Its visuals, though stunning, cannot overcome the debilitating flaws. Skip this one. Instead, go play Mass Effect. Same idea, but done far better.
The Good: The first five minutes, Delavigne, Rihanna, and the visuals.
The first five minutes of this film are fantastic. In one of the most optimistic and uplifting montages in modern film, the International Space Station is shown over many decades, both past, present, and future. Astronauts of all nationalities, including those often at odds, greet each other with hugs and smiles. The problems of their terrestrial kin are forgotten, in service of scientific pursuit.
Tension is immediately inserted when a gigantic spaceship arrives, and aliens board the Station. And yet, flying in the face of every invasion film before it, the humans greet their new visitors with smiles and handshakes. The montage then continues into the future, showing dozens of species arriving and being greeted peacefully, and the station continuing to grow. Eventually it becomes so large that it’s a problem for Earth, so they launch into space, an ark of thousands of species and humans of every background.
And that’s the last time the film is truly good. It’s also the last time that the theme of open acceptance and peaceful pursuit for all species-kind is touched upon. But more on that in the next section.
Beyond that opening, the visual design and locations are the film’s greatest strengths. There is certainly not a lack of ideas: a multidimensional desert bazaar that can only be accessed through VR-like matter-shifting glasses, advanced synthetic-organic robots that build giant golden computer panels, underwater farms manned by amphibian like deep divers. Sci-fi/fantasy has tried to reach these heights of imagination before, but rarely succeeded. The colors, the CGI work, and the character design (most of the time) are all top notch.
Final note: Cara Delevingne continues to show her talent. While still raw, she has shown a surprising range in her short career. Valerian shows off both her physical and comedic acting talents. Keeping this pace, she has a bright future ahead. Also, Rihanna is one of the best parts of the movie. But she’s only in it for five minutes or so. Cast her in more things.
The Bad: Everything else. Pacing, action, tone, script, and the lead.
This movie is the definition of a hot mess. Gorgeous visuals that distract from the bafflingly confusing and mis-paced story. And the worst part of all: the only real crime was far too many ideas.
Let’s start with who the protagonists are: Valerian and Laureline. At absolutely no point is it clear who they are to each other, other than partners at their jobs. In their first scene, it plays out that he’s sexually harassing his work partner. It becomes a little clearer that they are in a relationship later on, though what that means is very unclear. Probably because the dynamic is introduced while walking past a holographic wall of all of Valerian’s sexual conquests.
Now what our protagonists do: who knows. We know, since they introduce themselves this way, that they are Federal Agents, with military titles (Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline). What being an agent means is completely unclear, on the spectrum of tax to CIA. They bounce between super-soldiers to infantile cops-in-training.
Our protagonists’ goals and motivations: unclear. Valerian has a mystery that he starts to solve around the end of the first act, and then it’s not brought up again until the literal end of the film. Laureline stumbles from incident to event, sometimes as an incredibly competent fighter, other times shoved aside as a set piece, and still further as a damsel in distress. They each spend half an act trying to save the other. Their motivations and actions beyond this are so erratic they’re nearly impossible to follow.
Now for the larger plot: indigenous alien species has their way of life destroyed because of a lack of understanding and care from the spacefaring folk. Now there’s a shady pawn broker who vows to chase Valerian to the ends of time. Don’t worry; we’ll never see him again. Now the protagonists have to protect the head of the humans from a radioactive threat in the middle of their space station. Now they have to save him from being kidnapped. Now Laureline has to find a disappeared Valerian. Now Valerian has to rescue a kidnapped Laureline. Now they both have to save the indigenous alien species. And then they have to defeat a bunch of killer robots.
Those are the beats of the plot. No jokes or hyperbole. That’s it.
In between this overly convoluted nightmare, the film takes drastic tone shifts. Sometimes it’s silly sci-fi adventure, other times it’s a serious sci-fi drama detailing the plight of the indigenous. Wait! Now Rihanna is in it, and she’s a silly goopy alien jellyfish thing, and they have to pretend to be a fat alien. Heehee. Oh right, genocide. The tone shifts are literally that drastic.
Final note on this: Dane DeHaan clearly has the talent and makings of a lead man. But he’s not there yet. He has neither the gravitas nor charisma to portray this character, which demanded both. Under a director more focused on performances, that might have been possible. This is 100% not on him, it’s a severe miscasting. Nonetheless, he’d be served to take his time and keep developing those chops that were so clear in Chronicle.
The Ugly: Stop adapting bad things just because it’s “faithful.” Also go play Mass Effect.
Let’s talk about the space-Jews. This is probably its own trope at this point, but here it is so blatantly and offensively obvious, it’s hard not to bring up. I’m not familiar with the origin of this particular portrayal, but the most famous is probably Star Wars‘ Jawas. A band of small nomadic desert scavengers who cannot be trusted, as they try to stiff the farmers of the Judland Wastes of Tatooine. Just like the Neimodians 22 years later, Lucas had successfully created an alien species out of cultural/ethnic tropes.
Now for Valerian: the Doghan Daguis, three small, money grubbing, big nosed aliens who make their living by collecting and selling information aboard the space station. It’s so deliriously obviously an offensive depiction I can’t believe it made it to screen.
But here’s the point: just because it was in the original comics of which this film is based, does not mean it should have been put in the film. Faithfulness to source material does not trump sensitivity or reason. The only saving grace is that this film has done so poorly so far that hopefully no one will see this ignorant mistake.
Now for the positive note: Just go play Mass Effect. It’s a great game series, and clearly influenced by the same source material and futuristic optimism. You’ll be much happier.
“Space adventurers Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) set off on a mission to stop sinister forces from destroying Alpha, an intergalactic metropolis where thousands of alien species live together in harmony. Written and directed by Luc Besson, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on a series of French comics by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières. Clive Owen, Rihanna, Elizabeth Debicki, Ethan Hawke, and Rihanna co-star.” ~ Jack Rodgers, Rovi