Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets

Review by Adam Woodward @AWLies

Directed by

Luc Besson


Cara Delevingne Dane DeHaan Rihanna


Back to the future with Luc Besson.


An expensive folly from a director indulging his very worst tendencies.

In Retrospect.

Maybe just rewatch The Fifth Element instead.

Luc Besson’s expensive bubble gum space romp is 2017’s most spectacular misfire.

It’s called Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets, but what that evocative title actually refers to is a vast galactic colony comprising numerous alien districts, which Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne smash and shoot their way through en route to uncovering the truth about a mysterious extinct planet. Inside the titular metropolis of Alpha, a colourful miscellany of CG extraterrestrials coexist in (relative) harmony: 30 million individuals speaking 5,000 languages, with each species safely cocooned in its own self-sustaining microcosm. Only we don’t get to see any of it. Not really.

In his haste to cobble together a high-concept tale of intergalactic genocide, government corruption and magic space pearls, director Luc Besson ends up taking us on a whistle-stop tour of this celestial fantasia without providing a real sense of the place. Worldbuilding is key to good fantasy and science fiction storytelling, yet while Valerian borrows heavily from such vaunted genre touchstones as Blade Runner, Star Wars, Total Recall and Besson’s own The Fifth Element, it lacks the romance, vision and narrative sweep of those films.

Even more thinly developed are the human characters. As Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline, DeHaan and Delevigne are given plenty to do but very little to work with – Besson’s screenplay is stuffed with glib dialogue and pointless narrative detours, leaving no room for proper character development. In one such digression, Rihanna rocks up in an utterly thankless role as a shapeshifting squid stripper (Ethan Hawke is her pimp). Mercifully, she’s spared the indignity of being on screen long enough to conclusively validate the theory that she is, in fact, a pop star who can’t act.

This is a weird movie, but not as much as it thinks it is, and often not in the way it intends. In one scene, Delevigne reluctantly places her head inside an enormous cobalt-blue jellyfish, which for some reason has the exact same mystical properties as Professor Dumbledore’s memory bowl in Harry Potter. It’s a fun moment that promises a vivid hallucinatory experience which frustratingly doesn’t materialise. Indeed, there’s nothing of the drug-induced frenzy of Besson’s 2014 film Lucy here, nor the zany operatic futurism of The Fifth Element.

Though striking to look at, Valerian is blandly conventional, particularly in the way it lazily reinforces certain stereotypes relating to gender politics. Valerian and Laureline aren’t just partners, you see, they’re lovers, although this is rendered moot by the black hole-sized chemistry vacuum that exists between the young leads. He constantly nags her to marry him, she shows virtually no interest in him romantically, until finally a clichéd gesture convinces her that, yes, this needy womaniser is Mr Right after all. It may be set in the 28th century, but the film’s quaintly conservative worldview roots it firmly in the 20th century.

It’s also telling that it is Valerian who is given top billing in the title, despite the long-running French comic book series on which the film is based (by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières) being called ‘Valérian and Laureline’. Similarly problematic and no less insidious is the film’s attitude towards diplomacy and race. Late on, Valerian and Laureline break rank in order to protect an alien civilisation previously thought to have been lost, yet up until this point they treat the various foreign cultures they encounter with nothing but intolerance and hostility. It’s certainly big on visual spectacle, but in every other regard Valerian feels decidedly small.

Published 21 Jul 2017

Tags: Cara Delevingne Dane DeHaan Luc Besson Rihanna


Back to the future with Luc Besson.


An expensive folly from a director indulging his very worst tendencies.

In Retrospect.

Maybe just rewatch The Fifth Element instead.

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