‘Valerian’ Review: A Fun, Silly & Beautifully-Imagined Sci-Fi Adventure

Read our review of Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne and Clive Owen.

Luc Besson Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

When a mysterious alien race threatens the well-being of Alpha, an enormous space station that is home to the people of a thousand different worlds, two special agents are tasked with routing out the threat and eliminating them before they can destroy the City of a Thousand Planets. While I’m usually at least somewhat familiar with the source material of most comic book to big screen adaptations, I went into this film knowing absolutely nothing about writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières’ Valerian and Laureline, the French comic series this film is based on. I do know that the comic is a favorite of Luc Besson’s, the director of this film. It was a big inspiration for his film The Fifth Element and he has long wanted to do a direct adaptation of the comic. So, now that he has finally achieved his dream of bringing Valerian to the big screen, how did it all work out for him? Was it worth the incredibly long wait? Read on to find out…

This film and the comic it’s based on is all about the two leads, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sargeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), so that’s a good place to start. For the most part, I liked these characters, which is good, because we spent most of the film’s runtime with them (almost to a fault, but I’ll get to that in a second). They made for a great duo. Both were smart, capable and funny, with each having their own areas of expertise. One of the things that I liked about their relationship is that it’s abundantly apparent in the film that they needed each other. I appreciated that there were instances in the film where each of them had to come to the other’s aide. It wasn’t just Laureline in trouble all the time with Valerian having to come to her rescue. This happened once or twice, but there were just as many instances of her needing to save him. In that regard, they were really well-balanced.

I like Dane DeHaan. I think he’s a hell of an actor when the role in question allows him to be. I thought he was terrific in Chronicle, but The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is certainly an ugly blemish on his track record, which is really unfortunate because it’s also the film that most movie-goers probably know him from. I thought he was really good in this role. Cara Delevingne, on the other hand, doesn’t quite have DeHaan’s body of work behind her. I reserved no judgement, though, going into this film. Even though I thought she was the absolute worst part of Suicide Squad (a film which I ended liking okay, despite its faults), and just okay in Paper Towns, I haven’t seen enough from her to really go on. Overall, I ended up thinking she did a pretty solid job in this film. I had no real issues with her performance, which was a plus, because I liked the character on paper, but it easily could have been ruined if she didn’t bring it. There was no weird gyrating on her part, so that was a plus.

There were, however, a couple of the things that didn’t work for me with these two. While I liked the characters as partners, it was the romantic angle that was tougher to buy for me. They have a decent amount of chemistry, but I just felt that aspect of their relationship could have been handled better in the writing of it because the way they related to each other in the other aspects of their partnership worked so much better. Also, and this may sound ageist, but there were many times in the film where I just felt that these characters were two young to really be taken seriously as special operatives. They never really felt like the authority figures they were supposed to be.

One of the things that bugged me the most about this movie is that, while it features a great cast, aside from Valerian and Laureline, most of the rest of the characters seemed severely underutilized. The most egregious offense of this came in the form of Clive Owen’s character, Commander Arün Filitt. He wasn’t in the film nearly enough for my taste and he was a pretty crucial character, so I felt like that was a bit of a mistake. Ethan Hawke with the fifth lead and I thought he was a lot of fun as Jolly the Pimp, but he too was barely in the film. Rutger Hauer’s role as as the President of the World State Federation was a complete and utter waste of Rutger Hauer. I also expected a lot more involvement from Rihanna’s character, a shape-shifting exotic dancer named Bubble. I’m not big Rihanna fan or anything, but I really got into her character. She was actually a lot of fun and brought a great energy to the proceedings, so the fact that she was only in the film for such a brief time was pretty disappointing.

I also liked a lot of the other alien characters. I thought the designs of most of these characters were fantastic. I really like how the main alien race at the center of the plot was presented. From what I could tell, almost, if not all, of these aliens were played by female performers, even the race’s male leader, Emperor Haban Limaï, who was played on set by Aymeline Valade, but voiced by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 star Elizabeth Debicki. Hearing what was obviously a woman’s voice coming from this character, I kept having to remind myself that this was supposed to be a male, which was a little strange, but it still worked for the character and the race as a whole. The female performers’ features and even Debicki’s voice added a real grace and elegance to the alien species. There was also a trio of short little aliens that kept trying to help Laureline in exchange for profit. I thought these guys were fun, but I could maybe see some audience members getting annoyed by them and their speech pattern. I love me some John Goodman, so I was excited to recognize him as the voice of one particularly gruff alien that Valerian has to deal with early on, but again, it was too small a part for such a terrific actor.

There were so many other great aliens in the film, with two of my favorites being an adorable young child that Valerian drops in on, and perhaps my MVP of the film, an extremely goofy character that is tasked with finding a suitable dress for Valerian after his people take her hostage. My only issue is that there are so many different alien races that I couldn’t even begin to remember the names of any of them for this review (and I couldn’t find the names online anywhere either), even the species that was the main focus of the film’s story.

As far as the tone of the film goes, it’s pretty darn wacky. Take the quirkiness and sometimes even cartoonish tone of The Fifth Element and crank it up to eleven and you may start to get an idea of the sheer level of silliness that this film has in store. In many ways it feels somewhat like a spiritual sequel to that film, just with 20+ years of more advanced technology and twice the budget. The film cost upwards of $180 million, but I can say with complete certainty that every dime of that is evident on the screen. The visual effects work was extraordinary. It was shot beautifully and some of the scenery was simply jawdropping, even in 3D (which I usually hate). I could easily see myself watching this film on Blu-ray again and again just to lose myself in the stunning imagery and the insanely imaginative visualization of this world and these characters.

Speaking of, I thought the world-building of the film was executed remarkably well. There’s a lot going on here, but the majority of this stuff was presented in an easily-digestible way that should make it pretty easy to follow for most audience-members (aside from the specific names of races and those sorts of things). One of the best instances of this is a montage at the beginning of the film (set perfectly to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”) depicting how Alpha, the titular City of a Thousand Planets came to be. I loved how the unity and co-existence of all of these different species was introduced, making it truly feel like a really special place out there in the stars.

Luc Besson did a great job helming the film —  he definitely has a great eye for visuals, but I did feel like his script could have been somewhat stronger. It is a French film (the most expensive one to date, for that matter, a record that Besson’s The Fifth Element also held for a time when it was released in 1997) made in English so as to generate the most interest at the box-office, so perhaps some stuff didn’t quite translate. He certainly has a very particular sense of humor, but it gives the film a really unique charm. Besson has revealed that he is already scripting two sequels, but he also stated in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that the film would have to gross at least $350 million worldwide to justify another installment. Personally, I hope it does make enough to warrant a sequel, because I would love to see what else he has in that crazy, wonderful mind of his.

At the end of the day, I thought Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was fun, but I didn’t love it. I definitely had my issues with it, mostly story-based, but nothing that turned me off completely, thankfully. There was plenty to enjoy here, with the visuals easily being the most impressive part, more than making up for any faults I had with the film. I just love a fun sci-fi flick, so that was really all that I was hoping for going into Valerian and I’m just happy that I ended up having a good time with it. It’s far from perfect, but it’s quirks and peculiar charm made for an enjoyable enough time at the cinema for me. I never say this, but this might even be one to check out in 3D.

Score: 7/10