Before we get any further, I just want to say for the record that I would like this film to succeed, despite what I’m about to say about it. I love and want the genre of space adventure sci-fi to continue to be marketable. Whether its hard, serious, and beautiful like Gravity, or a cheesy mary-sue fulfillment fantasy like Jupiter Ascending, I will find something to like about almost anything in this genre. There are even a few things to like about the very problematic Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Just a few, though.
Based on the comic series, Valerian that ran from 1967 to 2010, I have nothing but the utmost respect for the source material. Most of our favorite space adventure stories from Star Wars to Futurama have borrowed influences from it. Out of that deep respect, I will never complain that elements of the film are derivative, even if we have seen most of its elements in other stories. Set hundreds of years in the future, Earth has expanded its influence across the galaxy and has created Alpha, a massive space station that is home to thousands of alien civilizations and even different dimensions. Of course, order must still be kept and that is why Earth has created its own police special police force. The story focuses around two such Earth police operatives, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne). When Valerian receives a mysterious plea for help from a shiny Pearl (her species is actually called that) alien princess from a destroyed planet, he and Laureline decide to look into it. Thankfully this is directly related to the next mission they are ordered to complete.
A pretty decent plot as far as space operas go. But the film just lacks so much focus on getting from point A to point B, that by the time C and D rolled around, I was exhausted. I’ve always appreciated the space opera serial adventure format in short bursts, but when all of those fun mini-adventures are balled up into one long film, its just too much for me. It felt like directer Luc Besson (whom I also usually have the utmost respect for) wanted an excuse to show off an insanely detailed universe, and plot and character development were merely side thoughts. Even George Lucas in at the height of his CGI prequel madness gave his plot and characters more importance.
Let me reiterate that I don’t mind cheesy sic-fi. I adored Besson’s previous film The Fifth Element in all of it’s tongue-in-cheek glory. But besides a more focused plot, that film had a major thing that Valerien sorely lacks: likable main characters. Or perhaps the problem is that the actors playing them couldn’t make them likable. Dane DeHaan is either sorely mis-cast or mis-directed as Valerian as he plays what I assume is supposed to be a dashing lead with very little joy or energy. That would be fine if his character was the sullen Byronic hero type. The way Valerian was written, he is anything but that type. Cara Delevingne fares little better as her Laureline comes in two modes: annoyance and sarcasm. The most I can say about her is she rocks some pretty sexy fresh of the runway looks throughout the film. At the very least singer Rhianna, who played a form changing alien named Bubble was charming. She was the only one of the few actors in the film who took the ham-fisted script she was given and had a bit of fun with it.
While the film was a CGI monstrosity of an Avatar caliber, I can say at least it was a very pretty CGI monstrosity. It was like an expensive all you can eat buffet for the eyes. (Can you tell I am very hungry at the time of writing this?) But much like an expensive buffet, I can only grab two plates and maybe a dessert before I get full and feel like I spent too much money. What I’m trying to say, as an audience member, even one who loves the genre as much as I do, I can only take so much visual stimulation. I love the idea of these thousands of species, and worlds, and even dimensions, but I would like it better if it they were split up a bit more into different films, rather than just all crammed into one.
Once again, I encourage everyone with a love of space-opera to go see this. You may even enjoy it more than me. But with its dull acting and unfocused plot, I just feel a bit personally let down by this. For now, I’ll continue to watch some old episodes of Space Dandy and Futurama to give me some satisfaction until the next space opera film comes out.