Mapping out the highs and lows of Luc Besson’s pricey space opera Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a surprisingly simple, straightforward exercise. There’s some great, then some good, then some bad, and then some terrible. It’s a downward slide all the way, but at least Besson begins at such an impressively lofty peak that the negative effects of the slide aren’t felt until about the halfway point.
In a tremendous opening sequence scored to David Bowie’s iconic hit Space Oddity and noteworthy for its optimism, the sub-titular City of a Thousand Planets is revealed to be the International Space Station that has been massively expanded over the course of several centuries, first with the help of Earth’s nations and later with the aid of many beautifully designed alien species. The sequence is a series of handshakes between the humans and aliens as the space station outgrows its original location tied to Earth’s orbit and is sent hurtling through the galaxy to inspire further growth.
Following that sequence with a nearly dialogue-free visit to a doomed, though picturesque planet where a bald, blue, statuesque alien species live on a beach paradise among milky-hued pearls certainly keeps the momentum of wonderment going and Besson doesn’t even stop there.
Shortly after awkwardly introducing his leads, partnered intergalactic government agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), the filmmaker executes one of the neatest, wildest, and most marvelously inventive sequences of his entire career. The two agents land on a desert planet with striking rock formations and puffy pastel clouds hovering low in the background. A walled-in area contains a large group of humans that appear to be wandering aimlessly around an otherwise empty patch of sand.
Valerian joins a tourist group about to enter the area and a guide gives us the spiel reserved for his guests: the sandy area where everyone is stumbling about is actually a sort of gateway to another dimension that can only be seen by humans when wearing a special helmet. A person’s body inhabits the same sandy space, but they’re responsible for whatever happens within the other dimension, which turns out to be a labyrinthine market with a complex layout and a wide range of alien species.
Besson juggles the different geographical planes beautifully as he stages a chase sequence through the streets of the market and occasionally pulls back to show Valerian simply dashing around the desert. Valerian is also turned invisible in the market dimension for a portion of the chase, which encases DeHaan in a blue glow that adds another eye-catching visual element to the sequence. It’s a jaw-dropping display of dazzling designs and cool concepts, enough to confidently strap yourself into your seat in preparation for all the further fun ahead.
Except now, ladies and gentlemen, we begin our descent. It’s not really a plummet, more of a gradual decline at first, but Besson sure knows how to overstay his welcome and turn a simple adventure into a plodding bore. Valerian and Laureline reach the sprawling space station that now houses nearly every known species in the universe and even has a massive monster-filled lake and Besson provides an immersive tour of the place, which is clunkily handled, but otherwise so intricately designed that it’s a welcome detour.
But from there, the agents find themselves swept up in a mystery plot so dully contrived that Besson decides to spoil part of the surprise almost immediately, revealing the identity of the villain and providing many hints of what’s to come. When even the director admits the mystery is hardly worth paying attention to, there’s clearly an issue. Except later Besson ignores his own advice and dives deep into the conspiracy angle, piling flashbacks and ticking time bomb scenarios on top of what amounts to a very derivative diss of war.
The mystery that was already partially revealed and that left the other pieces of the puzzle pretty easy to figure out transforms into an expositional nightmare where characters endlessly explain what they’ve figured out as other characters endlessly defend their decisions and the consequences of all this silliness play out in as predictable a fashion as any species could possibly come up with.
It’s a strange turn of events to say the least. Not the actual turn of events, of course, which are vanilla-flavoured fluff, but the narrative derailing that Besson insists on after so smartly reveling in his strengths as a cinematic world-builder early on. What once was a breezy delight suddenly devolves into a rusty set of mechanical parts grinding against each other in an attempt to overexplain everything by recapping the recaps. It’s as though Besson just assumes we all slept through the first half of the movie (you know, the good part) and could all use a generous refresher on what we missed.
Further putting an end to the fun on display in the beginning is the simple act of spending more time with the leads. DeHaan is horribly miscast, playing a cocky womanizer that’s several worlds away from the brooding loner roles he’s best known for. It’s great that he’s trying to avoid typecasting, but this is ridiculous. The role is written as if it’s in search of some charming beefcake, the kind of part that goes to a Chris like Pratt or Pine, and DeHaan struggles every step of the way, both as action hero and romantic partner.
His constant pushy pursuit of Delevingne’s Laureline is probably supposed to have a puppy-dog charm to it, evidenced by how Besson increasingly treats their relationship as sentimental mush, but DeHaan is only capable of creepy. Delevingne is equally awful, often looking like she’d rather be somewhere else and dealing with anyone other than the weirdo she has to feign an attraction to. Needless to say, their chemistry suffers.
Why Besson went this route with the casting is a mystery far greater than the one you’ll find in the movie’s plot. He’s previously admitted to having a crush on the Laureline character back when he was a teen reading the famous French comics his movie is based on, so perhaps he went for a surface-level attraction. Or perhaps he couldn’t afford the higher-profile stars better suited for this project after requiring so much of the reported $180 million budget to cover the vibrant visuals.
Whatever the explanation, the casting irreparably damages the movie, which could have at least dropped the dreary romantic angle instead of doubling down on it and making an impromptu proposal an ongoing point of discussion throughout the entire story. At other times, it’s hard to not feel like we’re eavesdropping on Besson’s personal fantasies more than watching something that makes any contextual sense. A pole dance routine with multiple lightning-quick wardrobe changes by Rihanna literally exists only so that Besson can see for himself and share with us what a Rihanna pole dance routine looks like on camera.
As Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets crawls to its pitiful finish, the whole experience seems overwhelmed by the many misfires of its second half. One has to wipe their memory of the bad mystery, dreadful lead performances, and nonexistent chemistry to actually clear enough space to remember that the first chunk of the movie is tremendously entertaining and stuffed with spectacular sights.
At its best, the movie operates on an awesomely ambitious level of cinematic sci-fi world-building the likes of which only a few filmmakers are capable of reaching. Besson is rubbing shoulders with such divisive visionaries as George Lucas, whose Star Wars prequel trilogy often comes to mind here, and the Wachowski Sisters, whose Matrix trilogy, Speed Racer, and Jupiter Ascending all encompass an eclectic explosion of visual imagination.
All of these movies have moments of imagistic astonishment to drop many a jaw, but Valerian’s flaws are ultimately lofty enough to upset the balance that is so tricky to maintain in these sprawling cinematic vistas of such fantastical proportions. For anyone willing to endure the bad back half to experience the high of the aforementioned early sequences, well, enjoy the ride while it lasts. Just expect turbulence.