Based on a series of French science fiction comics called Valérian and Laureline, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the latest offering from one of the more imaginative directors in the industry, Luc Besson.
The story is centred on two space-time agents, Valerian and Laureline, as they are charged with returning a molecular convertor back to Alpha, a space station that is the home to thousands of intergalactic species. A task that seems simple at first, but is eventually revealed to be the key factor in the survival of an entire alien race. As the plot thickens, the agents also discover that there is corruption within the ranks of their organisation, and must do their best to weed out the perpetrators.
With a fun little intro featuring minimal dialogue, the film quickly shows us the creation of the Alpha. From there we are whisked away to Mul, one of the many exotic locations in the movie, and the first taste of the beautiful and imaginative design style that permeates the movie. Seeing the picturesque beaches, bright, filled with pops of colour from the clear water to the white sands, I got the same feeling I had when I first saw Avatar, one of wonder at seeing something so gorgeous and yet so totally alien. Besson’s movies have always been wildly inventive when it comes to world building, and Valerian shows that his imagination is still running at full throttle.
After such a mesmerising opening, the film falters a bit when we meet the two leads of Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne). DeHaan is a strong actor in his own right but unfortunately he is just not cut out to play a character like Valerian. Valerian is supposed to be a roguish kind of hero in the classic sense, spouting of cheesy one-liners and oozing cockiness that really needs a charismatic personality to sell, one that DeHaan does not possess. If you were expecting Captain America but you got Hawkeye instead, that what DeHaan feels like in the role.
Delevingne is a bit lacklustre as well. While she has the model looks needed for this kind of character, unfortunately her acting skills are not quite up to scratch. Her aloof characterisation comes off more as wooden and emotionless, and the moments when she does exhibit any kind of feelings are a bit jarring as they are so unexpected. It doesn’t help that even though Valerian and Laureline are constantly flirting with each other throughout the film, the miscasting of DeHaan mixed with Delevingne’s almost monotone acting gives us two leads that really don’t have the necessary chemistry to pull off the budding romance.
And while the casting of the two leads is the film’s biggest misstep, I found the rest of the space adventure a thoroughly enjoyable watch, the IMAX screen helping me take in the resplendent visuals before me. The creature designs, the details of the sets, all merge together to create believable alien locales, ones that I wished I could learn more about. But Besson’s inventivity doesn’t stop at just the visual design, but also shines in the way he shoots his action scenes. There is a sequence set within an inter-dimensional bazaar that, in the hands of lesser directors, could have been extremely confusing to the audience, the camera moving in from one dimension to another within the same scene, creating shots that heighten tension while delivering something really unique.
I must add that one of the pleasant surprises in the film was Rihanna‘s performance. I wasn’t really expecting much from her, but she managed to take a character that could easily have been one-dimensional and developed her into someone worth caring for. I felt her screen-time was too short and would have preferred if they had expanded her role a bit more.
With an aesthetic that would feel right on home within the universe of Besson’s previous work, The Fifth Element, Valerian was a visually tantalising trip through space, featuring incredible creature design and a colour palette of the most vibrant hues seen onscreen. Accompanied by a quirky and fun score by Alexandre Desplat, it was a great introduction into this world, a world that is asking to be delved into. There is so much more to explore, and I would love to see this universe made into a TV show, following the adventures of Valerian and Laureline from one escapade to another (with recast leads). Hopefully the film does well enough in the foreign box office to make that a reality.
I give Valerian a 7.5 out of 10, and is something that definitely benefits from being seen in 3D on an IMAX screen.