaaaaand no. That’s not happening. – Ed.] Regarding Delevingne, well, in full disclosure, I’m firmly in the camp that Hollywood needs to stop trying to make her acting career happen. Sure, I get why she was a fashion model: rail-thin, face like an 8 year old boy [WTF fashion world??? – Ed.] and eyebrows that give Peter Capaldi’s a run for their money [Says the guy who has been likened to a Mentat. Still…this is another WTF fashion world??? – Ed.] And yes, her performance in Suicide Squad is definitely a strong vote in this direction as well. But here? She was actually pretty meh…which is a vast improvement! Seriously though, her eyebrows need equal billing in whatever her next role is. Anyway, my point here is that I felt the actors did the best with what they had to work with…and that leads us directly to…
What didn’t work here…what keeps Valerian from being great or even…well…good. This took me quite some time to figure out…because as I was leaving the theater, I kept asking myself “I really should have liked this…why can’t I?” And then it hit me. While most critics have pointed at the actors and decried a lack of chemistry between the two as one of the biggest flaws of the film, I disagree. I felt that the romantic subplot between the two that stretches throughout the movie was utter shit…and it’s that writing failure that ends up gutting the movie. At the opening of the film, we have Valerian proposing to Laureline and the two argue over the merits of this throughout the entire film…but it’s made the most clear in the first scene the two share: Valerian is your usual playboy type with a lot of notches in his belt and Laureline is looking for someone that is going to be committed and dedicated to her. If you’re going to follow this type of storyline in your film, well, you would do well to adhere to the golden rule of cinema: show, don’t tell. Litter the plot with moments of temptation, sometimes failure but ultimately the playboy proves himself and does indeed change by the time the end credits roll around. We get none of that here. There’s absolutely no drama as to whether or not Valerian will change his ways for the woman he claims to love…he just does…and the film is all the poorer for it. I almost felt that the story would have been better served by putting Valerian and Laureline’s relationship in a different place…either earlier where he’s starting to develop feelings for her and have the subplot end with him proposing at the end of the film or later when the two are already married and we can explore how married agents deal with this type of dilemma. As I said before, the failure of this subplot ends up doing substantial damage to the film as a whole since the subplot runs through the entire movie and can end up being misinterpreted as a failure in other aspects of the film. In essence, this failed subplot is like flicking over the first in a line of dominoes: everything might have worked just fine had this single aspect of the film held up…but instead, it falls and as that happens, other things fall apart…hence why you have critics laying blame at the feet of the leads and in my opinion, they don’t really deserve that. It’s almost like Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (except that movie’s leads REALLY DIDN’T have anything in the way of chemistry)…the failure of the romantic subplot ends up ripping the heart out of the film and without that human connection, the film ends up becoming a detached visual spectacle – very pretty to look at but ultimately empty.
For all its mehs and weaknesses, ultimately Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen: home video WILL NOT do this film any justice. And yes, the visuals are that good…along with many of the concepts…that I do recommend checking it out while you still can. [If we were more timely with our reviews, this would’ve been a bit more effective, wouldn’t it? – Ed.] But be aware that you’re walking into a very flawed piece of cinema. Still, that didn’t stop Avatar, did it…and Valerian proves to be far more original than that derivative dreck.